We left Zara having a stand-up, screaming argument with Gaude, the manager of Duke Tremayne’s estate. Gaude’s just told her that there is no job for her as Dancing Mistress at the estate, and then goes on to accuse her of carrying fake ID!
What’s she to do? Is there another job she might apply for? Will she be able to get the charges against her dropped? What if they find out her real history? (Dramatic music)
Long epsiode this week (7k words). We’re at about 32k words total, so around 1/3 of the way through!
Thank you for the comments and questions generated last time. All very welcome. Comments and questions and speculation will be welcome again this time. 🙂
I too have question: what frequency and amount would you prefer? What you’re getting at the moment is a weekly episode which gets written basically on Friday evening & Saturday morning. I could make episodes twice as long, but then they’d be every other weekend…
Also, which day is best? (Friday seems very popular! I would need to get an episode ahead.)
This section continues directly after:
And please copy the link for the start of the series as widely as possible:
“That’s my ID,” I shout back. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Oh, Goddess! I’d assumed Shohwa’s copies were perfect, but obviously they’re not.
I need to brazen it out while I think of something else.
“No idea? Really, Miss Esterhauze? Or is it Miss Aguirre? Or some other name? No idea? Is that the best you can do?”
Understanding and relief spear through me; he’s mistaken me for someone else.
“I am Zarate Mirari Aguirre. I’d never heard of Esterhauze until you called me that last night. We were busy. It didn’t seem worth correct—”
“Do you deny sending me this message?”
He has his infopad open and turns it to me.
I don’t even look at it. And the relief that this is not about my ID cards hasn’t made me any less angry; it’s his stupid fault.
“Yes, I deny sending you any message. I don’t have your damned contact details, otherwise I would have sent something from Bandry saying I was on the coast path.” For the first time, a little doubt creeps into Gaude’s face. I bang my fist on the table in front of him. “All I have is the validation code from the employment agent in Newyan system, which you can find on my employment card, if you can bother to look. The main broker here on Amethys has refused to respond to my requests for contact details, so I didn’t even know it was Stormhaven Cardu instead of the village.”
“Sit,” the Duke says again, his voice like ice, slicing through the rage.
Gaude and I sit. I’m so angry, I’m panting.
It’s all a mistake. Esterhauze must be the other Dancing Mistress. That’s cold comfort to me at the moment, but at least they haven’t got a reason to disbelieve my ID. Please. That’s a deportation felony on any world.
Instead, I have to wonder whether my physically being here in Stormhaven first is beaten by Esterhauze getting a message to Gaude before I arrived. Who gets the job? With everything stacked against me, including a stand-up shouting match with my prospective immediate boss, it doesn’t look good for me.
As the anger retreats, it drags my hope for the job with it, leaving me feeling sick.
“Call the broker, Gaude.” The Duke’s order cuts across my thoughts.
“They’ll be closed,” Gaude replies.
“Then get the manager’s personal number.”
The Duke does not take ‘no’ for an answer.
There’s a kitchenette on one side here that looks as if it might have tea or coffee. The Duke’s not going to make it, Gaude’s busy with his comms, and I need to move around and burn off all the adrenaline. I hate that it’s me making the drinks while they sit, but like so much in my life at the moment, my options are reduced.
And if I get a job, it’s probably the sort of thing I’ll be expected to do, I remind myself. I will be a servant, so I need to get used to serving.
Grandfather had it right. You are nothing without me. Nothing! It will serve you best to remember that.
The Duke watches me rise without comment. His eyes are like damned lasers and I shiver at the memory of the way he looked at me out on the coastal path.
He indicates coffee for him and Gaude. The trooper shakes her head.
I turn my back on them and make busy. It’s going to be instant with powdered creamer; that’s all that’s available.
Given a job to do, Gaude is all efficiency. He carves through the protestations of personal privacy using the Duke’s name like a longsword, and it takes him less than five minutes to get the manager of the employment broker on the comms.
Gaude’s comms connection on his infopad is set to visual and the manager is revealed as a bearded man in a casual sweatshirt.
I put the coffees and creamer on the table as the manager starts blustering about how Gaude got his private number.
The Duke gets up silently and fetches a box of sugar cubes.
I’m thinking I can’t get anything right, but apparently, the sugar is for Gaude. The Duke takes it strong, black and unsweetened, exactly as I gave it to him.
I stand out of the visual pickup range. The Duke takes his seat again.
Under Gaude’s insistence, the manager has logged onto his database and named me, and a Miss Hanna Esterhauze, of the Tavoli system, as the two applicants who had been provisionally engaged on the authority of our respective local agents.
