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Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adv/Rom – Episode 11

3k words in this episode + lots of feels.

47k words in total so far.

I’m having a sketch made of Zara, which I hope to post next week, but in terms of progress, I am singularly failing to get ahead of the story, despite planning to be ready to publish when I reach the 3/4 point.

On minor notes, I’ve seen that having ‘standardized’ on metric measurements, I’ve broken the rule and used imperial for the height of people. I could argue it either way I guess. Zara is 172cm, but I’m old-fashioned enough to feel much more comfortable saying five-eight. I also have used Welarvor and Welarvon as the name of the coast.

Where did we leave it last time? Zara feeling neither ‘on’ the team, not exactly dismissed from it. What will she do? What will the conspirators on Newyan do? Is Esterhauze too good to be true? Did the Duchess really commit suicide? What will Rhoswyn think about having Dancing Mistresses around for the summer? Can the young lady be ‘civilized’ in time for the Summer Ball? And what will Zara wear?

Feedback welcome. The beginning of summer has seen a dip in vistors to the blog site, but there are loads of readers who haven’t said anything yet…

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Chapter 24

 

I sleep poorly, skimming nightmares where I’m locked in unwinnable battles with untouchable enemies.

 

Talan, Esterhauze and I had spent the evening together after leaving the Duke. The kitchen in the new suite was well stocked and I’d suggested we make ourselves dinner.

The others agreed, Talan adding it would be a good chance to get to know each other.

I knew more about Talan, but both Esterhauze and I had steered the conversation away from personal information. Instead, we’d talked about the reasoning behind the Duke’s strategy and what we were going to do with Rhoswyn, who was having dinner with her father. She’d be staying in the family’s rooms while her father was at the fort.

I wouldn’t be teaching her riding, given Esterhauze and Talan’s abilities. They’d agreed my plan of using flying lessons as an incentive for academic work. Esterhauze had offered to take the bulk of actual dancing instruction and etiquette in preparation for the Summer Ball, to my relief. I’d taken estate management training. We’d deferred allocating martial arts and more academic work until we could assess what was needed.

A satisfactory exchange on one level, but at the end, I knew almost nothing more about Esterhauze. In fairness, I’d been as reticient as she had.

It wasn’t surprising that worrying about how to deal with the truth about my position was one of the things that kept me from the kind of sleep I needed.

 

It’s still not dawn when surreptitious footsteps pass my door.

I get up and peer out, just catching the main door to the suite closing. Esterhauze’s bedroom door is open.

She’s probably entitled to be as sleepless as I am. And more entitled to explore Cardu. I’m supposed to have Talan with me at all times as part of the requirements of my ongoing arrest.

I decide I’m not going to wake Talan. I quickly get dressed in what has become my uniform and slip out of the suite to see where Esterhauze is off to this early.

There’s no sign of her in the main halls, dining room or exercise areas, and I soon realize that hunting for someone in the fort is pointless. I simply don’t know the layout well enough and I can’t guess where she might have gone.

I give up, frustrated, when I find myself at the main gate.

There is something I can usefully do while I’m here: the Goddess’ local Shrine is close by and I’m overdue a visit.

The gate is manned, but they haven’t been given orders to stop me. I sign out and tell them where I’m going. They give me instructions to the grove.

The path is easy to find in the growing light of pre-dawn, and it turns out the Lady’s Shrine is no more than an eight minute walk from the gate.

It’s surrounded by trees, as all Shrines are, but whereas the general layout is common, the actual construction itself is left to the local Priestesses, and these Priestesses have been touched by the Goddess; I’ve never seen a more beautiful Shrine.

It is surrounded by well-tended gardens, and a soaring white roof protects the Shrine itself from the elements. That roof is in the shape of a shell—a scallop shell, like a great curved and rippled fan, held up over the Shrine by tall, smooth columns. The Shrine’s sides are open; protected from the wind only by a thick, well-trimmed hedge and the depth of the woods.

Underneath that floating roof, the heart of the Shrine is laid out in rising concentric circles, flagged with polished quartz and warm pastel sandstone. The innermost two circles, comprising the whole nave and the supplicant’s dais, are held within the apse—a three-quarter circular screen wall that is four meters high in the middle and tapers down to hip level at the two ends. The sweep of the apse represents the Goddess’ arms enfolding the congregation. It’s a brilliant white, made of some nanotech material that absorbs sound, so it’s not until I’m nearly at the entrance that I hear the woman inside.

She is in the very middle, on the supplicants’ dais.

The priestesses say supplicants should stand, or sit, or kneel, as suits the heart and mood. The Goddess knows your heart, they say. She knows, and She will hear.

This supplicant is prostrate on the dais, her arms flung out, a heart-jolting image of grief and despair.

I jerk back out of sight, my cheeks burning with shame at intruding on such a profound, private moment.

However, I’m not quite quick enough; I can’t help but overhear a few words.

It shocks me to my core to realize it’s Esterhauze, and she’s sobbing.

“Not for me, Lady. I can ask nothing for me. For her. Let it be as…”

The wall of the apse mutes the sound until the words are unintelligible. I run silently until the tallest section of the apse rises between me and her. Even though it’s over twice my height there, I crouch down, as if to hide. I want to bury my face in my hands, or cover my ears. I can make out no words, but what sound remains carries a sense of overwhelming distress.

I should just leave and return another time. If it was someone else, I would already be half way back to the fort. Hearing her grief is making my stomach churn.

And yet, and yet…what does that beautiful, well-schooled face hide, that she comes here alone and cries out to the Goddess in such pain?

A memory floats up. To be wounded, my Grandfather says, is to give your enemies a way to break you. Offer no weakness; suffer no wound.

I can’t remember what had brought that lecture on, but behind those words, I’d known he was thinking of my parents. Love is an opening, he’d said many times to me. An opening is a weakness.

