Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adv/Rom – Episode 18

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.

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Chapter 37

 

“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.”

“That’s not—”

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.

Catching me.

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.

“No!”

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.”

“What? Why?”

“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.”

“Zara…”

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.

 

Chapter 38

 

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.

“Hello, Zara.”

“Hi.”

“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.”

“Then how—”

“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.”

“What?”

“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.”

“So?”

“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.”

 

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Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adv/Rom – Episode 17

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.

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Chapter 35

 

“Stand still.”

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.

Oh.

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.

 

Chapter 36

 

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.”

“Oh.”

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…”

“Grasping hussy…”

“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.”

She blinks.

“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.

 

 

Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adv/Rom – Episode 16

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.

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Chapter 33

 

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!

 

“Zara!”

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.

“Zara!”

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.”

“Sorry.”

“Hmm.”

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.

Talan snorts.

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?”

“Unknown.”

“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.

 

Chapter 34

 

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.

Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adv/Rom – Episode 15

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/

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Chapter 32

 

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.

 

Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adv/Rom – Episode 14

I thought I’d been going a bit easy on you recently, so this week is a couple of chapters and a real cliffhanger.

On no! What is going on?

Mwah ha ha ha.

+++++++

Chapter 30

 

I take a deep breath and consider lying. Tell nothing but the truth in there, Talan said, and I owe her. She probably gave enough information to the Duke that any lie I tell will be obvious anyway. I have to tell him some truth, but not who I really am.

My stomach is like a spring, wound up tight.

“Investigating your wife’s murder.” It comes out in a rush.

“Why?”

He doesn’t argue my moving it from death to murder, but his face becomes even stonier. I can feel anger moving beneath that mask, like lava beneath the crust of a volcano. His eyes lock onto me and refuse to move.

I stutter a bit. “Because it might give us a way of identifying who’s in the conspiracy. Because Rhoswyn needs the truth. Because…because it needs to be done for her sake too. I mean the Duchess’ sake. She deserves the truth.”

The light isn’t good in his office, but I swear I see that mask slip for a second and raw pain shows through.

Then he’s back to the interrogation.

If this is part of the consipracy you talk about.” He leaves that hanging for a moment. “You’re a detective as well as all your other Dancing Mistress skills?”

“No, but I’m probably a better detective than whoever investigated it and decided it was suicide.” I bite my lip and remind myself that whoever it was, he or she worked for the Duke.

“Really? Do explain, Miss Aguirre.”

He doesn’t seem to have taken what I’m doing or saying as an insult. But I know my reasoning is thin.

“It’s the weight of things rather than any one issue,” I say. “Repeatedly taking sedatives all afternoon? Not leaving a note? No indication from anyone that it was likely. No reason to kill herself—”

He interrupts me. “People who commit suicide are not always rational, but they can appear so.”

“Not over any length of time, to people who know them.” I’m feeling as short of breath as if I’d been running. I force myself to go on; I don’t have time to approach this all carefully and tactfully. “And whatever verdict you allowed to be reached, you don’t think she committed suicide, do you?”

He doesn’t respond.

I try and shuffle through all the issues to find one that resonates with him.

“There are orders in the estate’s management files,” I say. “Your wife made some the day before she was murdered, you know. Not just for feed or animal bedding, but flowers for the Shrine. For her to plant. I didn’t know her, but I can’t—”

“If it was murder, who? There’s no evidence there was anyone on board except for her.”

“Suspiciously so,” I say. “No fingerprints in the cabin, or on the bottle, except for hers? Come on. The boat was normally crewed with two people. You’d expect at least one other set. And did her family wear gloves when they sent her an individual bottle of their wine?”

“No other boats in the area,” he counters. “Too far to swim ashore.”

“To swim, yes.”

“So how? Submarine? Seaplane?”

Despite the sarcasm, he’s genuinely asking. I’ve got through to him. He doesn’t believe it was suicide. He’s looking to see how much I’ve found out about it.

“They would have shown up on scans.”

I haven’t seen the full scans from orbiting stations, but I guess I don’t need to: something like that can’t be hidden in a court case.

“There are underwater craft that could make that distance, or close to it,” I go on. “I’ve never used them, but there are forms of motorized sledge that you can hold onto which drag you through the water. Small enough they wouldn’t show on a scan.”

“I’m familiar with them. Rare and expensive,” the Duke says, “and whereas they could make it back from that far out, they couldn’t make the return trip.”

He looks away. I’m guessing I haven’t come up with anything he hasn’t thought of. If they’re rare and expensive, I’m betting he has a list of owners.

It’s clear there’s no way this is a closed investigation. He’s allowed a suicide verdict to be passed, but kept the hunt for the murderer going.

“Why don’t you share what you know?” I say.

He’d be entitled to ask why he should share with me, but he doesn’t. He simply ignores it and carries on finding out what I know.

“So, what exactly did you learn from your trip to the Spyglass? Surely not those details about fingerprints on the boat?”

“No.”

“What, then? What did you go there looking for?”

I don’t like being pinned to my seat by his glare. I want to stand up, but my legs feel like jelly.

“Mainly to try and eliminate you from the list of suspects,” I say.

My mouth is dry.

“As you’re telling me this, I assume you have.”

“You can assume whatever you want.” The feeling of being trapped by his questions puts my tongue on a hair trigger.

“So, you spoke to Warwick. Was he supportive?”

“Yes, but it wasn’t all about what he said. He showed me videos and pictures of the two of you together.”

How painful must this be for him to talk about his dead wife like this? Despite that, his face remains a mask.

“Videos? Pictures?” he says, raising his eyebrows. “Presumably of us together at functions down in the town. Hardly compelling evidence either way, Miss Aguirre. That’s very sloppy work for a detective.”

