NEW SERIAL BEGINS – A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 1
Well, here it is. A short (3.8k words) episode that introduces two disruptors to the frantic but blissful life of the new Duchess Aguirre-Tremayne. On a cliffhanger scale of 1-5, where 5 is precipitous, this episode ends on no more than a 3.
I intend to write serials every weekend, and post episodes the following Friday (which gives me a little time to polish if necessary). My weekday work continues to be the Bite Back series, and I’m well into BB6, Inside Straight.
This story begins a couple of months after the conclusion of A Name Among the Stars. (As ever, I don’t spend a lot of time reminding readers what went on before, so if you’ve forgotten what happened, the book’s available on Amazon 🙂 – https://www.amazon.com/dp/B076WZBFVJ/)
Zara feels everything has been set into an appropriate course. She has nothing more to worry about than the duties she’s acquired by marrying into the principle Founding Family of Kernow. She must put aside her worries about her old home world. After all, she lost everything there and stands to gain everything here…
A Threat Among
This is ridiculously stressful.
On the lawn in front of me, a fat bear sings a silly song as he rushes in a circle, keeping a dozen plates spinning, balanced improbably on the tips of poles stuck in the ground. He seems to get later and later: every plate is wobbling more precariously as he reaches it.
The man is dressed as something apparently called a panda; a clownish, black and white Terran bear, that none of the watching children have ever seen before. The sun is strong this afternoon, and he has to be incredibly hot in that suit, but he’s still singing in tune.
Aside from the singing, I’m impressed by his ability to get just one spinning plate to balance on the top of a pole, let alone keeping twelve going at the same time.
To my relief, the children are open-mouthed and completely absorbed, but I have a feeling that what grips them is the eager anticipation of disaster. They won’t blink because they might miss a plate falling and breaking. Or even, oh! what delight, all of them, one after the other.
The skills of singing and plate spinning? I suspect they don’t really think about it. It’s just something children expect an adult dressed as a bear should be able to do. It’s a matter of trust. They trust us—me—to present something that will keep them entertained.
Whatever keeps them happy.
We’re having the party at Pyran Manor. Bleyd and I are living here at the insistence of the owner, Lord Marik Roscarrow, while our own house at Stormhaven Cardu is rebuilt after the Hajnal skimmer attack that destroyed half of it. It’s a kind gesture by our neighbor, and it’s no fault of his that I shiver every time I step into the sunny library where his sister, Lady Emblyn, drugged me and tried to kill me.
Put it all behind.
This afternoon is supposed to be a celebration of the graduation of the older children from their school examinations. No one actually speaks of it, but I see it in all the parents’ eyes; it’s really a celebration of life. Of catching the Hajnal conspiracy before it was too late. The shock has lingered all summer.
How did we let it get so close?
But even that’s not what makes this children’s party stressful for me.
Partly, it’s because of the parents watching me. Evaluating this young adventuress that has suddenly entered their lives as the new duchess, marrying the duke in indecent haste on a spaceship, without pomp or ceremony.
On first meeting, not a few eyes linger on my waist.
It doesn’t help that at least some of those present today last saw me at the Summer Ball, fulfilling my duties as the lowly Dancing Mistress to Duke Bleyd Tremayne’s daughter, Rhoswyn. Saw me and dismissed me as trash, the sort of girl desperate to claw her way up the social ladder by bedding her employer.
And partly, this is stressful because I desperately don’t want my adopted daughters to face this type of ostracization. Their best defense is to make and keep friends of their own ages.
Sitting among the children, my younger adopted daughter gasps and presses her fingers to her mouth as a wobbling plate almost falls, before the panda flicks it with his paw and sets it neatly spinning again. She claps and laughs.
My heart cracks a little at that laugh. I remind myself to go up to the Goddess’ shrine where Hanna, Alexis’ mother, is buried. I’ve missed going all this last week through the pressures of my new position. Hanna would understand, but that’s no excuse.