A tear falls. For me, my family or in sympathy for Esterhauze, I can’t tell.

A minute passes. Two. The Shrine falls silent.

I creep my way along the screen of the apse until I can see that the dais is empty, and I walk inside, glancing around shame-faced, as I do. I’m still alone, but the dawn is close, and the priestesses will be here soon.

The inner wall of the apse bears representations of the Goddess in her many forms. These are paintings, hung and moved and replaced on some rotation devised by the priestesses. There are four paintings showing in the gentle light of night lamps left for that purpose.

I know them well: Bounty, Nuture, Courage and Sorrow.

The dais is round, it faces no one representation of the Goddess, but Esterhauze had lain with her head towards an image of the Goddess in chains.

Our Lady of Sorrows.

I kneel on the dais and stretch out my hand tentatively.

Where her face had rested, I can still feel the wetness of her tears on the stone.

I wipe my hand guiltily. I’m no expert on the higher theological concepts, but I belatedly think the tears form an offering and that makes my touching them a sacrilege.

The Goddess knows your heart.

I sigh, and shuffle until I face Courage, the manifestation of the Lady I believe I most need, but my shame at spying on Esterhauze fights with my growing worries, and I cannot open myself to the presence of the Goddess.

The moment seems to have slipped away from me. I offer up an apology and walk back the way I came, meeting the priestesses as they arrive. They smile and greet me without pressing themselves on me, for which I’m grateful.

Esterhauze is long gone, but there is one other figure present.

It’s Moyle, the trooper who came flying with me. His uniform is protected by coveralls while he kneels in one of the gardens and weeds around the flowers.

It’s clear his presence does not surprise the priestesses, and they make no move to talk to him. His head is bowed, and he doesn’t see me. I can’t be sure from a distance, but there’s a sense of deep sorrow in his posture. A sense that his work is a form of prayer.

There’s a small printed notice on the way out. It acknowledges the gardens were designed, laid out and maintained personally by Duchess Tremayne during her life, and are now kept in her memory. There’s an image of her in the garden. It somehow sums up a feeling I have about the way the people on this coast are—she’s not cutting a ribbon to declare the gardens open, she’s planting flowers; actually making the garden. It’s no token effort either. From the look of the line of sacks behind her, she started the row and intends to finish the whole bed. Her hands are muddy, there’s a streak on her forehead where she’s pushed her hair out of her face, and she’s laughing.

I can see her daughter in her.

I’m reminded that Moyle and Talan went very quiet when I asked about the Duchess’ death. Neither said suicide, even if their own corps’ investigation concluded that.

More secrets and sorrows than mine weave their way through the heart of Cardu, the dark fortress.

 

Chapter 25

 

Esterhauze is back in the suite, cooking us omlettes for breakfast, clear-eyed and smiling, as if nothing had happened this morning.

Talan is up, looking rumpled and giving me the eye, but she doesn’t take me to task for going out. I’m getting a lot of leeway from her, and I need to be careful. I have a feeling her patience with me will not be stretched beyond a certain point.

“That’s so thoughtful, thank you, Hanna,” I say.

I’m still wary of her, but for some reason, I can’t call her Esterhauze; not after witnessing her grief. It’s the first time I have used her given name.

I’m half turned away, washing the bowl she used for the eggs, and I feel those grey eyes on me.

“It’s my pleasure, Zara,” she replies.

Rhoswyn arrives as we sit down at table. She’s surprised that Hanna has cooked, and that there is some for her. It would seem none of the Dancing Mistresses who’ve preceeded us ever made any kind of effort.

The girl is conflicted. It shows in her expression and the suppression of her natural vivaciousness. That is, along with being typically early-morning teen—grumpy and sleepy. I suspect she’s only here this early because the Duke got her up.

I know what’s going through her mind. Rhoswyn thinks I’m cool because I’m a hardened criminal in her eyes, still under arrest and I can fly. Hanna’s cool because she saved Rhoswyn’s life and is such an excellent rider. And yet, we’re both hated Dancing Mistresses. We hold the threat of a summertime of boredom over her head, not to mention becoming competitors for her father’s affections.

Both Hanna and I see it, but I beat her to suggesting the first step to overcoming it.

“There’s a troopers’ training session this morning,” I say casually. “I’d like us to attend.”

“Why?” Rhoswyn says warily, and blinks. “What kind of training?”

“It’s hand-to-hand combat techniques, and I want to see what style they use.”

Rhoswyn’s eyes narrow suspiciously. The Duke evidentally has not told her that her curriculum is being expanded. I like it that he’s left it to us.

“Your curriculum for the summer will include basic martial arts,” I say, and her eyes widen.

Maybe the poor girl thought we’d tie her to a chair and shout mathematical formulae at her all day.

“And without getting too carried away, I would like to suggest a dance lesson this afternoon,” Hanna says. “Tomorrow, we can all review indoor subjects in the morning, then you could give us a tour of the estate in the afternoon.”

I know she’ll enjoy doing that.

This is perfect. Little by little, we’ll unpick Rhoswyn’s wariness and have her achieving her potential in no time.

I find I’m looking forward to this.

 

The training session is daunting.

Talan tells me that there is no rule saying that the Welarvor Mounted Police have to be over six foot tall like her and the Duke, but most of them are just that; big, raw-boned men and women.

I’m by no means small at five-eight, but a roomful of large troops is intimidating.

With Rhoswyn and the others right behind me, I can’t let it show, so I perform my bow on entering the dojo, take off my shoes, and then walk the way my old sensei used to walk; like I owned the place.

I’m not in gi, I’m in Danny’s old discards, well washed but still with a faint smell of bale-fruit brandy. The sensei looks me over as I describe what we’re here for and motions me to join the line.

“Best way to find out what we do and how we do it,” he says.

Talan is in her gi, and also takes her place in the line. Rhoswyn and Hanna sit on the side and watch.