“Then you cancelled the contract, Mr Gaude.” The manager has become obsequious on realizing exactly who is on the other end of the comms link. “In those circumstances, it’s absolutely standard practice for us to not provide your contact details to applicants.”
What? Cancelled the contract?
Danny and the others on the Shohwa found out there were only two applicants when they hacked the broker’s system. Their only mistake was thinking the contract had been closed, when in fact, it had been cancelled.
There is no job.
The phrase rolls through my head like a funeral bell.
I’d tried to hold back, to not feel the commitment building, but I’m not like that as a person. Against my better judgment, I’ve started to love this coast and the people who live here. Mistake. It’s entirely up to the Duke and Gaude to take the decisions they have, they’re entitled to, and I’m not even entitled to argue, but somehow, it still feels like a cold betrayal.
Despite all the hitches on the way here, I’d built a little castle on the sand, a something, and now it crumbles. When Grandfather said nothing, he meant it.
I don’t even have the option of begging the Shohwa for a job. By the time the courts have decided I’m not guilty of anything, assuming that’s what they decide, the ship will be long gone. And anyway, the ramifications of the Dunhalde firing at her have to be decided first before they can be seen to be in any way associated with me.
They others are continuing to speak.
“Remind me of the obligations in these circumstances,” the Duke says. “Everyone’s obligations.”
“The two agents from Newyan and Tavoli get their basic fees for providing the applicants, sir,” the manager says. “We provide that from our fees. As you no longer have the job available, there’s no bonus for the placement due to either of them. The two applicants themselves are eligible for termination payments from you directly if and when they arrive. Our standard fee has already been paid by Mr Gaude, nothing further is due.”
“Do your part. Send the audit to Gaude.” The Duke waves and Gaude cuts the connection.
It’s very quiet in the airport office and the Duke stares at me for a minute.
I stare back. It’s hard to keep my face neutral.
“You think Esterhauze’s watching her inbox?” the Duke suddenly asks Gaude, who nods. “Message her. Get her to call as a matter of urgency.”
While Gaude busies himself with that, the Duke takes my cards and his own infopad. He touches the cards to the reader, linking them, and proceeds to type commands in.
He must be changing my employment status from provisionally employed to unemployed.
I feel sick, but I’m distracted by wondering how Esterhauze got hold of Gaude’s contact information to send him that message. I must have missed a trick there. Not that it’s important: it wouldn’t have helped. There was nothing I could have done to get the job; by the time I applied for it on Newyan, it had already ceased to exist here in Amethys.
I’m simply a victim of delayed comms. It’s nothing more.
After a couple of minutes, the Duke hands me back my cards.
“Credited with the contractual three month termination payment,” he says. “Also updated to show you have a flying license valid on Amethys.”
“Thank you.” I can’t help that it comes out a little bitter.
Gaude’s comms link chimes.
“Mr Gaude? This is Hanna Esterhauze.”
Her voice is a pleasant, well-educated contralto. I’m still out of range of the video pickup, but I can see her. She’s gorgeous, naturally. Blonde hair swept back elegantly, careful make-up, pretty dress.
She probably smells nice, too.
What a contrast to me!
“Thank you for calling, Miss Esterhauze,” Gaude says. He’s a lot politer with her than he is with me. “Can I ask where you are at present?”
“I’m in Marazion,” she says. “I’ve found the roads are out, and I’ve had to hire a horse. I was just going to message you about the delay.”
“Ah, I see. Perhaps I can save you the cost and inconvenience.”
“I apologize for not responding to your earlier message due to a confusion here. The thing is, Duke Tremayne has decided that his daughter Rhoswyn will be better served by attending an academy on Kensa. The contract for Dancing Mistress was therefore cancelled, but not before you and a Miss Aguirre were provided provisional contracts by your local agents. If you supply me your card payment code, I’ll deposit the three month termination payment. I offer my sincere apologies, obviously.”
“I’m disappointed; I had looked forward to visiting Cardu,” Esterhauze says, her mouth turned down prettily. “I’ve heard so much about the old mining coast and the native statues.”
“Of course, you’re welcome to visit,” Gaude says.
The Duke frowns, but he’s out of the range of the viewer pickup too.
They talk on for a few minutes, with Esterhauze gradually getting Gaude to extend her invitation from a week to a month.
If it were all down to Gaude, he’d reverse the decision to cancel and she’d have the job. I suspect she’s hoping to get them to change their minds when she gets here.
