I’m away this weekend, so this episode is early and on the short side (3k words).
A couple of you have mentioned that the descriptions aren’t quite enough to give you a good picture in your heads of the characters. This is something that I will fix in the ‘polishing’ before I publish the book.
In the meantime, at least for Zara, the best images I can come up with need a bit of work. Google some images of Alejandro Alonso. Her hair colour varies, but you’ll see some with black. Zara’s ethnicity is Spanish (Basque) and Chinese. Her face is quite similar to Alejandro. Her eyes are green like Alejandro’s but tilt slightly more. Zara’s lips aren’t quite as full. Her hair is thick, black and straight. At the time of this novel, it’s cut short as a boy’s.
This is episode 9, and follows straight on from https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/07/07/zara-a-name-among-the-stars-scifi-advrom-episode-8/
And please copy the link for the start of the series to anyone you think would be interested:
Comments & questions welcome as ever.
Fortunately, it’s not necessary for me to lie about anything to Rhoswyn; she already has plans for us.
“We’re having a picnic at the King’s Table,” she says, and refuses to elaborate.
Talan chuckles and nods, so I know I’m being teased.
The King’s Table? It sounds like something they’d call an inn around here, but why the picnic?
The trip involves horses, and Talan leads us down to the barracks’ stables once we’ve cajoled a packed lunch from the kitchens. For want of anything else to wear, I’m in my naval uniform. Talan provides me with a Stetson and a pair of boots better suited to riding.
I ride, in the loosest definition of the word. On the horse, but not so much with it, was the judgment of my last riding instructor.
In about three questions, Talan has a good idea of my capabilities, so it doesn’t surprise me when Rhoswyn and I get a couple of easy-going mares, whose ears twitch good-naturedly when we approach.
Talan is on her spirited cavalry mount, a big bay gelding. He prances at the start, apparently complaining he didn’t get out yesterday, but settles down quickly for his rider.
Once we’re well on our way, Talan calls the Mounted Police dispatch controller on her comms unit, reporting our position and intention. The voice that acknowledges her is crisp and clear.
As she’s on detached duty, effectively my jailer, she doesn’t have any other responsibilities and wouldn’t need to call in, but having Rhoswyn along makes reporting necessary. I approve of the security. Rhoswyn rolls her eyes.
Talan also gets a weather report, and the announcement that we’re going to have a strong in-shore wind causes Talan and Rhoswyn to exchange secret smiles.
I don’t give them the satisfaction of pleading to know what they’re up to.
We head out along the coast to the north. I came in from Bandry, down in the south, so this part of the Coast Path is all new to me. If anything, it’s even more beautiful than the parts I’ve seen.
The day is bright, the wind keeps it cool. Within a couple of miles, I’ve made tentative friends with my horse.
It’d be wonderful if I had nothing else on my mind.
As a distraction from those bleak thoughts about my future, I quiz Rhoswyn on the running of the Cardu estate and where she sees it going.
It’s an effort keeping up with her. Words stumble over each other in their hurry to be spoken. She has too much to say, and hearing it, I forget that she’s so young.
“…they have more people and better markets in Kensa, and better roads. They have regular freight trains, too. If we sell to a distributor in Kensa, they could have our stuff shipped all over the continent in a few days. Murenys is smaller but it takes ages to go anywhere. There’s stuff we can’t even sell to Estarven because it’d spoil before they got it.”
Estarven being the eastern district of Murenys and not that far away.
“…the only problem will be to balance selling as much as we can with keeping our products a little exotic.” She giggles. “Us, exotic?”
This girl is failing academically?
She’s barely a teenager and she shows a surprisingly broad understanding and a willingness to talk about Cardu. She clearly loves the estate and the district. She would make a magnificent Duchess.
If she doesn’t get married off to some short-sighted idiot who thinks he can do it better because he has testicles.
Her enthusiasm for the estate is topped only by her eagerness to sell to other planets.