I want to spar against Hanna, but maybe that will have to wait.

Also watching from the side is the Duke’s red-haired security advisor, the man who was with us last night on the storm porch and after. Talan’s told me his name is Pollard. He’s new, six months into the job, and a recommendation from some association of estates. Talan doesn’t like him, but I think that might simply be a suspicion about newcomers. Certainly Pollard seems suspicious of the newest newcomers, those being Hanna and me. I’m pretty sure I know who searched through my duffle.

Concentrate.

The class starts with loosening up, some strength exercises, some basic forms. It turns out that the sensei is drilling the troops in basic ju-jitsu. It’s a sound foundation. These troops will normally be armed, and the kind of martial arts they need complement that: how to deal with an attacker when you’ve been disarmed, or how to disable an attacker using non-lethal force.

I quickly decide that little of this is useful for Rhoswyn. I have no time to make her into a leaping, kicking warrior either—she just doesn’t have the size and strength yet. And it shouldn’t be what she needs anyway; she should always have help at hand. What she does need is the ability to buy time, to escape from holds, or evade holds. Add in a couple of throws using an opponent’s weight against him and one or two easy disabling kicks.

“Pair off,” the sensei calls.

So what I need to teach Rhoswyn is the core of what Bernard was teaching me while we sparred on the Shohwa—the art of being not there, as I thought of it. Bernard would make a perfect sensei for Rhoswyn, but as I’m the one here, I better practice what I’m going to teach.

My partner grins confidently at me. She’s almost as tall as Talan and looks every bit as strong. I do not want to grapple with her.

She makes to grip me like we were going to practice throws. I have no intention of being used as a dummy, so I slap her hands away and let off a kick and punch combination before stepping back out of the way of her response. We’re not wearing protection, so I held the blows back, not landing them, but she knows I could have in a real fight. She scowls and comes after me. I spin, getting on the outside of her arms and jabbing at her ribs and kidneys as she passes, stopping just short of contact each time.

Three or four minutes later the sensei calls a halt to swap partners.

My opponent is red-faced and angry. What she thought would be an easy sparring session turned out to be anything but, and she probably feels foolish at not being able to close with me.

Then her face clears. She laughs and bows.

“You’re quick,” she says. “Have to teach me those moves,”

“Glad to.” I return the bow.

We change partners. And again. And again. Inevitably, I get caught a couple of times and make the close acquaintance of the mats.

Then it’s the sensei standing opposite me and bowing as my new opponent.

Oops.

It seems I’ve drawn attention to myself.

Five painful minutes later, we stop sparring.

“Most interesting,” the sensei says after the concluding bow. “We would be honored if you continued to practice with us. These moves are useful.”

Nice of him to say it. Useful, but not perfect against someone as quick as he is.

The session is split up. Gi are supplied for me, Rhoswyn and Hanna. Talan and the sensei join us and discuss my plans and possible training regimes while the rest of the class continues.

Rhoswyn is a bit embarassed at being the center of our attention, but she really likes the idea of training, even when it’s pointed out that it might be early in the morning.

I catch her practicing my I-own-the-room swagger.

“You need to earn that,” I say, and she nods and giggles.

I guess these Dancing Mistresses are turning out more fun than she expected.

Keeping our group separate, we go through some stretching and strengthening exercises, some basic moves, and then, at the end, we take turns sparring with each other.

I can catch her easily, but Rhoswyn’s well suited to the style I’m proposing. She’s quick and slippery as an eel.

Give me six months, I’m thinking, but I haven’t got six months. I wonder if I’ve even got six weeks.

 

 

 

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Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adv/Rom – Episode 10

Gosh, that week rushed by and another episode is due…

This episode feels as if it will need more polishing. What do you think?

LINKS
This section continues directly after:
https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/07/01/zara-a-name-among-the-stars-scifi-advrom-episode-9/

And please copy the link for the start of the series as widely as possible:
https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/05/28/zara-episode-2/

Thanks! Enjoy!

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Chapter 22

 

I’m screaming in despair. Far behind me, running down the hill, Talan is screaming too.

As if the sounds themselves would save Rhoswyn.

The two horses are almost touching, as they race along the edge of the cliff.

Talan’s gelding senses the other closing, swerves so that Rhoswyn almost falls off. His hooves lash out, even as he’s galloping.

My heart stutters, but that swerve takes the gelding precious inches away from the edge.

But kicking back also slows the gelding, and the black horse doesn’t pause.

“No!” I shout.

The black horse gathers itself and surges forward. It’s a display of unbelievable horsemanship and, I realize, incredible bravery. The rider forces the black horse into the narrow gap between the panicked gelding and the crumbling cliff edge, then uses her horse to force the gelding to turn in, back towards the wide spaces in front of the King’s Table.

The gelding slows a little, wild-eyed, tossing his head, and the rider reaches out between the horses and grabs the floating reins.

The gelding snorts and tries to turn away.

She hauls him back, urges her horse alongside, not letting him get his backside around to try kicking again. The gelding crabs and slows.

I’m there, and he recognises my mare approaching.

We meet in the middle of the field and he’s high-stepping, not galloping, his eyes still wide, his flanks heaving and sweating while he stamps and snorts to a standstill.

I leap off and catch Rhoswyn as she slides down from the saddle. I’m shaking with relief and Rhoswyn is limp as a rag doll.

“I’m sorry,” she sobs. “I’m sorry.”

I simply hold her. There are plenty of people who’ll yell at her for today’s prank.

The rider of the black horse dismounts with a flourish and pulls her hat back, freeing a torrent of blonde hair to unravel down her back.

“Oh, dear,” she says, shaking her head sadly, as if her ruined hairstyle was so very important. “Worked it’s way loose again. Are you all right?”

“She will be,” I reply. “Thank you. That was very brave, Miss Esterhauze, and very skillful.”