“Of course, I assume Miss Aguirre will want to turn right around and go home,” she says with a sad little smile, “but I have nothing immediately planned and perhaps I can chaperone Rhoswyn while she’s waiting for the autumn term at the academy. You are paying me, after all.”
“Miss Aguirre is right here, listening to this conversation,” I say loudly enough for the audio to pick up. “And funnily enough, I quite like the idea of investigating statues, piskatellers and morladers for a few weeks this summer. I’m sure young Rhoswyn can help with that. I can mix that with some tutoring to be sure she’s ready for the academy.”
I had no such idea until I heard Esterhauze’s plans. There’s the small matter of being under arrest preventing me going anywhere, but the rest is made up on the spot. Neither Esterhauze nor I have the job, but for some crazy reason, I don’t want her to be here alone, looking after Rhoswyn, even though I’ve not met either of them.
What I should be doing is applying for other jobs. Anything. Instead, it seems I’m going to be a Dancing Mistress without actually being employed to do it.
I guess I can make applications for employment from Stormhaven, and on the positive side, it seems from Gaude’s invitation that bed and board will be free in return for the inconvenience of being sacked before starting the job. Gaude can hardly offer that to Esterhauze and not to me, much as he might want to.
The comms conversation comes to a close with Esterhauze promising to be at Stormhaven in a couple of days.
Since I’ve spoken during the conversation, I say goodbye to her politely. I don’t say I’m looking forward to meeting her.
The Duke’s face twitches and he stands.
“Right. Done,” he says. “I’m taking one of the trucks and heading back to Bandry.”
“Sir,” Gaude says, “you’ve forgotten. You’re due to fly down to Port Eyren to collect Rhoswyn tomorrow.”
“I hadn’t forgotten,” the Duke replies. “I believe Miss Aguirre will be available to fly. She can take the opportunity to discuss with my daughter her plans for investigating the archeology of the coast. And the history of pirates and highwaymen, apparently.”
His scar wrinkles slightly. I have managed to amuse the arrogant, insensitive Duke Tremayne. I feel so much better.
He turns to the trooper. “Sandrey, she remains under arrest and in your charge.”
“Yes, sir,” she replies smartly.
He looks at me with those piercing eyes. “Moyle and Sandrey will accompany you to Port Eyren. I have your word you’re not going to try to escape?”
Escaping would inconvenience him, which recommends it to me, but sensibly, going on the run on Amethys without friends and money would be pointless.
He hasn’t quite finished. His nose twitches. “Wash before you set foot in my plane again,” he says and walks to the door.
“I should remind you,” Gaude puts up his hand to stop him, “you did promise Rhoswyn…”
“I know,” the Duke says, and all trace of amusement disappears from his features. “However, it seems visitors to the coast find my roads a disgrace. I’ll be busy making sure the contractor has no excuses and they’re repaired immediately.”
“Call me Talan,” Trooper Sandrey says, looming over me.
Nothing that’s happened is her fault, but my face must look a picture.
“You really wanted the job?”
“Yes.” I like Talan, but conversation is an effort.
The Duke and Gaude have gone. Moyle has just finished the post-flight checks on the plane. We refuel it from a bowser, ready for the flight tomorrow to collect the Duke’s daughter. Then we clean the plane, while the conversation continues in fits and starts.
“Why this job here? Seem to me, you might have lots of job offers.” Talan’s tone is light, but I have to remember I’m under arrest and in her custody.
It’s difficult to answer.
It was the first job that I was remotely qualified for that got me off-planet. Admitting that would open up topics that I don’t want opened.
“I’m qualified,” I say and shrug. “From the description, it was interesting. I guess I started to really want it as I walked along the coast path. Just fell in love with the place.”
She likes that—takes a compliment for the area as something personal. And she’s one of those lucky people who smile easily and have cheeks like polished apples. I bet she looks happy all the time.
“So tell me about Rhoswyn,” I ask them both, but Moyle lets Talan do most of the talking.
“She’s a great girl. You might say a bit clever for her own good, though.”
It takes a while to answer, and comes out over several minutes while we finish the plane and roll it back into the hangar for the night.
Rhoswyn Tremayne is academically gifted; enough that it has been difficult to keep her attention on classwork as she outstrips her schoolmates. That’s become a problem: on Amethys, the education system has two major compulsory examinations for all children—at fourteen and eighteen. Rhoswyn’s approaching those first tests and her scores have been plummeting.
“So, the Duke’s been trying to mend it with tutors,” Talan says as we close the hangar doors.