“I said I was trying to eliminate you. You assumed I have.”

That takes him unawares and he laughs.

It changes him. Changes the way he looks. Clears his face and takes years off his appearance. Just for a second.

I’m startled at the sharp ache in my chest. I want to see him laugh again, and in that moment it all comes together for me. Why it’s been so easy to persuade myself he couldn’t possibly be the murderer. Why this is all so important for me.

Stupid, stupid girl. Stupid!

He must be able to see it in my face.

How pathetic I must seem; the penniless, nameless girl dreaming of romance with the handsome Duke, a man foremost among the Names of this planet. I’m reduced to the level of all those Amethys Dancing Mistresses who see nothing in their job but a way of snaring a rich man.

He must be laughing at me, but he’s turned back to the window, to look out into the night.

 

Chapter 31

 

I contemplate running out of the room and not stopping. Once, the Aguirre family on Newyan might have been famous for never backing down, but then came my father. Maybe I’m made of the same stuff as him.

The Duke speaks before I act. His voice is strained.

“You’d like me to share, you said. Very well. I’m also assuming, since you know details about fingerprints, you’ve found some way to access the inquest documents?”

“Yes.”

Both our voices sound strained.

I have to fix this stupid situation I’ve got myself in. The best way is to concentrate on doing what I set out to do. Then I can leave and run far, far away.

“Did that include the autopsy?” He turns to look at me, frowning.

I nod.

“I hope you’ll tell me how you managed this sometime,” he says thoughtfully and then waves it away. “But tell me, what did you see on the analyses of stomach contents and residue in the wine bottle? What was out of place?”

I close my eyes and concentrate, bringing up an image of the pages.

“I’m not a forensic scientist, but nothing stands out. There was still alcohol in her system, and of course, there were traces of the wine in the bottle.”

“At first glance, all the chemicals you’d expect to see from drinking.”

“Yes, there was a comment like that by the coroner in the report. What was missing?”

“An understanding of the wine. Specifically, that bottle of wine.” He walks to his desk and takes an empty bottle from a drawer. It’s the Duchess’ family’s wine. He places the bottle carefully on the desk.

“That’s Penglynn Awr, the ‘gold from the top of the valley’. Her family make it, and it’s a labor of love. Grapes don’t do very well on this coast, you see. But her family keep it going, using nothing but vines descended from the old Terran Sauvignon Blanc, kept in glasshouses.”

I walk across and pick up the bottle. The label is neat and well designed, but it doesn’t have the look of a standard commercial label. There’s no strength, no awards won, no boastful biographies of the producers.

“What do other wine-makers use instead?”

“There’s a native fruit that serves. You have some experience of it. Bale fruit.”

I blush, remembering the brandy tipped all over me while I slept in the barn behind the Spyglass, but he’s not teasing me about drinking it.

“So you’re saying that she had another bottle of wine as well?”

“There was no sign of another bottle, not on the boat and not in the chemical analysis. To understand why I believe the coroner got it wrong, you need to know a bit more about bale fruit.” He pauses. “It’s been the savior of the wine industry here in Welarvon; it’s easy to grow, it tastes like grape and it has varieties for reds and whites.”

He takes out a second bottle from the drawer. This one is old and it still has an amber liquid in it.

“That,” he says, handing it across, “is Ammeledh. The ‘kiss of angels’. We’re nothing if not poetic on the coast. More prosaically, it’s brandy made from bale fruit wine.”

I try not to think of angels and kissing, or where this conversation is going.

I uncork it, take a sniff. “These angels don’t have bad breath like the stuff Warwick has.”

It’s a poor joke.

In fact, the brandy is peculiarly scentless beyond the standard tang of alcohol. There’s something disturbing about that. Something my Dancing Mistress said to me, but the memory is elusive and the Duke is still talking.

“The rot-gut that Warwick has is made a different way so it’s unmistakable. The old way of making it is now illegal.”

I was going to taste it, but there’s obviously something wrong with this version of Ammeledh. I swirl it around in the bottle and sniff again. “What’s so bad about it? Some secondary effect on health?”

He doesn’t answer directly. “Did Warwick call it by it’s nickname?”

“Yes. He said it was called Headless. I guess because it’s strong?”

“No.” He takes the bottle back and re-seals it. “The nickname comes from the result of the old way of making it. Any alcoholic drink, made in the casual the way this old brandy was, could be contaminated by trace chemicals from the seeds. In wine, that trace was too small to matter. Unfortunately, distillation to brandy increased the concentration. By great good fortune, it turned out not many batches were contaminated in this way, but the Ammeledh in this bottle was. Take a sip of it…” he places the bottles back in the drawer and closes it with a violent motion, “…and those trace chemicals overwhelm the sigma receptors in your brain, the specific receptors that are the keys to higher brain functions and memory for example. You are rendered defenseless and highly suggestible.”

What he’s saying hits me; a potent drug that smells of nothing but alcohol and makes a woman helpless.

I stagger back to my chair and sit down gracelessly, feeling sick to my stomach.

The Duke is leaning on his desk, struggling to keep his face unemotional.

I try not to think of what he must be feeling, and I try not to feel either.

If I’m going to help solve this case, I have to treat this like a puzzle comprised of facts. Emotionless facts.

What exactly is he telling me here?

I clear my throat. “There’s nothing more…missing from the autopsy report, is there?”

“No, Miss Aguirre, I have not actively suppressed evidence. This was not a rape. It was a murder. Someone drugged her by putting contaminated Ammeledh in her wine,” his voice catches, but he ploughs on, “then sat beside her for six hours and fed her a steady and increasing dose of sedatives while her body eliminated the evidence of the stupefying trace chemicals from the Ammeledh.”