There are one thousand and one issues screaming for my attention. The management of the estate, the rebuilding of Cardu, the demands of the news media, my introduction to the people of Welarvor, my support for Bleyd in his task of making a robust new structure for Kernow—executive, legislative, judicial.
My husband is a one-man storm, working with the aim of enshrining a system of checks and balances so that, never again will Kernow be vulnerable to the type of attack that so nearly succeeded. I’ve barely seen him since we returned from our appeal to the Terran Council.
Despite all that, I love my new life here on Welarvor. And reunions with my husband make the wait worth while.
But today is about my daughters and their friends.
For this afternoon, I’ve separated Alexis and Rhoswyn to get them to connect better with others. My elder adopted daughter is with her school friends in the swimming pool. I’ve borrowed a low-power acceleration compensator which sits at the bottom of the deep end and is creating a twelve foot tall waterspout in the middle of the pool. It’s something I once saw on my former home world, Newyan. No one has ever seen it done here and it’s a huge hit with the older children.
Score one for Zara, cool mum.
Some of the parents are lingering near the pool, nervously standing on the balls of their feet or clutching their throats in the mistaken impression that it’s dangerous.
Score minus ten for the new duchess.
I can almost hear their whispers: this sort of irresponsible behavior must be a result of her upbringing, if you can call it that, on Newyan.
It would make me laugh, but thinking of Newyan is like a cloud slipping across the face of the sun.
Bleyd tells me we have to leave it to the Terrans. So does Gaude. If we can’t trust Earth, Gaude says confidently, who can we trust?
I try, but I can’t. I know in my bones it’s not going well. After the interminable discussions, there was a time of hope when the Terran Council gave the order to despatch naval ships to every planet where the Hajnal was believed to be active, using a comprehensive list compiled by the Xian Hegemony’s huge trading fleet.
A battleship went immediately to Tavoli, the center of the conspiracy. The case there was unanswerable: Tavoli had sent a ship full of mercenaries to seize Kernow by force. They bombed Cardu and tried to assassinate the duke. They tried to kidnap Rhoswyn.
Terran Marines have now been deployed on Tavoli, and the Terran Council, with the agreement of everyone other than the Hajnal worlds, has taken over the administration of the Tavoli system.
But that was two months ago. Since then, not so much. No news on the departure of the ship detailed to visit Newyan, and what scant information we can get from the planet itself is like a drip of acid on my heart.
Something has gone wrong. I just know it.
Seeing that no one else is talking to me at the moment, and I’m clearly not doing anything important, just watching Alexis and her friends, Gaude makes another attempt to get a decision out of me on something we’ve been arguing about for a week.
My return as Duchess Aguirre-Tremayne has relegated him to my assistant as manager of the Tremayne Estate—no, the Aguirre-Tremayne Estate. It’s difficult to remember to call it that.
Gaude’s still fulfilling his role as adjutant to the duke on military matters, and he’s also general secretary to both of us on political matters.
That’s where he gets his revenge on me for taking over estate management from him.
“It’s absolutely necessary to attend these, Duchess.”
There’s no way I can get him to call me Zara.
“You can’t tell me I have to attend; they’re not state functions, Gaude. It’s not a political matter.”
“But it is, begging your pardon. As I keep saying, full half of politics is conducted at these social gatherings. Decision are made at these gatherings and then merely implemented in parliament.”
And the underlying message, which he would never dare to speak out aloud, is that the former duchess, Keren, failed in these duties. With the implication that it might have contributed to the ease with which the Hajnal conspiracy managed to infiltrate Kernow.
He is clutching a list. It contains twelve invitations for Bleyd and I to attend parties all over Kernow. I know Gaude has refused fifty more, but he’s dug his heels in on these.
And I know he’s right, in theory. The Autumn Season is the most important on the Kernow social calendar. The administration is normally quiescent during this period. There are many social events throughout the year, but the key ones always begin at around this time, and, as Gaude says, the alliances and agreements made at these parties speed the administration’s busy winter.