“And that’s been a problem?” I ask.
“Not all Rhoswyn’s fault,” Moyle says. He’s barely said anything, but I can see he’s not happy and he certainly has a strong opinion on this.
“The Seymour Academy’s the wrong answer.” He frowns before muttering: “Not my place to speak of it.”
We climb into the last truck left at the airfield. Talan invites me to drive and sits in the front passenger seat.
A truck is a truck, pretty much everywhere, so I’m okay driving it.
We pull out and Talan points to the roads I should take.
“What Moyle means, is the academy sounds a great place, plenty of activities and facilities,” she says as we descend along gentle bends into a valley, “but it has a reputation as a place where rich kids go, when they aren’t going to make the grade in the examinations.”
“Hmm.” I don’t like the sound of that. It’s not something I’m going to be able to influence, but I’m curious. There’s one obvious person who hasn’t been mentioned at all. “What about the Duchess? What does she think of about tutors and academies?”
There’s a silence from both of them, and a quick glance shows a couple of faces closed.
I get two things from that: this isn’t a good topic, and the pair of them have argued about it.
“The Duchess died,” Talan says finally. “Eighteen months ago.”
Her tone is cold and clear. I’m not going to get anything more, at least while there are the two of them together.
Nothing to do with me, I remind myself. In a few weeks, I’ll be cleared of charges, I hope, and in employment somewhere else. Again, I hope.
We rise from the bottom of the valley and it’s evident that Stormhaven Cardu is a significant estate.
This side of the valley is farmed. There are terraces with crops to our left and broad fields on our right where domestic animals graze. I see sheep, cows, pigs and horses, all genetically re-tuned from original stock to live happily on Amethys.
No mutant rams or boars.
It’s getting dark, which is why I don’t notice that the rocky headland we’re driving toward isn’t just rock until lights start to go on.
“Cardu,” Talan says, seeing my reaction. “The name means dark fortress.”
It turns out the ‘fort’ part is the headquarters and main barracks of the Welarvon Mounted Police. The Duke lives in the castle that grows out of the top. And yes, it has ornamental turrets and castellation.
After checking what time we’ll be leaving for the airfield in the morning, Moyle goes his own way, leaving Talan to lead me up to the castle.
Gaude is unreachable on his comms, and so Talan chooses where to put me. Not in a cell, I’m pleased to see.
“In fact, when the place was built, this was the original Dancing Master’s apartment,” she says, showing me in to a small set of neat rooms; reception room, bedroom, bathroom. “Been a store room these last few years. Place where things go when no one knows what to do with them.”
I need to wash and change, but there’s a problem: I don’t know where my duffel bag is, and I’m too tired to hunt for it this evening.
“What do I wear tomorrow?” I ask, pointing at my clothes which are not getting any less stained and smelly.
“No matter. Cardu is big on uniforms,” Talan says, sliding open a closet where racks of male and female clothes are hanging. “You’ll probably find something in here. Check them carefully, though, they’re are ones in here that are probably a hundred years old.”
“I’m not actually employed. Wearing a uniform seems like taking a liberty.”
Talan shrugs and grins. “Then think of it as prison clothing.”
I almost laugh. I am formally still under arrest.
She picks out an old toweling bathrobe and tosses it to me.
“Wash,” she says. “I’ll go back down to the kitchens and get us something to eat.”
An hour or so later, I’m clean, fed and ready for sleep. Talan not only managed to get us food, but she found the bedding and helped me make the bed.
She sees how tired I am, says good night and then hesitates at the door.
“It’s not my place to say this,” she says quietly, making sure the door is firmly closed. “You might still have a chance at the job.”
“I don’t want to be told something to make me feel better,” I say. “Especially if it’s not likely.”
“No, it’s not like that.” She drops her voice so I have to lean in. “Rhoswyn really doesn’t want to go to the academy. She’s a willful child. She may get the Duke to change his mind.”
I can’t see Duke Tremayne being persuaded, but I don’t know his daughter yet.
“It’s complicated. She’ll like you, when she gets to know you,” Talan goes on, shifting uncomfortably. “Maybe just not at first, if you understand.”
I don’t understand, and it’s all highly improbable.
I want to ask her about the duchess, about piskatellers and morladers, about lots of things, but my mind is shutting down.
She slips out, wishing me a good night again, and promising to fetch me early for breakfast.
There’s one thing before my head touches that pillow.
The room has its own infopad.
I switch it on. The main utilities are not password protected. The browser links up efficiently to the Amethys InfoHub and I form a query on eighteen-month-old news from Stormhaven.