“But not the evidence that she’d drunk bale fruit alcohol, evidence which wouldn’t be in the Penglynn Awr wine?”

“Precisely.”

A crime of enormous hate. To sit beside her, giving her sedatives and wine while she remained suggestible and then increasing the dose, relying on the reflex of her throat to keep swallowing the pills. To measure out the doses and take all afternoon to kill her.

A cold, bitter hatred. The level of hatred that consumes a person.

The evil of it chills me. What kind of a monster are we hunting?

“That knowledge is resticted to very few,” he says.

Which means he’s come to a decision to trust me.

“Allowing you to continue investigating secretly even though the official verdict is suicide?”

“Yes.”

“Because, even then, eighteen months ago, you suspected this was part of something larger?”

“Yes.” He’s restless, his hands nudging the infopad and comms unit on the desk.

When he speaks again, the conversation takes yet another unexpected turn.

“When you collected her from Port Eyren, you spoke to my daughter about spies,” he says. “That if one side has them, probably so does the other. That was good insight, and accurate as it turns out.”

“So what are your spies telling you?”

“About my wife’s murder? Nothing. About me and the rest of the family? That we are under threat of assassination. From someone in place.” He makes a gesture to encompass the fort and shakes his head. “It’s like the barbarism of the Third Expansion never went away.”

He sighs, walks to a cabinet and opens it, revealing an extensive drinks bar. He opens a bottle of wine, pours two glasses.

“The murder investigation is stalled,” he says. “I need a new set of eyes on it and it needs to be someone my enemies wouldn’t expect to be involved in the investigation. Even more, my daughter needs protection, and just one old-fashioned Dancing Mistress might not be enough.”

He walks back to the window, places the glasses on the table there and beckons me to join him.

“Given she’s saved Rhoswyn’s life once already, Miss Esterhauze could hardly be the assassin sent to kill us,” he says. “But you? Why do I trust you? It’s true you warned me about a conspiracy against me, but you also said something else to my daughter. That warning her about spies doesn’t make you not a spy. It could be a bluff.”

My own advice to Rhoswyn, come back to taunt me.

“I’m not an assassin,” I say.

I’ve been this close to him before. Not in this way. I’ve been nose-to-nose arguing. This is different.

He doesn’t suspect me. Surely. He wouldn’t bother with this elaborate charade and explanations if he really thought I was an assassin.

I try to keep calm and professional. I’m a Dancing Mistress. A family servant.

My heart is having none of it. It’s racing. I can feel my cheeks heating.

I want to reach out and touch him, take some of that pain away, heal him somehow.

Stupid girl. I need to finish this and get away before I make a fool of myself.

“I understand you and Miss Esterhauze have started to instruct Rhoswyn on wines,” he says. His voice is low, conversational. Not like the other times we’ve stood this close. I can feel his voice, like a caress. “Here’s a new one I’ve just bought in. Tell me, Miss Aguirre, would this be a suitable wine for the Summer Ball?”

His eyes hold mine.

I might as well stand next to a furnace. I’m going to melt. I have to drink this wine and get out of this room.

He hands me the glass. Our fingers touch. It’s all I can manage to not flinch. Or worse, to make the touch linger.

I don’t bother with swirling and sniffing the wine. No time. No time for sips. Drink and get out.

I gulp a mouthful.

That taste. Of course I know the taste. My Dancing Mistress trained me well.

But that taste. The shock of it. The heart-surging shock as it hits your system and you know. And you know that he knows.

Fool!

My vision blurs. My hands begin trembling and the wine spills.

 

 

 

Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adv/Rom – Episode 13

Hmm. Didn’t quite make it to the expected cliffhanger … again.

I lost some of the afternoon with an emergency dental appointment for a cracked tooth, and I’m sitting here with my jaw still numb. The next chapter (the one with the cliffhanger that should have ended this episode) is difficult, and I don’t want to rush it.

Feedback of all kinds is welcome as ever.

+++++++

Chapter 27

 

Good intentions. I hardly seem to get a moment to investigate anything.

We’re so busy. In addition to half the academic lessons, I’m teaching Rhoswyn estate management and martial arts on alternate mornings. And two afternoons when the wind is right, I take her to the airfield and we fly in the glider. Hanna complains mildly that her dancing lessons will fall behind, but Rhoswyn prefers flying.

 

The second evening, under Gaude’s suspicious nose, Hanna and I check the wine cellars. The Cardu estate doesn’t produce wine, but Rhoswyn will need an educated palate in society. Stocking the cellar is Gaude’s responsibility and he’s prickly as a cactus when he sees me comparing the order history with the stocked bottles. He’s only distracted when Hanna picks a bottle for our evening meal and Rhoswyn’s first tasting lesson.

“An excellent choice,” he murmurs, unctuous as a wine trader, his fingers brushing the bottle and, totally accidentally, Hanna’s hand.

I smile tightly and close the old ledger. It seems the bottle found on the Low Lady didn’t come from this cellar. So where did the Duchess get it? Why didn’t she take one from her own cellar? If someone gave it to her, who was it? Shohwa-nia agrees with me: if I’m to solve this, it’s in the small details that others have overlooked. I believe the Duchess was drugged, and I want to find out who had access to the food and wine she had on board.

I’m becoming obsessed by finding out what happened to her. She’s invaded my sleep almost as if she’s haunting me. I dream of her, and of her last day. I dream of the Duke, looking out from his storm porch to the distant bay below, wondering why his wife is late. Or wondering when the body would be found.

Little surprise that I wake unrested.