“…and the further inward you go, all the way to Earth even, the more they want to buy your stuff, but it’s so expensive to start out-system shipping and you’ve really got to be there to make sure the deal will work and …”
I lose track of time, and only really look up when our path takes us into the deep shadow of a tall headland.
Rhoswyn comes to a sudden stop in her recitation of what she wants to do with Cardu’s trade products and starts bouncing up and down in the saddle. Her mare flicks her ears to ask what her rider thinks she’s up to now.
It seems we’re nearly there.
“Lunchtime at the top!” she says. “Race you up.”
“No!” Talan immediately steps on that. “We go easy on this part.”
I’m not sure racing is something the mares are interested in, but I know I’m not. The weather has eaten some of the cliff away. The path narrows as it rises and Talan has us dismount and lead the horses up the last steep section.
As we crest the hill, the wind finds us again, pushing us back strongly.
I follow Talan, and we walk off the path where the ground is flat. Further away from that edge is good for me.
We’re still leading the horses and I’m walking with my head lowered, holding my Stetson in place, which is why I don’t really see what’s on the top of the hill until we’re right next to the stones, and they break the relentless pressure of the wind.
I look up.
“Welcome to the King’s Table,” Rhoswyn says in her formal voice, making a grand gesture of introduction, and pirouetting on the grass. “Here shall we feast among the gathered nobles.”
I drop the reins and stare.
They aren’t stones as such; they’re huge statues. There are twelve of them, arranged in a perfect circle about fifty paces in diameter. In general shape, they resemble the black stone statues I passed on the Coast Path when I walked up from Bandry, but much larger. Each has a base about ten meters long that gives the impression of a crouching animal, and at the front, facing inward to the center of the circle, a triangular head, rising far above the body, three times my height.
Like the ones I’d seen, these have holes drilled through the heads, but not just one or two; multiple passages of different widths and angles.
And as the wind blows through them, the King’s Table sings; quietly, mournfully.
It raises hairs on the back of my neck and ripples of goosebumps down my arms.
While Talan tethers the horses, I walk inside the circle and gaze up at the statues.
The King is the largest, the rest are about three quarters that size. All of them have intricate, weathered carvings on their heads. There seem to be eyes and mouths, or patterns that make me think of those features. Lower down, the bases have long edges cut into them that suggest limbs tucked under bodies; a tail of some kind at the back.
“This is the biggest and oldest arrangement we’ve found,” Rhoswyn says. Inside the circle, for once, her voice is hushed. “We think it’s over three thousand years old.”
“Is this what the piskatellers looked like?” I ask.
“Perhaps. We don’t know,” Talan says, joining us. “They left nothing else but the statues and the outlines of some buildings on the shore. No skeletons or burial sites. The villagers along the coast say some of them are still here, living in the sea, but no one’s ever seen one that I know.”
The Survey would also have looked hard before the planet was certified for colonization. If there were signs of existing native life that could exhibit intelligence, they would have embargoed Amethys. This ring of statues certainly shows advanced intelligence and purpose. These stones had to be brought all the way up here, even before the carving and the complex system of drilled holes that make them sing.
And three thousand years is recent, in the way of these things.
“When the first humans settled here, on the coast, they called these statues Dreamers,” Talan says.
“Some of the fishermen still do,” Rhoswyn takes over. “They make offerings and set a place at table on Feast Days.”
I look up at the alien faces, drowsing in the sun. Yes, I might call them dreamers, too.
“They say the Dreamer Folk could walk in their dreams,” Talan says. “That most of them got together and walked a different path, one that took them out of here and now.”
“And when they’ve dreamed through all the different paths,” Rhoswyn adds, “they’ll come back.” She touches the King’s base with a gentle hand. “They’re waiting. They’re still dreaming—what was and what may yet be.”
I shiver in the sunlight.
The other two leave me to walk around the circle while they set up our picnic outside. I have to pause in front of each statue. Their features are subtly different, as is their wind-driven voice.
I’m only half way around when they call me to lunch.