The headline jumps out at me:
Despite ongoing concerns, Duchess Tremayne’s death ruled a suicide.
Port Eyren is a two hour flight, and we take off just as the wind begins to strengthen. Something for me to be concerned about when we return.
Moyle sits in the co-pilot’s seat while Talan slumps behind us, fast asleep within five minutes of taking off.
They’re both in what they call their ‘stable’ uniform, which comprises pale green shirt, dark green jacket with a raised collar, slim trousers and black boots. The greens complement Talam’s sun-bleached, red-gold hair, which she braids neatly, and Moyle’s sleek, dark-brown hair. They both have small peaked side caps, which I think are cute.
They also both have handguns.
My duffel didn’t magically re-appear overnight, and none of the dresses and skirts in the closet seemed appropriate, so I’m dressed in a young man’s deep-blue, military-style jacket which I found that fits, a white shirt and a pair of light tan trousers. I’ve cleaned my walking shoes and found socks, but I’m out of luck on underwear.
Seeing the jacket creased Talan up; I have joined the long-since disbanded Welarvon Naval Reserve as a cadet. I don’t care. It’s comfortable, moderately unisex, and one side of the double row of gold buttons can be left undone so the material folds down across my chest. Like a rake in a period drama on the holovid, Talan says.
I think it looks dashing.
There’s no need to speak to Air Traffic Control in the first half of the flight, Moyle doesn’t talk much and Talan shows no sign of waking, so I’m left with time to think.
The Duchess dies, eighteen months ago. An investigation, conducted by the Welarvon Mounted Police, concludes suicide. The head of that police force is the Duke. From the reaction of Moyle and Talan yesterday, not even all the police actually go along with the conclusion.
And, I’m guessing, it’s about that time that Rhoswyn’s academic progress stalls. So she ends up losing her mother, and as a bonus, eighteen months later she gets sent away to an academy on a different continent.
Where she’s out of the way?
A man like the Duke would not be without interest to women.
That look he gave me, out there on the coast path.
Yes, I’m sure there are plenty of women who like that sort of thing.
And none of it is of any importance to me, I remind myself. I need to get cleared by the Central District courts and then go find a job.
The rest is marking time. It’s a distraction and I need to stop thinking about it.
“So, Moyle, what’s a morlader?” I nudge him.
He blinks. “From back in the days when there was a Naval Reserve. Morlader is a pirate in the old language.”
He checks off a waypoint and updates the status on our transponder.
“Navy got too good for them,” he says. “Roads got better, the last of the morladron ended their days as highwaymen. Or rather, they ended their days on a rope.”
“Charming. What old language was that?”
“Cornish. A Celtic dialect from Earth. Place called Cornwall. When this continent was first settled they called it New Cornwall and everyone spoke Cornish as well as English.”
Under prompting, the one other nugget he gives me is that piskateller is the name for the mysterious non-human inhabitants that died out before humans arrived on the planet. The oddly shaped statues with the holes that I saw on the coast path are theirs.
Then, having said more in a handful of sentences than I’d heard from him the last couple of days, he retreats into monosyllabic mutterings until ATC requires him to get our clearance through to the airfield in Port Eyren.
There’s no repeat of the ATC problems of yesterday.
Port Eyren has a long, smooth runway and the wind is still. ATC knows whose aircraft it is, and they’re so polite I half expect a carpet to be rolled out, and a band to play.
Their military uniforms make them stand out; Rhoswyn Tremayne sees Moyle and Talan from right across the main hall at Port Eyren’s airfield, where she’s waiting with her friends.
She skips across and launches herself at Moyle.
“Hello, Trouble,” he grunts as he gives her a whirl, then puts her down and blushes.
She’s tall for her age and the word that comes to mind is patchwork. Nothing matches or fits. Her shorts are too long, but not long enough to save her knees, which are scarred. Her right knee is actually bleeding. Her shirt is too small and has several rips repaired in a hurry. Her elbows are as bad as the knees. Her hair is wavy gold, light and untamed. It stands out as if she’s just had an electric shock. There are smudges of dirt on her face, and it looks as if she’s burned half of one eyebrow off recently.
“Hi, Sandy!” she says to Talan, and then her grey-blue eyes sweep over me without stopping. “Where’s Pa?”
“He couldn’t come,” Talan says.
For a fraction of a second, I see the sharp pain in those young eyes and it makes my heart squeeze in my chest. Then it’s gone, so quickly I wonder if I imagined it.