I take no consolation from the fact that Hanna seems to not sleep well either. As much as she maintains her cheerful mask, her face looks thinner as the days go on, making her eyes seem larger. Now that’s a haunted look.

But it’s Hanna and Talan together who finally provide me with an opportunity to progress my investigation, on the afternoon of the fourth day.

Hanna’s claimed Rhoswyn for the afternoon. They’re driving to Bandry to select a ball gown for Rhoswyn and have it fitted. Hanna has a gown in her luggage. I haven’t of course, and I can’t afford one.

And Talan is held up in another part of the fort over some police business.

I’m supposed to wait for Talan. On the other hand, tomorrow the Duke is back.

I’m running out of time.

I can’t solve this murder in the next day, but maybe, just maybe, I can find something that eliminates him from the list of suspects. I’m going to tell him everything I know, for Rhoswyn’s sake, and I will feel so much better if I know I’m not helping a murderer.

I try to justify my plans to myself by noting that Talan doesn’t accompany Rhoswyn and me in the glider – there’s barely enough room as it is.

It’s not as if Talan is expected to be with me the entire time, I whisper to the empty room.

Doesn’t work; I feel a little sick at betraying her trust. I leave her a note that I’m out for fresh air and will be back in the evening. I tell myself that perhaps I’ll be back before she is.

The other problem, of course, is someone else might stop me. I am still under arrest.

I walk down to the stables, my heart hammering in my chest.

No one challenges me as I find the same placid mare Talan chose for me before and lead her out of her stable into the forecourt. A groom makes me jump by calling out a greeting as I fetch the saddle and bridle. I manage to return the greeting.

The stable is a busy place and the mare isn’t anyone’s prized cavalry mount. No one stops me. No one asks what I’m doing. And no one signs me out.

My heartrate is still sky-high as we canter gently down to the Coast Path. Every moment I’m expecting someone to yell and come after me.

It’s not till we’re hidden by a bend in the path that I slow the mare to a walk. My heartrate sinks, and her ears twitch as if she’s amused at my stress.

But I’m out on my own now, and getting back in will be even easier. As useful as it has been to me today, I add the stables to my list of security issues to discuss with the Duke when he gets back tomorrow.

I follow the Coast Path down to Stormhaven village below, and half an hour later, I hitch my mare to the post outside the Spyglass in the harbor.

Warwick greets me as I walk through the door.

“It’s our very own flying mermaid,” he greets me, and stands me an ale for having saved Lord Roscarrow’s life the night I’d arrived.

As I’d hoped, it’s a quiet time at the Spyglass, and Warwick is an easy man to get talking.

There’s little that happens in Stormhaven he doesn’t know something about. My problem is twofold: not making him wary, and knowing which half of what he tells me to discount.

He spins me the local tales of piskatellers, how they warn the fleets about storms, or rescue drowning men. How the fishing communities set an honorary place for them at table and fishing ships make offerings on leaving harbor.

I buy him an ale and a top-up for me.

He explains Feast Days on the Welarvor coast, and I finally understand what was going on when I met the troop of mounted police on the day I walked from Bandry.

Every summer three villages are chosen for a ‘raid’ on their Feast Day. The Welarvon Mounted Police turn up on horseback, dressed in ‘traditional’ costumes, which they never actually used, and round up all the townsfolk by blowing hunting horns and waving lances. A court is held in the town square and several miscreants are summarily punished by being thrown into the harbor. These usually include the mayor and any publicans. Then the police, including the Duke, serve the villagers their feast in the town hall, waiting on them hand and foot.

While he’s telling me that, I buy us another round of ales.

I tell him how Talan warned me against mutant pigs on the Coast Path, and when we’ve finished laughing, I slide in a casual question about the marriage of the Duke and Duchess.

“Sound as a new roof, it was,” he says and takes a quaff of ale. “I’m not saying it’s a good idea marrying for politics, not my place to comment, but it worked for them. Couldn’t believe what I read last year. Lot of people never been near the place saying those things about them. And that inquiry. Suicide? Nonsense. Don’t know what happened, but the Duchess wasn’t that kind of person.”

His eyes darken and he polishes the gleaming bartop with a cloth.

“Here, look at this.” He tosses the cloth aside and retrieves his infopad from behind the bar. What he shows me is a video of the last Stormhaven Feast Day. The Duke is strutting about in his cloak, his helmet tilted back. He’s sentencing Warwick and the mayor to their swim in the harbor. The Duchess is playing a part, kneeling and begging mercy for the ‘accused’. She’s dressed all in white with green seaweed wound around her.

“That’s an old tradition on the coast,” Warwick says, pointing at the dress.

“To symbolise Bounty?” One of the representations of the Goddess in the Shrine has a seaweed crown and sashes.

“Mmm,” Warwick says. “Bounty’s a city-folk name. Here on the coast we say morrohow—the gifts of the sea. What the sea gives, it may take back. The least of its gifts may be costly, or the greatest may be free. We’re all the same on the deeps.”

I’m not really listening—I’m looking at the Duke and Duchess. They fall out of character as judge and advocate when he haughtily refuses to listen to her pleas and passes judgment. They laugh, and as the villagers hurry Warwick and the mayor to their watery doom, she takes her husband’s arm. His hand comes to rest gently on hers, and the camera catches the exchange of looks.

I can feel it, with a stone-cold certainty. The Duke did not kill his wife.

There’s more on the Feast Day, but I close the video. It’s in a folder devoted to the Tremaynes. Warwick is an obvious supporter. There are pictures and videos of the pair and their involvment in the life of Stormhaven. The Duchess opening the new gardens at the Shrine. The Duke at a launch ceremony for a new fishing boat. Both of them at the election of a new mayor. A thanksgiving. A funeral. A wedding.