Talan and Rhoswyn have spread a blanket on the ground and weighed it down with stones. The hampers from the kitchens are open in the middle of the blanket and we have a feast. I can see cold pies, bread and butter, cheeses and salad, pickles and jams, and bottles of sparkling fruit juices, all products of the Cardu estate.
It’s a little odd, sitting down to eat within earshot of the King’s Table. When the wind is strong and constant, it sounds like they’re singing. When it varies, it sounds like they’re talking about us.
We sit in the lee of the statues.
The ground is a sort of saddle. East of us, it rises dramatically inland, and falls steeply towards the south, where we came up the Coast Path. In the westerly direction, from the King’s Table to the path along the cliff edge, is flat, about half a klick, covered in short, tough grass. The Coast Path marks the edge of the cliff and continues down the northern slope, which is gentle.
Looking to the west, beyond the cliff edge, the sea is deep blue, flecked with tiny whitecaps, reaching away to an indistinct horizon. The sky is a pale blue bowl above us.
It’s a lovely spot for a picnic.
“Can you teach me to fly, Zara?” Rhoswyn asks, seeing me looking upward.
My Dancing Mistress-self notes that flying lessons would make a good bribe for progress on more academic subjects. If, indeed, she needs to make progress and has not been flunking her tests for some reason.
“You’re big enough to reach the rudder pedals, so yes, it’s possible for me to teach you to fly,” I say.
She spots the evasion, and gives me the side-eye.
“Will you, then?”
“I’ll have to ask your father. Have to say, his aircraft is not the best to start on.”
She sighs dramatically. “The only alternative is the glider.”
“There’s a launching winch up on the airfield,” Talan explains. “The glider is stored in a trailer at the back of the hangar.”
“Well, a glider would be an excellent starting point,” I say.
“I’ve been in the glider, and you can’t go anywhere.”
Oh, the weight of life crushing down on her. The need to be doing everything, now.
“Who took you up in the glider?” I ask.
“He started to teach you to fly?”
The monosyllables are warnings for me to steer clear of more questions.
Instead, I raise an eyebrow at Talan.
“The Duke used to teach her a few subjects,” she says, “estate management and flying among them.”
A few things come together in my head, courtesy of my unfair advantage of having been so like her at that age.
Rhoswyn doesn’t want to go to the academy in Kensa, and never wanted tutors, even if that’s what her plans have ended up getting her. What she wanted was for her father to teach her again, even if only a couple of subjects and some of the time. Pa, I’m struggling with this subject, please help me. I suspect it was the only time she really had access to him, if he was always as busy as he seems to be now.
Then something that started with a reason just kept going, out of habit, even when the reason it was started clearly failed.
I’ll get the Duke to agree to take the time again, if I have to hold a knife to his throat. Using flying lessons with me and some lessons with her father as a carrot, I guarantee Rhoswyn’s academic results will show a miraculous improvement.
Not that it’s my business. I’m just passing through.
Realizing that again puts a slight haze on my sunny mood. I keep forgetting I haven’t got a job here. It’s as if my subconscious is telling me something. Too much listening to the King’s Table. Dreaming of what was and what may yet be.
After lunch, talking is a bit too much effort for all of us, and we lie back, sleepy with full stomachs, fresh air and the warmth of the day. The King’s Table sings us lullabies.
Is there a way it could become my business?
I can’t quite fall asleep and instead, worry the thoughts around inside my head like a dog chasing its tail.
Do I really want to stay here?
Can I trust the Duke, or have I made some bad assumptions about him?
Could a man cold-blooded enough to murder his wife and make it look like a suicide also be the man to inspire loyalty from his troops and such love from his daughter?
Depressingly, the answer is probably yes. Charismatic psychopaths do that.
But if that’s so, why hasn’t he tried that charisma on me?
Am I not worth the effort?
Why is he always looking at me as if he knows I haven’t got underwear on?
How dare he?
The wind veers and the King’s Table emits a sound like a groan.
I snort. Stop commenting on my gripes, old dreamer king.
