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/

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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.

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About Mark Henwick

I was born in Africa and left out in the sun too often. An early interest in philosophy and psychology was adequately exorcised by tending bars. And while trying to enroll in a class to read Science Fiction full time, I ended up taking an engineering degree which splendidly qualified me to move into marketing. That in turn spawned a late onset career in creative writing. When not working, I get high by the slightly less conventional means of a small light aircraft. My first book, 'Sleight of Hand' is available on Amazon at http://amzn.to/Sa0D3n

17 responses to “Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adv/Rom – Episode 12”

  1. sarah says :

    Great storry!
    It was also very funny fore me because I was drinking a glas of water and a glas of wine while reading this chapter -would not even think that this could be strange since it is a quite common combination in my home country -especially on hot summer days

    • Mark Henwick says :

      Ah, yes. Not the clearest explanation in this chapter.

      Yes, I drink water alongside wine, and we also put water in wine here, too. And don’t tell anyone, but sometimes in summer, I put ice cubes in white or rose wine.

      The picture I was trying to build up is the strangeness of the duchess sitting on the deck popping pills and washing them down with wine and then deciding she needed water as well. Drinking water alongside wine is supposed to balance and dilute the intake of alcohol and keep you hydrated. Why would she worry if she’s trying to kill herself?

      I will probably redraft this chapter in the final novel.

  2. Michael Orton says :

    Well that makes a different location for the locked room murder mystery.

    Thinking time for this I think.

  3. Ric says :

    After a promising start, the story seems to be getting slower and slower. I think you need to speed the action up a bit or readers will lose interest.

    • Mark Henwick says :

      It does get slower, but I think that’s partly because it’s a weekly serial. It’s only a couple of chapters since Rhoswyn was falling off a cliff, and this episode was supposed to end on a cliffhanger as well, but I ran out of time. I really don’t think that as a novel, it will seem slow, but we will see.

      This story is a bit long for weekly serialisation – the format seems better suited to novellas like Change of Regime, or simpler single-threaded tales.

  4. Justin Savely says :

    I am going with my gut and saying a friend or employee killed her. But I hope not, Mark rarely goes for 1st path.

  5. Sarah L says :

    So many questions! However I’m loving the mystery and the pondering about how it is all going to turn out. My theory on the murder – it wasn’t the Duke, that’s all i’ve got so far! Actually I also think it was someone who knew her and it was done by stealth or bribery. I think someone from the conspirators camp is within the Duke’s stronghold, but who? My biggest question at this point is possibly why (what with the info hub technology) with Zara using her own name, she hasn’t been outed as a murderer/the general bad guy. Or this an ace in the hole that the conspirators have got to use against her? Maybe they’ll try and murder her along with the Tremaynes and go for a 2 for 1 🙂 These are my ramblings! I like to ramble, it’s what good stories make me do.

    • Mark Henwick says :

      Okay, it’s not the Duke. It’s the person you’re not looking at, though you might look at them if you catch the clues as they fall…

      The information question:
      The InfoHub in the future is a strange thing – on each planet, it’s as quick as the internet is here on Earth. Between planets, it is dependent on shuttle drones which go back and forth between planets. Each time a drone visits a planet, its data storage is taken mainly by inter-government, military and major commercial subscribers. Individuals or local businesses enter data or searches into a broking system which bids for any spare space in the drone’s capacity – so very limited and subject to delays.
      Newyan has a delegation on Amethys, but they’re not part of the Newyan plot. So if the conspirators just tried to order the delegation to apprehend Zara, questions might be asked which would be difficult to answer. However, as Shohwa-nia has spotted, the Newyan conspiracy is actually part of a conspiracy on several planets, so the conspirators on Amethys do know about Zara and intend to do something…

      • Sarah L says :

        Aha! Interesting, I see how the infohub works now. Looking forward to more.

      • Robert says :

        I agree that it’s not really slow. In fact I’d like it slowed down even more in some ways. Perhaps not in terms of the action or scenes, but in terms of the description and Zara’s internal monologue, (although from the sound of it, you do intend to flesh it out prior to publication).

        The fact that you say it’s the person we’re not looking at implies to me we’ve already been introduce to the murder. Obviously it can’t be (as you’ve confirmed) the romantic hero (i.e. the Duke). So I’d guess Gaude, or Talan. Or possibly Esterhauze if she was somehow in situ beforehand.
        Gaude is a worm (as you confirm below0 … but so much so, that maybe he’s too obvious. Talan .. would be sad, I’d hope she was blackmailed into doing it. If it was Hanna … I’d guess that someone has her daughter stashed away and she’s already being blackmailed into being a spy for the conspiracy.

  6. Sarah L says :

    Also must be a strange experience for you Mark to have us all commenting and having theories ‘whilst’ you’re writing and not after! How are you finding it? Does it add to the process?

  7. Vroni says :

    I still do not like Gaude. He is in an important Position, but security is lacking…and he is Trusted, likes Hanna, knows whatever is spoken on the Scanner, etc. But I am probably wrong as usual.
    Next chapters, Please?

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