And a picture of the Duchess holding a bottle of wine outside the Spyglass.

The same wine I’d seen in the court report.

“Is that one of your wines?” I ask, peering at the image.

He squints. “Oh, no, that’s special that is. Only a few dozen made every year. The Duchess’ family makes it on their farm down near Port Eyren. They sent her a bottle every year. Was her favorite, you know.”

Unexpectedly, my eyes prickle and I cover it by blowing my nose.

That’s why I haven’t been able to find any mention of the wine on the InfoHub. It’s her family’s hobby wine.

I’ve taken a risk of alienating Talan, or getting us both into trouble, and I’ve barely made any progress. Aside from that I’ve settled in my mind that the Duke was not responsible. But am I being objective about that? I’m deciding that on the basis of seeing a video of him with his wife?

No. Not really objective.

Customers come in, and Warwick stops chatting to serve them. I realize I’ve spent too long. The light is fading and I wanted to be back before evening.

I leave with a wave and point my patient mare back up the winding path to the fort. The gentle rocking motion of her walk is relaxing. I sigh and close my eyes.

I’m not being objective about this investigation.

The fact is, I don’t want the Duke to be guilty.

Who do I think I am anyway?

I should drop this sleuthing. I have the Duke’s three month’s of ‘termination’ payment. That’s enough to get me a passage to the next world through a broker.

Where?

Anywhere beyond the reach of the conspirators on Newyan and Amethys. That’s the sensible course of action.

That rocking is making me sleepy.

And Warwick’s ale is stronger than I thought!

Stupid to match drinks with an innkeeper. I can’t afford to get drunk and let my guard slip. For all the arguments that Newyan will go for a legal attack against me rather than an assassin, I could easily have misread the situation. I’d be an easy target tonight.

I turn and look back down the path nervously. I can’t see anyone, but it is getting darker. Just my imagination spooking me, thinking there was someone behind me.

Yes, run away now. My grandfather would approve. Become nothing and nobody again. Offer no weakness, suffer no wound.

And yet, if I ran away now, I’d be letting Rhoswyn down. The Duke, too.

Not that letting him down is so important. He can look after himself.

But Rhoswyn’s begun to look up to me.

And I’m beginning to really love this place.

It’s bone-deep already.

Such a tangled web.

It’s a good thing the mare knows her way back, because I doze off, sitting right there on her back.

I’m kneeling at his feet, crowned and bound with the gifts off the sea. He lifts me up, then offers his arm.

I look up at his face, but the sun is shining in my eyes.

I wake up with a jerk as my mare snorts and tosses her head, happy to be home.

The stables are dark, the one light in the empty forecourt pointed at me and serving only to make the shadows on the sides deeper.

I dismount wearily, slipping down from the saddle.

“DOWN ON THE GROUND! NOW!”

I don’t even have time to react.

Hands grip my arms and force me, face-down, into the mud.

 

Chapter 28

 

I’m handcuffed, lifted back to my feet, then thoroughly and professionally patted down for weapons.

Facing me is Pollard, the Duke’s security advisor. A couple of Mounted Police troopers did the searching. They’re holding my arms.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Pollard snarls at me.

“I was out for a ride,” I reply. “It was a pleasant evening, until you happened. What do you think you’re doing?”

“You’re under arrest!”

“Yeah. Old news, Pollard. I’m well aware of it. No one said I couldn’t go for a ride.”

I sense a hesitation from the troopers. One of them’s a guy I’ve been training with in the dojo. I don’t think they’re really happy with Pollard.

“You are supposed to be accompanied by Trooper Sandrey at all times—”

There’s an almighty clatter of hooves behind.

I twist around.

Talan, on her gelding, and she’s not happy.

We scatter and she leaps off, landing in front of Pollard, who backs away.

“Get those cuffs off,” Talan says over her shoulder before turning back. “What the nova do you think you’re doing, Pollard?”

“The prisoner was—”

“Escaping? Just how much do you not understand about horses? This is the front end.” She holds out her hand to the side, and her gelding immediate trots up to stand next to her. “That means the horse is moving towards you. If Miss Aguirre had been escaping you would have seen the horse’s ass. You’ll recognise what one looks like from your shaving mirror.”

“She’s supposed to be accomp—” Pollard tries.

“I was accompanying her,” Talan lies well.

She turns on the two troopers. They’ve freed me and they’re standing at parade rest and looking embarassed.

“You two! Saddles and bridles, then rub the horses down.”

She grabs my arm and pulls me past Pollard, slowing just enough to deliver one last comment.

“You don’t have authority over a single trooper in this fort, Mister Pollard, and you’d do well to remember that.”

We walk in icy silence for a couple of minutes.

I glance back. There’s no sign of Pollard.

“Thank you,” I say.

She doesn’t reply. Ominously, she says nothing at all while she hurries me through the fort until we’re standing outside the Duke’s office.

The Duke is back early.

And there’s a strange tension in the whole fort; a silence broken by the sound of troopers hurrying down passages.

My relief at being rescued evaporates, and is replaced by apprehension.

“Stay there,” Talan says curtly and slips inside.

I’m wearing the outdoor clothes that Danny gave me. They’re filthy with mud from the forecourt. I take the jacket off and use it to wipe my face and hands.

Talan must have known I’d gone down to the stables and shadowed me. That was why I’d felt there was someone behind me on the path.

I can hear her speaking and the Duke’s deep voice replying.

Was she spying on me, or just trying to protect me?

Then Talan is back out. Her nose wrinkles at the jacket but she motions me to give it to her.

She’s standing in front of me. We’d be face to face, but she’s too tall for that. I’m going to get a crick in my neck, but this is probably not a good time to make that sort of wisecrack.