But this is not any other year. Bleyd has been travelling continuously to every corner of the globe, meeting everyone already. He doesn’t need to add to this.
I have a harvest to manage, funds to raise for rebuilding our house, and daughters at important stages of their personal development to think about.
And, being honest, I love what I’m doing right here as much as I hate social events that are really all about influence and position and politics.
The events Gaude wants me to attend aren’t like this party today. Oh, this is bad enough, but the people here who are giving me the eye? They can go jump in the sea. I don’t care. But I have to impress the powerful people I would meet at the parties on Gaude’s list. If I didn’t, Bleyd’s reformation of the system might become impossible to achieve, and everyone would know whose fault it was.
Attending Gaude’s entire selection of twelve parties would have me rushing from one end of Kernow to another the whole autumn. Expensive dresses would need to be made. Time-consuming fittings. Shoes and bags bought. Never the same outfit. Something would need to be done about my hair. Hotels would need to be booked and vehicles hired. Lists of names and faces would have to be memorized: which people I would have to speak to; what I would need to speak to them about; why it would be so important.
Weeks would be lost to everything else. Something would have to give.
And the elite would be watching me, like the children are watching the bear with his spinning plates: not so much in appreciation of my skills as in the delighted anticipation of disaster.
Rhos comes bounding across from the pool, dripping over everyone, to see if her sister’s all right.
Alexis gives her an enthusiastic hug and chatters excitedly about the bear.
My eyes prickle.
Gaude will no doubt think it’s the pressure getting to me that’s making me cry.
So I finally take a decision that’s been building for days now.
“I tell you what we’re going to do, Gaude.”
“Hmm?” he blinks.
“Using your skill and judgment, pick two of these invitations according to the following conditions: the Founding Family hostesses must be friends of each other and at least neutral to the duke’s political position and my social position.”
He huffs, but provides the names. “Lady Andain and Lady Penrice.”
“Now pick two from outside the Founding Families. Same conditions.”
He frowns and hums a bit. “Mrs Vellacott and Ms Yawlan, both immensely influential in the Free Trade Party. But if you chose just these four invitations, the snub you will deliver to the others, especially the Rydh Party, would be immense. Unwise, in the circumstances.”
“I would not accept an invitation from a group who would sequestrate Founding Family estates as a matter of principle, Gaude.”
The Ryhd are poisonous.
“I understand, but the idea, as I’ve explained, is to get to them now, where they daren’t raise that option, thanks to the roles played by the duke and you against the Hajnal. That ‘glow’ won’t last forever. You must use it while you can.”
“Vey well,” I concede. “Name me one hostess in the Rydh who is reasonably influential within her party, doesn’t foam at the mouth, and is not hard-wired to eliminate the Founding Families rights and dispensations? Oh, and has had no irrevocable falling-out with the other four you’ve named.”
He purses his mouth in thought. “Mrs Lanyon,” he says finally with a sigh. “She’s amicable enough, and both her husband and brother are on the Rydh Executive Committee.”
“Excellent. Write to all five of them and explain that I propose a new custom.”
Gaude’s face had risen on the belief he’d been getting somewhere. Now it falls.
“Explain that Bleyd and I will not be attending individual events, due to the pressures of actually having to work, as well as conduct repairs of damages to Cardu, sustained in the defense of a free Kernow. Explain that it is impossible for us to chose from the many wonderful, wonderful parties on offer this year. Explain that it has also occurred to me that the sheer number and location of them discriminates against those attendees who live far away from the central travel hub of Bason.”
Gaude’s mouth is working, but no sound is coming out, so I continue.
“I propose instead an annual main event, a Harvest Ball, somewhere in or near Bason. We will attend that one event. I propose that the five hostesses you’ve named form the first organisational committee, responsible for everything from the funding to the invitations, and that every year the organizers each nominate three possible successors, and the attendees at the ball elect the next year’s committee. A great honor and privilege, etcetera, etcetera. Be sure to tell them how much I envy them. I trust you as a master of diplomacy to put it better than I could.”