She smiles. “Not a little luck was involved. Miss Aguirre, I believe?”

She peels off a riding glove and we shake hands while taking stock of each other.

The video conference image did her no justice. It fails to convey her sense of presence. To balance that, I tell myself, it also took 10 years off her age.

The handshake is firm, cool. I imagine I can feel the after-tremors of adrenaline.

But the eyes! Those grey, grey eyes are weighing, watching. A very private person, Hanna Esterhauze, behind her well-schooled face. A woman who has faced hard decisions and lives with the ones she has made.

“And it was partly my fault,” she says. “I startled them on the path.”

Talan arrives at a sprint, as spooked as her gelding had been. Seeing Rhoswyn in my arms, she mutely hugs the pair of us and then attends to her horse.

I make introductions, watching those eyes: “It may come as a shock to you,” I say, “but the young lady you’ve saved is none other than Rhoswyn Tremayne.”

“Oh! How extraordinary,” she replies. “I am delighted to meet you, Lady Tremayne. Hanna Esterhauze.”

She knew who Rhoswyn was before I said anything. I see this and I start to wonder about Hanna Esterhauze.

“Just Rhos,” Rhoswyn says, her voice still shakey. But she remembers her manners, even after what has just happened. “Thank you, Miss Esterhauze. You saved my life.”

“Not your horse, I see,” Esterhauze says to Rhoswyn while watching Talan soothe the gelding. “A cavalry animal. Whatever possessed you to try riding him?”

Rhoswyn licks her lips. She seems unsure what to say to two people she barely knows and who are both the hated Dancing Mistress, but what she does decide to say has the ring of truth to it.

“I can’t become a better rider if I get given easy horses all the time.”

Again, the desperate desire to do everything now. Couple that with a desire to win her father’s notice, let alone admiration, by being able to do things he’s good at…

Explosive mix for a young girl.

Esterhauze’s grey eyes rest on me and there’s a moment of understanding.

We can see so much of what Rhoswyn needs, and yet we both know we’re not here for the length of time necessary to achieve it.

Perhaps I have misjudged Esterhauze. Having just mentally castigated Rhoswyn for being too hasty, maybe I should be more measured in forming an opinion of other people.

Rhoswyn frees herself from my arms.

“Maybe we shouldn’t say anything…” She stops, looking uncomfortable.

“No, Rhos,” I say, and Esterhauze gives a brisk nod of agreement.

Of course, telling the Duke what happened doesn’t put her in a bad light at all.

Talan seals it: “I was on the comms when I saw what was happening,” she says. “I have to report now.”

We return with the horses to the statues while Talan scrambles back up the hill to get a good enough signal to say everything’s turned out okay.

“Well, I see I must come back to the King’s Table another time,” Esterhauze says as she wanders in and out of the statues. “I trust not immediately.”

It’s unlikely. She’s the only one to come out of this afternoon with any credit. The Duke is hardly going to throw her out. Talan and I have more to concern us.

Esterhauze unhitches her horse from the tether.

“I need to retrieve my pack horse,” she says. “I do hope he’s not wandered too far.”

I arrived here stumbling along the Coastal Path, carrying my world on my back like a tortoise. She’s made a grand entrance and apparently has two horses, one just to carry her luggage. I’m starting to feel outclassed.

 

Half an hour later and a little further along the Coast Path, the three of us meet Esterhauze again, leading her pack horse.

Her luggage comprises three large cases. It’s not surprising her pack horse didn’t bother to go far.

We turn south. Talan and I are silent. Esterhauze talks to Rhoswyn about the statues and the history of the area, subtly getting a good appreciation of the girl.

After an hour or so on the trial I see a small troop of the Mounted Police making good time toward us. The Duke is in the front.

“Let me go ahead,” Rhoswyn says.

Talan nods and Rhoswyn gets her mare to canter.

She and the Duke meet half way, sliding down from their horses. He hugs her.

No shouting.

No, and no need to come all the way out. Talan had reported what had happened. The Duke just wanted to comfort his daughter, and maybe convince himself that she was all right.

So… not as emotionally isolated as he likes to appear. Not a charismatic psychopath, either. Which leaves my questions over the death of the Duchess still floating like the seabirds above us, riding the updraft from the cliff.

Why do I bother?

I’m a weakness his enemies in the media are exploiting, and far from being the Dancing Mistress his daughter needs, I nearly let her die on the rocks.

If I’m lucky, I’ll have a few weeks here to try and find another job. If I’m unlucky, maybe Warwick won’t mind me sleeping in the barn behind the inn again tonght.

I could walk to Bandry th next day and find some temporary work while I make wider enquiries.

In terms of Newyan and the possibility that the conspirators will send someone out to kill me, both opions are about equal. Here, in Stormhaven, Newyan knows where I am, but strangers will stand out. On the other hand, if I leave and work a string of jobs for cash, it’ll be difficult to trace me.

Of course, there is still the matter of turning up for the court case to dismiss the ridiculous charges against me. Or not dismissing them…

The Duke and Rhoswyn mount back up as we reach them.

His face is once again a complete mask, but he’s civil to all of us and thanks Esterhauze warmly.

“We need to return to Stormhaven with haste,” he says, speaking to Esterhauze and me. “This evening, you will experience a rite of passage for visitors to this coast: a full-blown storm from the deep ocean.”

We look out to the west, where the sea is placid under the afternoon sun and the wide horizon is innocent of clouds.

He sees our scepticism and that scar on his cheek twitches.

“We will meet on my storm porch and afterwards, discuss this afternoon’s events.”

We ride. Whatever we think about the storm approaching, the troopers certainly want to be back home, and so do their horses.

 

Chapter 23

 

Evening seems to be rushing upon us when Esterhauze, Talan and I meet at the door of the stairs to the Duke’s storm porch.