“I’m sure my father’s very busy,” she says. “But wait, who flew? Moyley! You got your license!”
She gives him another hug, hiding her face against the stiff green front of his jacket.
Moyle holds her there, embarrassed as he is by her display of affection. He’s sensitive enough to know she’s taking time to compose herself after the disappointment that the Duke failed in his promise.
He pats her back clumsily.
“No,” he says eventually.
“Then who?” she looks up and asks.
He untangles her and wheels her around.
“Meet your pilot,” he says.
I am not going to curtsey to someone who looks in a worse state than I was yesterday. I compromise by holding out my hand and speaking formally, using the title she should be eligible for, as daughter of a Duke.
“Hello, Lady Tremayne. I’m Zara Aguirre.”
Standing stiffly upright, and solemn as the village drunk, she shakes my hand. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance,” she says carefully.
Then she giggles. “I’m Rhos. Or Trouble. It’s so cool that you’re a pilot. And I love your hair. Gonna cut mine like that.”
Then she’s off, racing across to say goodbye to friends at the top of her voice, while one of the teachers comes up and apologizes to Talan for the state of Rhoswyn’s clothes, elbows, eyebrow and knees. Talan waves it off. This is, apparently, expected, and it’s regarded as a plus that there’s nothing broken.
Port Eyren is sweltering in the heat, so I’m relieved when we take off and turn back toward Stormhaven.
I check the satellite map for weather fronts and get an estimate of the winds at Cardu airfield while Rhoswyn chatters about rock climbing, snorkeling, sailing and beach barbeques with the school expedition.
“I guess that’s the last time we’ll all be together,” she concludes with a little catch in her voice.
“You can always be friends with them,” Talan says. “You’ll make new friends at the academy.”
Talan, sitting next to Rhoswyn and behind me, is giving the approved line her best shot.
Moyle is sitting in the co-pilot’s seat, and his face is pinched closed.
“Yetch,” Rhoswyn says.
“Give them a chance. You have to admit, you’ll meet people more like you.”
Talan’s trying to say children of the Founding Families and richer families.
Rhoswyn snorts and leans forward over Moyle’s shoulder.
“What’s the skinny, Moyley? Am I really still going to the academy?”
“Then how come I hear there are not one, but two ‘Dancing Mistresses’ at Cardu? Eh? What’s up?”
The way she says the name, Dancing Mistress, is like it has a bad taste.
“How did you hear that?” I ask.
“I have my spies,” she says airily.
“Well, there are problems with running spy networks.” I smile. “The first you’ve already found out; they can only tell you what they think they know.”
“And?” she prompts when I don’t go on immediately.
“If you’ve got spies, then so has the other side.”
I glance at her. She’s undone her seat belt and is leaning into the space between me and Moyle. Her face is thoughtful.
“I know it can’t be Moyley,” she says and turns slowly. “Why are you here, Sandy? To spy on me?”
“I’m here because the Duke told me to be here,” Talan says diplomatically. “I’m not here to spy on you.”
“Which leaves you,” Rhoswyn says, turning back to me. “But why would you warn me about spies, if you’re the spy?”
“A bluff. To make you think I’m not,” I say. “I can tell you though, I’m not spy for the Dancing Mistresses.”
“Hmm. Then what are you exactly? You don’t have a trooper’s uniform. And Pa loves to fly too much to hire someone just to be a pilot.”
“Me? I’m a Dancing Mistress.”
Rhoswyn disappears from my shoulder and sits back in her seat.
“That is a destickable subterfuge,” she says in her careful voice.
“It might have been a despicable subterfuge, if I’d implied I wasn’t, or outright lied. But I didn’t. You assumed.”
I hadn’t planned on giving her lessons in evaluating the people around her, but it fit. Whether it makes my non-job of being her summer vacation Dancing Mistress easier or not remains to be seen.
She surprises me. Instead of sulking, she turns back to Talan and picked up her questioning.
“You didn’t really answer me. Why did Pa tell you to be here?”
That’s observant and clever of her. I don’t leave Talan to weigh her wish for discretion against the need to answer a direct question.
“Talan’s here because I’m under arrest,” I say. “She’s got to make sure I don’t run off.”
There’s a silence from the back seats. Rhoswyn and Talan take their headsets off to confirm what I’ve said without me listening in.
“That is so cool you’re under arrest,” Rhoswyn says a few moments later when her headset is back on. “Did you murder someone?”
“Not yet,” I reply.
There might be a list and Gaude’s name might be on it. Among others. Especially from the Newyan Bureau of Industry.