She’s still angry, but I don’t think it’s all directed at me.

I whisper, “I’m sorry, Talan. I put you in an awful position. I owe you.”

“You do,” she says. “So do me this one thing in return. Tell nothing but the truth in there.”

She moves to aside to usher me in. The door closes behind me.

 

Chapter 29

 

Duke Tremayne is standing looking out of his open window, hands behind his back. However he might try to disguise it, every line in his body tell me he’s furious.

I clear my throat. “Is Rhoswyn all right?”

He turns abruptly, perhaps surprised at my first words.

“Yes.”

His eyes travel up and down me, taking in the mud on the front of my trousers, the smears on my hands and face. I seem to be making a habit of turning up in front of him worse for wear.

What does he see? What’s going on behind those eyes?

“Talk to me about Rhoswyn,” he says.

“What do you mean?”

This can’t be about my escapade today. What have I done?

“You’re part of the team teaching her. I’m her father. Report your findings so far.”

While I gather my thoughts, he takes one of his storm-capes and covers a chair for me to sit down without ruining the fabric.

“She’s an excellent pupil—”

“I seem to recall that you got close to implying I’m responsible for her poor results in some way. Explain. Why are her school grades so poor?”

He pulls a chair up and sits opposite me, tense as a bowstring.

I decide against speaking tactfully or evasively. He probably isn’t going to get any more angry.

“She’s deliberately failing,” I say.

“Why?”

“Because, in the past, when she had difficulties, you’d help her.”

He blinks.

“That’s what she’s trying to make happen again. She’s longing for you to spend time with her. You’ve given up teaching her gliding, you never really spent as much time as you should on the estate management, you’re away a lot, the only thing she has left is her academic work.”

He surges back to his feet, so I do too. It’s another neck-crick to lock eyes with him, because he’s even taller than Talan, but I’m not going to let him look down at me in the chair.

“You have no idea—”

“No, perhaps not,” I interrupt him, “but you asked my opinion based on what I’ve seen, and if there are things I haven’t seen, then you’ll have to tell me about them.”

He doesn’t respond to that, so I go straight on.

“As for what I’m working on with her, where she really shines is in estate management. She’s a perfect student. I’ve only spent a couple of mornings with her, but I already know by the end of the summer, there won’t be anything more for me to teach her.”

I don’t add if I’m still here, by the end of summer.

“She’s also a natural pilot,” I say. “She feels the air around that glider. Understands the ridge effect from the onshore winds.”

His eyes narrow. “You flew all the way down to Marazion and back, didn’t you?”

“She flew. I was just in the back seat. And we went to Bandry as well. I thought she needed those sort of flights to counter a comment she made about not being able to go anywhere in a glider.”

That gets a snort from him.

“Tell me, Miss Aguirre, how comfortable is that glider with the pair of you in it?”

That knocks me back on my righteous ass. Of course he can’t continue to teach Rhoswyn as she grows bigger. She and I are squeezed tightly in, so there’d be no chance for him to get in with her. I’ve been stupid on that point.

Fair enough, but as I’m on the topic, I might as well get in another item from my long list: “What she needs is a target to focus on. A challenge. So, I’ve put her down for the junior section of the gliding championships in Kensa.”

The Duke knows exactly which one I mean. There’s the small matter that he has a dozen trophies from that competition over the years, and it’s so important to Rhoswyn to excel at what her father’s good at.

“That may not be possible,” the Duke murmurs and returns to his seat. “What about martial arts?”

He obviously knows exactly how we’ve split the tasks between Hanna and me. And I’m really pleased he’s shown such an interest in his daughter’s education. But what does this have to do with whatever has happened to make him angry today? Is it me, or something Rhoswyn’s done?

“She’s a good student, but it will take time.” I sit back down too.

“And all the academic problems…you’re effectively saying that’s all my fault?”

“Not in so many words—”

“But yes.”

I swallow and don’t contradict him.

“You also warned me there’s a conspiracy targetting me and my family,” he says. “Does that mean I should trust you?”

“Not necessarily,” I reply, and give him the same reasoning I gave his daughter. “It could be a bluff to put you off your guard.”

His mouth stretches. It can’t be called a real smile.

“Despite that, Rhoswyn tells me she trusts you.”

“I’ll thank her. What in the Goddess’ name has happened, sir?”

“I took your words to heart, Miss Aguirre, and started asking difficult questions about the ownership of media on Amethys. The result was an immediate push back. Rhoswyn and Miss Esterhauze were ambushed in Bandry by a dozen news agencies.”

He can’t sit in his seat, but this time he doesn’t try looming over me. He goes to the window and glares out into the night.

“They were asking my daughter questions about the state of my marriage at the time of my wife’s…death.”

“That’s disgusting.” But what I would have expected from the conspirators. And I notice he didn’t say suicide.

“Yes, it’s bad enough on its own, but there’s another problem.”

“Sir?”

“How did they know to turn up in Bandry?” He swivels around to look at me. “Very few people knew that they were going. I knew. Sandrey and Moyle knew. Pollard knew. Gaude, Rhoswyn, Miss Esterhauze and you knew. The shop itself. Who told the media?”

“It wasn’t me.”

“Then what were you doing in Stormhaven this afternoon?”

Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adv/Rom – Episode 12

Ah. Hit a writing problem and so I’ve only got one long-ish chapter for you tonight. It’s getting a little complicated and needs laying out clearly.

I *might* add another chapter later in the weekend – no promises.

So no one believes the Duchess committed suicide, but how was she murdered and by whom?