There’s a chill in the air, a sharp, clean smell of the sea and a prickly quiet in the fort.

Esterhauze has taken the time to bathe and change into a dark blue dress. She’s braided and wound her hair into a knot. If there was an illustration of what a Dancing Mistress should look like when formally meeting her prospective employer, they could use a picture of Esterhauze.

Talan’s in her dark green, off-duty uniform. Starched and pressed and nervous.

My duffle bag has been found, Talan assures me, but she can’t discover who has it. For want of options, I’m back in my outdated naval uniform, with a fresh, clean shirt from the closet. Yesterday’s underwear has dried and is back in service.

I lead the way up the stairs.

The storm porch is just that; an enclosed platform to watch ocean storms. The layout is long and narrow, and the entire wall facing the ocean is glass. We’re on the west side of the castle, so there’s nothing but that glass between us and the wide expanse of the ocean. The room curves slightly. The design makes me think it was modelled on a ship’s bridge.

There are chairs facing the window. The Duke is sitting in one of them, with a comms system that would put a spaceship to shame beside him.

Behind him, watching all of us, is a pale, red-headed man in a dark suit.

The Duke is speaking on the comms and waves us to chairs.

I look out and see that it’s not so much the evening that has rushed onto us but the darkness of the incoming storm. The horizon has disappeared. It looks as if the sea itself has risen up into the sky, where it has become purple and black, and it rolls toward us menacingly.

It draws the eye, but I keep listening to the Duke.

He’s communicating with harbor masters up and down the entire coast, checking the fishing fleets are safe.

The fleets are. They all have sophisticated radios and when the storm turned toward the coast, they all knew within a short time. As old-fashioned as they seem to be in the villages, they have satellites and weather surveillance.

There are smaller boats still unaccounted for. These are mainly ‘creelers’ – open boats that check seafloor traps for crustaceans. I’ve seen the pictures of the nightmarish creatures they catch—those images stirred inexplicable racial memories of vicious aliens that wrap themselves around your face. The InfoHub has assured me that humanity has never found such a creature, but we all know they’re out there somewhere, waiting.

However, the ones here on Amethys, once you’ve shattered their exoskeletons and baked them, have tasty flesh.

Creelers have handheld radios with bad reception at best, but what’s worse is they’re generally crewed by youngsters with more courage than sense.

We sit in silence, caught up in the drama, our eyes fixed on the approaching front and ears straining to hear the calls from harbor masters.

There are troopers all along the coast, hunting for any sight of the creelers and calling them on their handheld comms. Gradually, one after another of them reports a safe boat, usually pulled high onto a beach and turned over to provide protection. I recognise Moyle’s voice, calling in. He’s down on the shore below us somewhere. There’s a last creeler missing. It’s from Stormhaven Wyck, with a couple of fifteen year-olds on board.

The comms deteriorates, voices disappearing into a hiss of electrical interference.

Although it’s still early evening, we’re sitting in full darkness. Within the storm there are lightning strikes, but they seem a long way away, just enough to show the onrushing shape of the cloud wall, a wall that reaches from the ocean up as far as I can see into the sky. It seems to be accelerating as it comes in.

The only lights from the porch are baleful red leds from the comms, gleaming in reflection from the glass window.

Throught the static come some disjointed words: “Found them!” It’s Moyle’s voice I’m sure. “Tenleigh Beach…” a long pause full of more static and then “pulling higher…safe…”

The voice fades away. The Duke’s hand moves, reaching out to turn up the volume and suddenly we’re all lit up with a searing, eyeball-blistering flash. Sheet lightning turns the whole sky into one violent blaze of blue-white. Thunder rocks the deep stone of the headland, making the room tremble about us. The storm breaks over the fort like a tidal wave. Rain batters on the roof and windows with a roar.

It’s not possible to speak.

With a wave, the Duke leads us downstairs again and into a living room.

It has windows showing the storm outside, but the noise and light are muted in comparison to the storm porch.

“Help yourself to drinks, please,” the Duke says and indicates comfortable chairs. “Then take a seat.”

Not what I was expecting.

The bar is extensive, but Talan restricts herself to a fruit juice. Esterhauze chooses a brandy. Not the local stuff that I cleaned my feet with, but one with an expensive-looking label. I take a white wine that’s been chilling. The Duke has the same brandy as Esterhauze. The red-headed man, who hasn’t been introduced, takes a glass of water.

Gaude bustles in at the last moment and helps himself to the brandy as well.

The room is comfortable, a feeling increased by the knowledge that the storm is kept outside. It smells of leather furniture with an undertone of local woods, which have scents that remind me of cooking herbs like sage, pepper and rosemary.

The Duke lifts his glass. “To those that venture on the sea,” he says, and we echo him quietly.

“No little organisation is apparent in the fleets,” Esterhauze says after the toast. “To so efficiently get everyone back to harbor.”

“They know,” Gaude says, tasting his brandy. “They know even before the satellite warnings. They smell a storm coming, or something. Of course, they claim it’s the piskatellers.”

He laughs, and there’s a quiet huff from Talan.

There’s no hurry to start, and I relax until I suddenly recall that Grandfather once said to me that the best preparation for giving someone bad news is to put them at ease first.

Taking another swallow of brandy, the Duke leads straight into it.

“As my daughter gets older, her height increases almost imperceptibly,” he says, swirling the brandy in his glass. “You might be forgiven for missing it. Her potential for getting into trouble is at the other end of the spectrum, where the increase is so large that you might also miss that, disbelieving the impossible.”

Esterhauze laughs quietly.

I allow myself a smile.

His eyes lose their focus for a second and I catch a glimpse of another person. Like Esterhauze, the Duke has a public persona that he maintains.

“I hold no one at fault for this afternoon. My mind is on the future. All of us face a difficult few months, for a variety of reasons, and my daughter’s safety weighs on my mind.”