Gaude’s mouth is still opening and closing when Lieutenant Moyle rushes in. Alerted by some sixth sense, Talan appears at my side.
“Duchess, an urgent message from the duke,” Moyle says breathlessly.
My heart skips a beat, and he must see my face go pale. An attack?
“Nothing like that,” he says quickly. “A Terran warship transitioned at the planar zenith an hour ago. It’s the TSS Annan, inbound at speed. They messaged an urgent request for a meeting with you and the Duke at the Skyhook in Bason.”
“The Annan? You’re sure?”
He doesn’t need to say any more. Of course I picked the name out of the list when the Terran Council announced their strategy of despatching a naval ship to every planet known to have been touched by the Hajnal. The Annan was the light cruiser that had been selected to visit Newyan.
What are they doing here?
What the nova has happened?
One frantic day later, early in the morning, I’m prepping the twin engine Ariel for the flight to Bason.
Luckily, Bleyd has hired a larger, faster aircraft to get him and his staff to the four corners of the globe, leaving this one for me.
I’ll meet my husband at Bason airfield, and then we’ll take a taxi to the Skyhook, where the captain of the TSS Annan and his ‘staff’ will meet us, according to their message. ‘Staff’ and not crew? What does that mean? It suggests the captain has a diplomatic mission rather than a military one.
Nothing I can deduce by worrying. Meantime…
Never hurry a pre-flight inspection. Never get distracted.
I can hear my old flying instructors even now.
I have sent Gaude and everybody else to stand twenty yards away while I go through my checks. Pushing the mental distractions away is harder. The forthcoming meeting, incomplete projects and untaken decisions chatter away in my mind. However hard I’ve been working, there always seems to be more to do the next day. And I’m leaving the girls behind for this trip.
I’m taking Talan. Bleyd would want me to take Moyle as well. According to my husband, I should have an escort of two at all times. But Moyle is Rhoswyn’s favorite and I need to trust the person I leave the girls with. He’ll spoil them terribly and I’ll have to deal with that when I get back. That feels acceptable.
I trust Gaude as well, of course, but he’s going to be too busy to spend time with them.
I’m also taking Hwa to Bason. Her decision. She just said she needed to be with me on this trip. She has a way of saying things sometimes; it’s like she gets an extra depth to her eyes which draws you in and reminds you that she’s not entirely human. That behind those eyes hovers a strange space where a pseudo-organic quantum state computer houses the person I think of as Hwa. The person who shared my mind.
I shake the thoughts off and complete the inspection.
As soon as I move away from the aircraft, Gaude is back at my side.
There are seven or eight contracts on his infopad. I’m the one responsible. I should review them all, I want to, but if I do, I’ll have to delay the take-off and miss my timed slot to land at the busy Bason airport. As it is, I’ll have barely enough time to meet Bleyd and get to the Skyhook.
And I do trust Gaude, however much we disagree.
Sighing, I call up the witness app and ID myself. As soon as the verification response is made, I tap each contract and press my thumb on the screen in the requested places.
“Done.” I hand the infopad back. “How’s the reaction to the Harvest Ball proposal?”
“Much better than anticipated,” he says reluctantly.
I suppress a smile. Sometimes what it needs is a bull in a china shop to break a hated tradition. There’s a good chance everyone has been fed up with rushing around all over the planet every autumn.
“It may require the event to be held over an entire weekend,” he says. “There’s just not enough time—”
“That’s acceptable. Well done, Gaude.”
I turn to say goodbye to a solemn Rhoswyn and Alexis, gathering them into my arms.
I get about half way through my list of things they have to promise not to do while I’m away when I feel Talan and Moyle suddenly go tense.