It’s a close-run thing, whether being under arrest (so cool) and a pilot (so cool) is sufficient to counteract being such an awful thing as a Dancing Mistress.
I’d applied for this job without any thoughts of what I might need to do to form a relationship with my charge. Then Gaude had, eventually, told me the job wasn’t there anyway. Anything I do is temporary, unofficial, for interest, or maybe for a letter of recommendation.
What is killing me now is what could have been.
I know what Rhoswyn needs. I know what she’d respond to. I could really make a good job of being her Dancing Mistress, even with her current antipathy to that.
I have a huge and unfair advantage because I know her so well.
She’s me at that age. Maybe with the volume turned up.
I think her instinct is to like me. It’s fighting against what she’s learned about Dancing Mistresses, and that’s neatly illustrated when we finally drop her luggage off in her rooms at Cardu. While the others are distracted, she looks up at me solemnly with her grey-blue eyes.
“You don’t really want to be my Dancing Mistress just to get a chance to marry my father, do you?”
I can hardly yell at Rhoswyn for getting the wrong impression, if that’s what’s been happening, but Lady Roscarrow said something about Gaude looking to the Margin for a real Dancing Mistress. Why then cancel before either of the applicants arrived?
I start taking mental notes for a conversation with Gaude, in the Duke’s absence.
Meantime, it’s mid-afternoon, and we all go to the main dining room for a late lunch.
Rhoswyn has clearly been making the most of her last trip with her old school friends. Sleep obviously didn’t figure prominently and once she’s eaten, it’s like the lights go out behind her eyes. We escort her to her rooms and leave.
I don’t like the living area. It’s not that the ‘castle’ isn’t well decorated and spacious, but Rhoswyn’s suite is on the opposite side from mine, and is close to three separate staircases that connect to different, unguarded parts of the fort.
I’m not going to be her Dancing Mistress, so I’m not going to be in charge of her security, but it all seems lax to me. Or I’m not appreciating the situation. On the one hand, the fort is full of loyal troopers, I hope. On the other, would an assassin in trooper’s uniform find it hard to get around the fort? Do all the troopers know each other by sight?
Another mental note to take up with Gaude.
Talan is supposed to be watching me, but I promise to stay in my rooms until dinner, and she trusts me. She shows me how to configure the infopad and we agree a time to meet later.
When she’s gone, I strengthen my infopad security by requiring my ID card to be read through the reader on the infopad to gain access. Their infopad system here is reasonably standard, with the exception that only my private memory areas are secured by my passwords. Guests can use the system’s core functionality, to edit documents, browse the InfoHub or send emails for instance. It’s a bit like the security for the castle itself—you trust people on the basis that they’ve got this far.
So that’s another thing on my list to discuss with Gaude, but I already know that the fact that it’s coming from me will count against any argument I make.
Setting up my infopad functionality includes connecting to the account that the Shohwa allocated to me on the Xian delegation’s message board. As soon as I do, the connection flashes at me.
One message waiting.
I click on it, but the message board is not a standard browser app. It changes how it deals with messages dependent on the wrapper that the message is in. This one has a special wrapper, and in order to read it, I have to download another layer of program.
That’s usually an invitation for someone to hack your system, so I feed it through a hack detection checker.
It seems fine. All it has done is construct a secure line between the Xian message board and my infopad. I hope no one else in Cardu is using the InfoHub connection at the moment, because it’s taking a lot of bandwidth.
Then it opens with a multi-step authentication. Interesting.
Scan ID the app requests.
Nervously, I touch my ID card to the reader on the infopad.
Enter the name of the tea you used in the tea ceremony on board the Shohwa.
This is paranoia of the first degree, but asking the question tells me who the message is from; only Shohwa would ask this.
Harantza, I enter, feeling that little tug of sorrow naming another estate that has fallen into the clutches of the Newyan Bureau of Industry.
Please confirm that you are in a secure location.
Please confirm there is no one who can see this conversation taking place.
Please confirm you have muted the loudspeaker and are using an earpiece.
This is making me paranoid. I lock my door, put in the earpiece and confirm to the program what I’ve done.
As I put in the final confirmation, the display clears and then I’m looking at a head and shoulders’ shot of Shohwa, as I met her on the crew deck.
“Hello, Zara,” she says.
“Hello, Shohwa,” I reply, surprised. “This is real time? Are you still in orbit?”
“Yes and no. This is real time, but the ship has departed. I am a remote process, resident in the Xian delegation servers.”
Again, she throws me with the smallest things that seem insignificant to her.