He gets up and paces to the window. There’s nothing to see except when the lightning shivers down the sky.

He turns back to the room.

“I gather you are both Dancing Mistresses of the old description,” he says. “And that may be what Rhoswyn needs. I have suspected for some time that there are … actions being directed against this family and others on Amethys. It would appear that we have returned to the behavior of the Third Expansion.” He makes a small nod in my direction. “It was never my intention, Miss Aguirre, to actually place Rhoswyn in that academy on Kensa. I merely hoped, with the announcement, to win a few months leeway, and to protect my family more by our isolation, here on Murenys.”

He shrugs. The red-headed man stirs as if uncomfortable with the direction the Duke’s words are taking.

“I hear rumors that approach may not be sufficient any more. So…” he pauses, his eyes narrowing. “Miss Esterhauze, I offer you a three-month fixed term contract as Dancing Mistress for my daughter. Miss Aguirre, I am unable to offer you the same, otherwise I would. Unfortunately, until your legal situation is cleared, all I can do is offer you accomodation and use of the facilities here while you remain under technical arrest. I regret, the Central District judicial system runs as slow as treacle during the summer months, so it may be a several weeks before the charges against you are dismissed. Trooper Sandrey will remain responsible for you while you are in the charge of the Welarvon Mounted Police.”

Esterhauze blinks in surprise and looks thoughtfully at me.

The Duke continues. “I would ask you to consider providing uncontracted services to Rhoswyn in co-operation with Miss Esterhauze, but I make no obligation on you.”

He sighs.

“And I make no guarantees beyond the end of the summer to either of you. I realize this is not what you thought you were applying for when you responded to the employment offer, and the risks may not be what you consider acceptable. I would consider it no fault of yours should you decide to leave immediately, Miss Esterhauze, or when you are able, Miss Aguirre.”

I can see Esterhauze isn’t even considering leaving. Neither am I. No good will come of it, but I can’t leave here without doing my best for Rhoswyn.

The Duke is delighted, and presents us with our first challenge: there’s the annual Summer Ball in a week’s time. Quite apart from the security issues, this will be Rhoswyn’s first attendance. Gaude hums and clears his throat before admitting that, in previous encounters with young gentlemen, Rhoswyn has been ‘forthright, to the point of outright rudeness’ to some of them. That would be a problem at the Summer Ball.

I have to bite my tongue and hope I can keep a straight face when I tell Rhoswyn that such behavior is unacceptable.

“You are, of course, invited,” the Duke says. “I should be very happy to have you attend.”

I’m shocked and pleased.

Which is all very well, but what on earth am I supposed to wear?

 

I’m assigned new accomodation. A guest suite will now house Rhoswyn, Talan, Esterhauze and me. We’ll share a living room, complete with infopad station and entertainment system, a dining room, which could double as a study, and a kitchen. The bedrooms are off a corridor from the living room. There’s only one door to enter into the suite and I make a mental note to discuss with Gaude that it should have a guard posted outside if they’re taking the threat against the Tremaynes seriously.

And my duffle bag has finally turned up. It sits on the floor waiting for me, as do Esterhauze’s three cases of luggage.

Esterhauze and I take to our rooms to unpack. That will take her longer than me, I suspect, so I occuy myself for a few minutes inspecting the security of my bedroom and thinking about the change in the situation.

The window has a ledge with a drop to the ground that could be a way out. Interesting.

I stand there and gaze out at the dying storm, my thoughts flitting like insects.

The Duke has spies. That’s where his ‘rumors’ are coming from, not the idle chatter of social meetings. He’s realized he’s under threat, even if he may not yet appreciate the scale of it.

So why has he made the choices he has? Hiring Esterhauze and effectively hiring me? Two people he doesn’t know. He’s not stupid, so I’m left suspecting something clever.

I need information from Shohwa that I can feed to the Duke.

And even as I think that, I realize, I’m still not sure about the man himself. The death of his wife and the uncertainty about how it happened; that worries me.

Maybe Shohwa can provide me with information to start investigating that.

Those thoughts aside, the face the Duke revealed to us tonight gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling of being in the team.

Which is, my paranoia tells me, exactly what I’m supposed to be feeling.

And quite unlike the feeling I get when I open my duffle bag.

Nothing is missing, and everything is in exactly the same place as I put it. However, I fold my clothes in a distinctive way. Someone went to a great deal of trouble to try and replicate that, but I can still tell every item in my duffle bag has been taken out and inspected.

Scrap that feeling of being on the team. I’m a suspect, but why and for what, I’m not sure yet.

 

 

 

Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adv/Rom – Episode 9

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:
https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/05/28/zara-episode-2/

Comments & questions welcome as ever.

+++++++

Chapter 20

 

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.

And…

“…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.

“Pa.”

“He started to teach you to fly?”

“Yes.”

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.”

Ahhh.

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.

 

Chapter 21

 

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.

Yet.

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.

Stop it.

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.

I shiver.

The sun has moved. The King’s Table casts a cold shadow over me and I wriggle to get back into the light.

Wait.

That noise is not the King’s Table.

Shouting. Screaming.

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.

 

 

Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adv/Rom – Episode 8

Episode 8

There is no Dancing Mistress job, and what’s worse is the Shohwa’s AI has left behind a copy of itself on the local servers. The Shohwa thinks Duke Tremayne and his family face the same attacks as Zara’s in Newyan.

Short epsiode this week (3k words). We’re at about 37k words total.

I’ve had to rush to get onto the new schedule, which will be an episode every Friday (late evening here in the UK, during the day in the US). An episode seems to be about 2 chapters. That said, tonight’s *should* have been 3.

Thank you for the comments and questions generated last time. All very welcome. More please. 🙂

I will post the discussion about the Cornish names as a comment.