Questions, comments, observations, theories welcome. 🙂

New readers – the story starts at https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/05/28/zara-episode-2/

++++++

Chapter 26

 

After we have lunch in the main dining room, I beg off dancing in the afternoon. Nothing to do with the bruises I picked up in the dojo.

It suits me to spend the afternoon evaluating threats and courses of action.

Back at our apartment, Talan lies down on the sofa and is immediately asleep. It makes me smile. The woman has a gift the gods themselves must envy.

I sit across from her with the infopad, but I hesitate before logging in.

What should I be doing, given all the threats hanging over my head? Gather information? Or start running?

The conspirators on Newyan will be moving against me soon. They have to.

Their options are to either send an assassin or start legal proceedings to extradite me.

Meeting me in court would be, in a fair universe, something they’d avoid: courts should be open and proceedings reported. Not only would they have difficulty proving the case against me, but I’d get a chance to make counter accusations.

But… Shohwa believes the conspiracy in Newyan is closely associated with the conspiracy here. I certainly wouldn’t get a fair hearing on Newyan, so it’s not a stretch to imagine the same happening here. Probably they’d arrange a closed court session and ignore any defense.

So, court is a better option for them than hiring an assassin.

My ending up at Cardu makes it an even more attractive option for them, if Shohwa is correct that the Tremayne family is going to be subject to the same attacks as my family in Newyan.

The conspiracy will know I’ve already got to turn up in the Central District court to have the ridiculous charges from saving Lord Roscarrow’s life quashed. They’ll know I’m currently in the custody of the Welarvon Mounted Police. I bet they’ll use that court appearance to start an extradition appeal. That gets them two targets for one attack – the Duke will seem guilty by association. That’s the way their media reports will spin it.

The Duke would be forced to disassociate from me as quickly as he could.

I know what Grandfather’s advice to the Duke would be: Offer no weakness; suffer no wound. The Duke has to pick his battles, and his own family is at stake.

For me, I should warn the Duke, even if that means revealing who and what I am. I might as well advise him to throw me out too and save him troubling his conscience.

With all of that hanging over me, why do I feel so involved in questioning the Duchess’ death?

Because it doesn’t fit.

It was over a year ago. Sure, the media jumped on it, but there wasn’t any real follow-up. On Newyan, the attacks on my family came one after the other, relentlessly.

And if the Duchess’ murder doesn’t fit, maybe it was a mistake.

Someone jumped the gun.

Or they thought the Duchess had found something out about the plots and they had to work in a hurry.

Haste breeds mistakes, Grandfather always said.

If I can find that mistake, maybe I can unravel this plot. Not on my own, but I could provide the Duke a defence, or maybe just something additional for Shohwa. Any setback for the conspirators is a win for me.

But what if I find the Duchess was murdered by the Duke?

I bury my face in my hands.

If the Duchess was murdered, if it wasn’t the Duke, if the conspiracy ordered it, if they made a mistake…

I’m going in circles. I have to do something.

With a sigh, I switch the infopad on.

There’s a message from Shohwa in my intray. It’s encrypted, naturally. She can see that there are programs hunting through the Amethys InfoHub for suspicious activity, and the sort of information gathering she’s doing is illegal.

Of course, just about everything she’s doing is illegal, even just being there, and it would be a massive diplomatic problem if they find her. Not to mention Amethys’ authorities will certainly require the Xian delegation’s servers to be disconnected and purged. Killing her.

For me, the Shohwa on the ship is a person. I can’t quite get my head around the Shohwa in the Xian delegation’s computer network being the same person. In our last conversation, I took to calling her Shohwa-nia, Shohwa’s daughter, and as her message decrypts itself into a folder, I see with a grin that’s what she’s calling herself too.

The bulk of her message is a completely illegal copy of the state’s confidential court reports from the inquest into the death of Duchess Tremayne. Not the published report, but the full transcript and private deliberations of the inquiry.

I glance guiltily over at Talan. It takes a moment to set up the screen so I can switch to doing something less unlawful if Talan wakes or someone else calls on us, then I settle down and start reading the summary.

 

The Duchess was seen by several people setting out alone in her boat, a ten meter, gaff-rigged sloop called Low Lady, the summary says. It was just after dawn. It was particularly noted that she was alone because the old sloop usually took two to sail her. No one was alarmed because she was known to be an excellent sailor.

Her failure to return by nightfall caused a huge search to be mounted along the whole coast. Ships in orbit turned scanners down onto the ocean, air-sea rescue planes flew, trawlers pulled in their nets and divided up segments of coast between them to hunt for the Low Lady.

By dawn, the sloop had been discovered, anchored out of sight of land. There was no one on board.

It wasn’t until a day later, a creeler boat found the Duchess’ body in a secluded bay.

The post mortem showed she was dead before she was in the water.

Her blood and stomach contents showed she’d taken potent mixture of sedatives and alcohol in batches, which had eventually amounted to a fatal dose at some stage in the evening.

There was no disturbance on the boat. Everything was neat and tidy in the cabin. Sails had been hauled down and tied loosely as if they were expected to be used again.

But there was nothing to contradict the story that emerged: she’d sailed until midday, anchored, eaten a small meal, then laid on the foredeck and begun washing down strong pills with glasses of water and wine, possibly passing out and semi-reviving from time to time, until she finally succumbed to the cumulative dose.

It was speculated that a wave could have rocked the boat and the body had fallen overboard.

There was no note. No indication from anyone who knew her that she was suicidal or even depressed. She wasn’t on medications and no one knew where the pills had come from. No one who had met her immediately before her death had thought she was behaving unusually.

Equally, there was no sign of a struggle. No indication she’d been forced to swallow the pills. Indeed, no sign of anyone else on the boat.