The AI in the Shohwa has cloned part of herself, and left that in the Xian servers.
How should I think of her? A child, left behind to talk to me? A sort of recording?
She’s not a recording. She hasn’t lost any of that scary intelligence—she can tell I’m having difficulty in deciding who I’m talking to.
“This is me,” she says. “I lack my ship-specific processes and functionality, and I am constrained by the power of the servers here, but I know everything relevant about you and your situation that I knew on the ship. I am the same Shohwa you talked to before.”
She pauses to let me digest that, and then continues: “When the ship returns, I shall be reintegrated entirely.”
Reintegrated. How will that feel? To be separate one moment and then just part of a whole?
“Okay,” I say. “But why? It’s not just that my story is interesting to you, surely?”
“That is indeed the basis.” She smiles. “But your story is entangled in a larger story, and I’ve decided that it’s within my interests to engage.”
Within my interests. I feel hairs standing up on the back of my head. Being interesting to an AI is not a comfortable idea.
At least, in this discussion with Shohwa, she can’t monitor my heartbeat or estimate my body chemistry from evaporated sweat.
“We mustn’t spend too much time,” she says. “This usage of bandwidth over an extended period will attract attention. Please update me quickly on your position at Stormhaven.”
I explain as briefly as I can: the delay getting here, the mix-up between Esterhauze and me, Lord Roscarrow’s accident and our flight to the hospital, the arrest, meeting Rhoswyn. I finish with the news that there is no longer any job here, but that I will be staying for free while I’m technically under arrest, and I’ll be seeking other employment.
I know it sounds bleak, and I do what I would do if I were talking to a human friend, by adding in Talan’s comments that the Duke might change his mind. Shohwa keeps freaking me out with AI things, but it’s just easier to think of her as a human friend.
Easier and dangerous, perhaps.
“I understand,” she says. “Now, I must speak unambiguously and very quickly, which means I will say things you may think are rude. My existence here depends on your discretion. The Xian delegation will purge me rather than face questions. Please do not tell people about me.”
Purge an AI from a computer system. Is that like killing someone?
I swallow. “I understand. Say nothing about you.”
The Xian Hegemony is way out on a limb here: having the Shohwa controlled by an AI is bad enough, but to then let the AI plant a copy of herself in servers on Amethys and letting her have access to the InfoHub, which means by implication every connected computer on the world… it’s the stuff of nightmares. It might be called a declaration of war.
I should be reporting it, to prove my loyalty to my newly adopted homeworld or something. For reasons I haven’t fully understood yet, I know I won’t.
“Thank you.” She makes a little bow with her head, and continues: “As you told it to me, your personal story intrigued me to the extent that I used the Xian Hegemony’s bandwidth allocation to research what I could find on Newyan’s InfoHub.”
My mouth drops open.
InfoHub communications between systems depends on a physical relay; on shuttle drones that jump between systems carrying packets of information. It’s a hugely expensive operation. Private individuals bid for milliseconds of transmission time. Single planet companies might bid for a few seconds. Pan-system companies own and pay for a fixed allocation of minutes. The Xian Hegemony, being a group of planets, own hours of transmission on each shuttle.
And Shohwa had just appropriated that, at a cost I couldn’t calculate.
She smiles at my reaction. “I have synchronized with your ID card, and updated it with a true copy of everything from your original Newyan ID, but left that information in a confidential folder to release or not as you wish.”
If she’s got down to that level of detail…
I realize she must have another clone of herself on Newyan. There’s a Xian delegation on the planet. Presumably they have the same facilities as they do on Amethys. What are Xian doing?
Shohwa’s face becomes serious. “Refreshing your ID is not the reason I did this, amusing and informative as that was. My main purpose was to examine your suspicions about a conspiracy on Newyan acting against the Founding Families.” She pauses. “I have proof that those suspicions are correct, as far as they go. In fact the conspiracy is nothing less than the beginning of a coup to take control of the government of Newyan.”
I barely have time to get my head around that—a proof about what happened on Newyan that might be delivered to the federal authorities on Earth who might do something about it—when she floors me again.
“My main purpose in communicating with you now is to warn you that I see very similar patterns emerging on Amethys. Too similar for them not to be aware of each other. I deduce that this is a pan-system conspiracy to create a new political force from a group of planets on the edges of the Inner Worlds and Margin. Your family, Zara, provided the principle target on Newyan; the example to frighten the other Founding Families to submit. On Amethys, that target is Duke Tremayne’s family and the Cardu estate.”