LINKS
This section continues directly after:
https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/07/01/zara-a-name-among-the-stars-scifi-advrom-episode-7/

And please copy the link for the start of the series as widely as possible:
https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/05/28/zara-episode-2/

Thanks! Enjoy!

+++++++++++++

Chapter 18

 

I sleep badly and I’m so slow at breakfast, that Talan must think I’ve taken a blow to my head.

How to make Gaude understand the imminent threat to the Tremaynes without revealing the information came from Shohwa? Without making him think I’m inventing it all just to get the job as Dancing Mistress?

I have to do it.

I know what the Tremaynes face and I know what will happen to the Cardu estate. I saw it all, first hand. And I was lucky: my grandfather was aware of the problems; I’d had time to learn the skills to survive; I was able to prepare and then disappear into the population.

Rhoswyn has none of that, and no time. Shohwa believes the conspiracy will make their move this summer.

And while I’m wrestling with what I can do about it, I’m still wondering if the Duchess’ death was the first move by the conspiracy on Amethys. If it was, why the long delay before the next phase?

What if it wasn’t?

What if the Duke killed her and covered it up as a suicide?

What if I’m trying to help a murderer?

 

I make my way straight to Gaude’s office after breakfast.

Talan follows. She knows I’m heading for an argument. She makes some token comments about restraint, but I get the impression she’s half-hypnotized by the expectation of witnessing a train wreck.

Gaude’s office door is open, so I march in. Talan stays outside, but the door doesn’t close behind me, and I know she’s listening.

Gaude’s face is distinctly unwelcoming and he doesn’t bother to rise from the seat behind his desk or greet me. I doesn’t matter what’s happened between us, what our relative situations are, he’s being deliberately rude. I know he’s not going to listen to a word I say unless I can get past that attitude.

I take a deep breath and lean over the desk. “What is it that you so dislike about me, Mr Gaude?”

It certainly gets a reaction. He looks as if I slapped him.

“Your behavior is completely inappropriate,” he splutters.

“It’s all right for the Duke to disagree with you, or Lady Roscarrow, but not me?”

“It’s not a matter of agreements or disagreements! You’re a servant!”

A lower class. Not allowed to talk to him like that.

Grandfather shouting at me. You are nothing without me. Nothing! It will serve you best to remember that.

The problem is, they’re right.

It’s irrelevant that I was born into a Founding Family. I can’t claim it without revealing that I’m a fugitive from Newyan. That will hardly benefit me with Gaude. So, as far as he’s concerned, I’m an ordinary girl from a lesser family who’s applied for a tutoring position.

Perhaps I need to start behaving more like one.

I stop looming over the desk and sit down. I probably should have waited to be asked, but at least I’m not in such a threatening position now.

“I’m actually not a servant,” I say, which is accurate, since I don’t have that job. “I’m a guest, which makes my behavior worse. I apologise if I have been insulting. It’s not been an easy time.”

To give him credit, he doesn’t say the things I can see he wants to. He grunts and with some effort, he calms himself, tugs his jacket into place and inspects the cuffs.

“What can I do for you, Miss Aguirre?”

“Even though it’s theoretical now, since there is no longer a position as Dancing Mistress, I’m curious. I’d like you to satisfy my curiousity, if you can.”

“What about?”

“Where to start? Why Rhoswyn doesn’t already have a Dancing Mistress. Why you decided that she should have one. Why that changed.”

“Fair enough.” Gaude tilts his chair back and crosses his legs. “She didn’t have a single tutor because she’s had a range of them.” He waves his hand. “Deportment, elocution, dancing and so on. Increasingly not effective. I thought it must seem a bit like perpetual school for Rhoswyn, and instead, having just one person, almost as a companion, might lead her to forming a better connection and being more receptive.”

I nodded. That was sound reasoning.

“And the reason you now don’t want to go ahead?”

“Bad experiences, Miss Aguirre.” His jaw tightens.

“I can understand that, based on something Rhoswyn said to me,” I say. “But you knew that, and from something Lady Roscarrow said, your idea was to try recuiting from the Margin. You’ve gone to all the expense, including a contracting broker and two termination payments, and you’re not even willing—”

“I distinctly recall you saying the phrase ‘there is no longer a position’,” he interrupts me. “It seems you don’t quite believe it.”

“You’re right, I don’t.” I can’t help myself rising to his bait. “Instead of the specialist education which she’ll need to run Cardu the way it needs to be run, Rhoswyn gets a general education at an academy for second-rate rich kids which will qualify her for nothing much.”

“Oh? You’re an expert in Amethys education and estate management are you? Your qualities are unending.” The sarcasm is dripping from his voice. “What precisely is she going to miss out educationally, at the most prestigious academy on the planet?”

“How about estate management, for a start? Who will teach her how to run Cardu?”

“I will! And besides, she’ll have a manager, in the same way the Duke has me.”

“And while you’re teaching her estate management, who’s running the estate? And how exactly are you teaching her when she’s on a completely different continent and timezone?”

This is not going the right way. Neither of us are arguing logically. I’ve put him on the defensive about his job and his condescension is driving me to yell at him.

I take a deep breath and deliberately lean back in my seat.

I need to get off the minor points. Both of us need to stop pecking at each other, for Rhoswyn’s sake.

Rational discussion, not point-scoring argument.

“What about security?” I say, when I’m sure my voice is level.

“Security?” Gaude frowns. “What do you mean?”

“Personal security. Threat assessment. Self defence. Security systems generally, all the—”

“Miss Aquirre! We must be talking at cross purposes here. What in heaven has all that got to do with Rhoswyn’s education?”

There’s a sudden cold, sinking sensation in my stomach.

What had Shohwa said? Something about the role of the Dancing Mistress losing all the parts loosely labelled ‘security’ in the absence of the motivation provided by constant conflict.

Gaude probably thinks I came here to teach deportment and etiquette. And dancing.