In the folder are media reports and photos. Archive photos of the Duke and Duchess at their marriage, and later, carrying Rhoswyn just after she was born. Then photos of the Duke at the inquiry into his wife’s death, his face an emotionless mask. Finally, photos of other Founding Families gathering around at the funeral; I recognise the Roscarrows, flanking the Duke and Rhoswyn, as if to protect them from photographers.

The media articles avoid making any direct accusations, but belabor just about every possible reason there might have been marital problems, including that the marriage had been arranged as a political union and there was no male child.

I read the summary once again, then steeling myself, rush through the post mortem report, avoiding looking at the photos in that section. It says what the summary says, in medical jargon, as far as I can tell.

I take more time over the forensics report. It’s hugely detailed: the condition of the sea at the time, maps showing the direction and strength of tides overnight, the painstaking effort to determine that there were no other fingerprints in the cabin or on the bottle of wine, the background of all the people who gave statements, and even the Tremayne family finances.

There’s a whole section on the boat. The Low Lady was allegedly an impounded smuggling boat, dating back to the first settlements when a crazy jigsaw of jurisdictions and tarriffs incentivised ‘marketing’ across boundaries. It had been in the Duchess’ family all that time. Rebuilt twice, each time carefully recreating the original design.

And at the end of the folder, there a file of text in two parts. One is intended as a media release and states that the court agrees with the proposal of the Welarvon Mounted Police that the Duchess had committed suicide.

The second is internal to the judicial system and clarifies that the ruling was taken on the balance of probabilities, and that many unexplained anomalies and unanswered questions remain.

I’m no detective, and certainly not an expert on the case, but that media release conclusion stinks, even without knowing what the writer thought were ‘anomalies’.

There are so many questions. Why eat a meal first? Why even take the food on board if you’re planning to kill yourself? Why drink water and wine? Why dose yourself over the course of an afternoon?

I know those aren’t any kind of proof and that people contemplating suicide don’t behave rationally.

There’s more, something I can’t put my finger on yet.

Included in the report is a section on motive, or rather, lack of it. The Duke and Duchess had no financial problems. There were no medical diagnoses of terminal illness. Nothing legal pending. Nothing known about marital problems.

I close the files and re-encrypt them. I’ve given myself plenty to think about, but I’m no nearer finding out about the conspirators.

First impressions: this was no suicide. Anyone this prepared to kill themselves in this way would show some sign.

So the Duchess was murdered.

I shudder, remembering my Dancing Mistress whispering as she showed me around the sealed section of the laboratory she kept in the basement: There is a universe of poisons out there. Not all of them are known. Not all of them share the same purpose.

Someone who wasn’t on the sloop when it left harbor incapacitated the Duchess in some way, then fed her the sedatives and wine until she died, and then departed. The most obvious theory is it was someone she met in another boat. Someone she knew. Maybe they had lunch with her, sitting on the foredeck. Put something in the wine which rendered the Duchess partly conscious.

And then they stayed with her, feeding her sedatives, coldly, methodically killing her and taking the whole afternoon to do it.

I shiver again.

Someone she knew. An assignation, out of sight of land? The court report touches on this: there were other vessels off that part of the coast, but they were all fishing boats with multiple crew on board. No one reported any other vessels, but then, only one reported seeing the Low Lady. Another similar boat might have escaped attention.

I close my eyes. The obvious theory has plenty of holes in it. For example, there’s nothing in the forensics about chemical residue in the wine bottle, other than wine, or in the glass the Duchess drank from.

And it would have been risky for someone to be seen sailing away from the area.

I want to see the Low Lady, which is stored here in the fort, but I don’t expect to learn much from it.

The court report includes a section on the investigation, which looks thorough, but there are still some lines I want pursued.

Did any space ship in orbit happen to be scanning this area at any part of the afternoon? Maybe Shohwa-nia can find that out.

The other two are for me.

Where did the wine and meal come from? Who handled them before the Duchess?

And what was the real state of her marriage?

I have ideas how to go about these, but it won’t be possible today.

The biggest problem about any investigation is that my time is so limited and I’m going to be busy.

The first stage would be to prove that the Duke didn’t murder his wife. How long do I have for that? I send a meeting request to his online address. Gaude has already warned me any appointment could take a few days, and the Duke’s auto-response comes back telling me he’s out at the moment and expected back in five days.

Five days.

That’s my timeframe to investigate the Duke. I want to be able to go into his office free of any suspicion that he’s a murderer, if I’m going to be warning him about the conspirators and the shortcomings of his security here at Cardu.

Not least of which shortcomings is his auto-response telling me when he’s due back.

Who am I kidding? Thinking about it, I realize whatever I find or don’t find, I still have to warn him about the conspirators. If not for his sake, then for Rhoswyn’s.

 

Before I close the browser I set up a search. This one can’t use the local InfoHub. I have to submit it to a data broking system to wait for the next millisecond of free bandwidth on the information packets that are passed between planets. I specify the Tavoli system as the target, and request complete data on Hanna Esterhauze. The search will terminate once the volume of data reaches a the size of a standard transmission packet, but it searches chronologically, so the most recent results will make it in.

Given the delays between systems, it may take a couple of weeks to return.

Of course, anyone can make that kind of search. On anyone.

I’d be stupid to think Gaude hasn’t done a search on me. Or Pollard. Or Hanna for that matter. Any search on me will return all the lies about being a fugitive wanted in connection with corruption on Newyan. Who knows, maybe by now the conspirators have charged me with murder as well. Whatever comes back, I’m sure it will be enough to change the Duke’s attitude to me. I will be under real arrest, not this parole system.

Unless I can prove links between Newyan and Amethys, the Duchess’ murder and my family’s persecution, that couple of weeks may be all I have left here.