On the other hand, the Duke didn’t react to the latest media attack by deciding I needed to be sent back to Central District to face my charges.
And still, I keep giving him reasons to get rid of me—arguing with him and his estate manager for a start. It seems I haven’t quite mastered the trick of remembering I’m not a member of a Founding Family. I’m a nothing, a no one, a fugitive. He’s the Duke, the most prominent of the Founding Families on Amethys. And Gaude is his respected estate manager. I need to stop reacting so badly to both of them.
The wind picks up again and breathes a deep, deep organ note through the King’s Table.
I can feel it through the earth.
Maybe I’ll get a short term contract here for the summer. The Duke said he wanted me to discuss security with him. A few weeks. Might stretch that a bit.
And then? In the autumn?
Find a job in some wild, isolated place and watch to see if the Newyan conspirators come after me. Or wait to see what happens with Shohwa. Sign up and work for her if it becomes possible.
Nothing permanent. Put no roots down. Roots are not an option for me.
The wind becomes skittish and now the King’s Table sounds like the flute section of an orchestra warming up.
No roots. No marriage. No family. My rules. I will not repeat the mistakes of my parents.
I had my chances to challenge that idea, break those rules: Grandfather’s insistence that I attend the endless succession of debutante balls. That stopped when it became obvious I couldn’t, wouldn’t, mold myself in a way that was acceptable to the young bachelors of the Founding Families.
Lucky, really, how it turned out.
That’s not to say I might not find someone to share a bed, from time to time, as long as it’s clear I’m in control.
No chance of that here. No way.
Even if there was an attraction, and I’m not denying to myself he’s a handsome man in an arrogant sort of way, the Duke and Gaude are on the alert for the slightest hint of anything other than professional behavior from a Dancing Mistress.
What a pair they make. Gaude plain angers me.
The Duke…bothers me. It’s very different.
“I’m just going to report in,” Talan is standing over me, blocking the sun. “The signal’s no good here, I’m going to have to walk up the hill.”
Her comms is on, full of whispering static and the suggestion of words, like dolphins glimpsed in the sea.
“Fine,” I say, squinting and looking around. Rhoswyn is lying on her back with her eyes closed. “Watch out for mutant boars.”
“Yeah. Just don’t run away, I’d hate to have to spend all afternoon tracking you. Besides, the dungeon at Cardu is uncomfortable.”
I chuckle. She lies: she’d love tracking me, and I don’t doubt she’d be very good at it. She’s probably not lying about the dungeon. I’ll keep my comfortable apartment for the moment, thank you.
I close my eyes as she moves away and the sun warms my face again.
Where was I? Something about the Duke and having no underwear.
Aguirre as a Founding Family is gone with me. We will remain as a memory of something past, like the King’s Table, and we will always be remembered as a Name Among the Stars, for that cannot be erased. I must take my comfort from that.
I’m not marriageable and I don’t want to get married.
I don’t want an affair with the Duke either. Certainly not until I find out more about how his wife died.
The sun has moved. The King’s Table casts a cold shadow over me and I wriggle to get back into the light.
That noise is not the King’s Table.
Eyes blurry with sleep, I surge to my feet.
Rhoswyn’s not here and neither is Talan’s big bay gelding.
Damn the girl!
I know what’s she done. Why didn’t I think about it before?
Hands feverishly flying and upsetting my mare, I release her from the tether and leap onto her back.
She’s not used to that, and I can feel her tense for a buck, but training takes over and instead we bolt around the bulk of the King’s Table with urgency.
Talan’s horse is galloping back up the northern slope, lathered and wild-eyed. His feet barely seem to touch the ground. Rhoswyn is in the saddle, but only just. She’s lost the reins and her left stirrup. She’s gripping the pommel with all her strength and screaming at the top of her lungs. She’s right at the cliff edge, and she’s being chased by a black horse, closer and closer to that edge.
The black horse looks as if it’s flying. The rider is crouched down along the neck, urging it faster and closer to the gelding.
I haven’t a hope of getting there in time to save Rhoswyn’s life.