The airfield is on a ridge. The approach road comes up a slope and there’s a man riding a horse along that at a flat-out gallop.
Talan is the first to recognize him and replaces her hand cannon back in its holster, to Rhos’ immense disappointment.
“It’s Warwick,” Talan says. “Haven’t seen him riding for ages. Certainly not like that. Wonder what’s put a thorn under his… er… pillow.”
Rhos smirks at the last minute change of phrase.
When he reaches us, Moyle takes the horse’s bridle as Warwick slides off. The owner of the The Spyglass, the inn that is the center point of the village of Stormhaven, looks hot and flustered.
“Begging your pardon, my lady.” Warwick tries not to bob his head in a little bow. I’ve had to tell him not to. “Only, it’s very urgent and for your ears only. That’s to say you and Miss Hwa.”
I let him usher Hwa and me away from the others. Talan follows.
“If you call me your lady again, you will end up in the harbor next Feast Day, Warwick.”
“Expect I will anyway, my— I mean, Mrs Aguirre-Tremayne.” He half smiles. Mayors and publicans are almost always thrown into the harbor as part of the Feast Day fun.
“Zara, for the Goddess’ sake, Warwick,” I say. “Zara. You called Keren by her name, didn’t you?”
“I did that,” he says, looking down. The late duchess was here for sixteen years or so, and I’ve just arrived. It’ll take time. “I’ll try.”
“Anyway, anything that’s for me will have to be for Talan as well. Can’t seem to get rid of the woman.”
Warwick exchanges another quick half-smile with Talan. She’s a local girl. He’s know her since she was in school, and I can’t think of what secret news he’d have that I couldn’t share with her.
“That’s as may be good,” he mutters, his local Arvish way of speaking coming to the fore.
He’s sweating and visibly unsure how to word this news to me.
“I had a visitor, this morning,” he says in a rush. “You folks up at Cardu probably don’t hear much of her. Was Morgen Golan. She’s Stormhaven’s Morrach.”
Talan stiffens. The title Morrach means nothing to me, but Golan is the local word for seagull and it has the feel of a title rather than a surname.
“Morgen the Seagull,” Talan says in confirmation.
“The Voice on the Wind.” Warwick nods and I can see the hairs on his arms stand up.
I shiver a little in premonition of what I suspect is coming. My language lessons in the old Cornish dialects of Kernow tell me that morrach means something to do with the sea. A lot around here has something to do with the sea.
“She’s Stormhaven’s sea-something?” I prompt.
Warwick’s eyes get a little shifty and he mumbles.
“Witch,” Talan says. “Morrach means sea-witch. Every fishing village has one. They warn of storms and bad fishing days.”
All towns and villages on this coast have fishing fleets, and despite the insistence on low-tech solutions that characterize this whole world, every sizeable boat has a radio, and every sea has weather satellites watching it. Storm warnings are passed up and down the coast from harbor master to harbor master, boat to boat. The storms that come off the Great Western Ocean are not to be taken lightly.
But even in the brief time I’ve lived here, I’ve realized that much more is going on than appears at first. People on the coast know what’s happening in the sea before the satellites do. To an outsider who questions it, locals smile and say they hear voices on the wind, the golan; calling, warning them.
It doesn’t surprise me that the ‘golan’ might be humans who speak with the race that live in the sea.
I know that things pass from the land to the sea, and from the sea to the land.
Morrohow is the name they use here for the gifts of the great sea. I am one such. I was dying, drowning. But a darkness that seemed as vast as the sky raised me up, carried me and left me in the bay, where Warwick knew to look for me.
“You sent them a message,” Warwick says.
I did. He was the one who advised me on it. A basket filled with the fruits of the land and two corn dolls, to represent thanks for two gifts that the sea gave. One for me, who lived. One for Keren, who died.
“They’ve sent a message back,” he goes on, his voice low and hoarse with awe. “Through the Golan. They’re saying you must go talk to them straight ’way. You and Miss Hwa.”