“What exactly is your idea of the role of a Dancing Mistress?” I say quietly. “Do you have a document of requirements?”

Gaude touches his pad a couple of times and hands it silently to me.

It’s displaying a standard job specification and it’s as I feared. A tutor to shape a young girl into something more marriageable. Not my area of expertise at all. Not an area of interest either. If they want to make Rhoswyn ‘marriageable’, I’m the last person they want to tutor her.

“I take it, that’s not the role as you understand it?” Gaude breaks my train of thought. His face betrays a dawning awareness of the communication gap between us.

Where to start? “According to Trooper Sandrey, the suite I’m in was originally the actual Dancing Master’s suite.”

“Yes, yes,” he says, waving his hands like he’s dispersing a smell. “A century ago. More, a hundred and fifty years even.”

“Then maybe I’m two hundred years late for the job I was expecting,” I say.

His eyes narrow. “But that was the Third Expansion,” he says. “It was different then.”

He’s right. The third phase of expansion from the crowded innermost worlds saw pulses of barely serviceable ships full of desperate people drifting outwards through space like seed pods. Some were attracted to prosperous worlds. Some to developing worlds where they could still claim whole continents. Some to worlds where they fed the festering disputes left over from the Second Expansion. And always, the complaints came, never enough of the right kind of people, and an excess of the wrong kind.

Certainly, many worlds in the Margin believe the Third Expansion hasn’t finished yet.

I’ve never thought about what happened on Newyan in the light of the Expansions. Where does it fit in? Third Expansion after-shocks? The beginning of the Fourth? Preparation?

“It was a barbarous time,” Gaude says. “We don’t live like that any more. Not on the InnerWorlds. Clearly I’m mis-informed as to what passes for civilized behavior in the Margin.” He grimaces as if he’d bitten something sour. “You can’t think we were hiring that for Rhoswyn?”

“Don’t try and twist it so that it’s my fault,” I reply. “You went looking for Dancing Mistresses in the Margin without research. And yes, it’s barbarous. Humanity should be noble and kind. Disputes should be settled rationally by dialogue, and not by intrigue and assassination. But you’re mistaken if you think there’s no danger on Amethys.”

“Nonsense. My misunderstanding actually proves my point. It’s so long since there was a need that we’ve reused the term to mean something more in keeping with the way we live now.”

“Really?”

I’ve made a mistake broaching this too early with Gaude. I need something concrete that has actually happened. Shohwa had no time to brief me on any more than patterns of communications and alliances being made.

What do I know? Barely anything about Amethys. I know what happened on Newyan. How did it start?

The media.

Grandfather had seen it. He’d railed against it and we’d just thought he was being paranoid.

I’m not going to get a second hearing from Gaude. I have to hope my instinct is right.

“Anything concern you about the ownership of media on Amethys, Gaude? Concentrated in too few hands? Not sympathetic to you?”

For a second, I think I’ve got through. He looks hesitant. There is something going on with the media that he’s concerned about.

Then he clears his face resolutely and he stands up.

“You’re wasting my time. The Duke’s decision not to hire a tutor stands. There’s nothing to discuss. Really, I can’t afford any more of this.”

We get a millisecond of warning from Talam. I hear her come smartly to attention outside the door.

“Sir,” she says briskly, as the Duke storms in, his face dark with anger.

“Both of you together,” he says. “That saves time.”

He’s carrying an infopad and he links it to the screen that dominates one wall of Gaude’s office.

It’s displaying a news site.

“RAMPANT ABUSE OF PRIVILEGE” screams the title.

There’s a picture of me, not looking my best, being guided to a police car by two Central District policemen. Another of the Duke, scowling, flanked by his troopers.

“Duke Tremayne’s drunk pilot, Zara Aguirre, closes airport, endangers lives and disrupts essential training. THEN SHE WALKS RIGHT OUT OF JAIL.The article goes on: “They think there’s one law for them and another for the rest of us. Aguirre must be brought to justice and the Duke must answer for this arrogant challenge to our legal system.”

 

Chapter 19

 

No good deed goes unpunished.

I’d saved Marik Roscarrow’s life.

As a result, skipping over the arrest and the prison cell, I’m now being used as a pawn in the media’s attack on the Duke. There’s no doubt in my mind, this isn’t about me. This is exactly the sort of thing that happened on Newyan. This won’t be an isolated article. The Duke is being singled out, his reputation eroded, so when they tell the big lie, that he’s been swindling money from the state for example, people won’t disbelieve it. He’ll be guilty before he gets to court.

My case is just preparatory work. They won’t be able to defend their assertions about me. They don’t care about that. It’s not the point for them.

But whatever happens in court, including the media being required to broadcast ‘apologies’ to me, I’m tainted. No one remembers the apologies.

It looks like there’s no job here in Cardu, and no job on Amethys.

And they’ve printed my name. There’s a Newyan delegation here on Amethys who now know exactly where I am, and may regard this as an opportunity to start legal extradition proceedings against me.

I’ve never been one to back down from a fight, but this conspiracy is just too big and powerful.

I collapse in a seat, feeling all my spirit leaking out of me. It’s useless. I’ve got to stop thinking about being part of the fight in Amethys. I’ve got to think of me—how I get out of this and far away from all of it.

The Duke and Gaude are talking about legal action. From the sound of it, they’ve had successful legal actions before, but the punishments are trivial, and their efforts to increase the severity have rebounded, making them appear to want to censor the media.

The was Gaude is dancing around the issues—we shouldn’t be seen to do this, we can’t do that—makes me irritated enough to be energized again.

I get back up and lean on Gaude’s desk.

“You’re wasting your time in court,” I say.

The Duke blinks as if he’d completely forgotten I’m here.

“You need to go on the offensive,” I say. “No one reads court reports or the outcome of cases. They read headlines in the media news summaries and the two paragraphs of text below it. You need to be generating that kind of news against them, and until you do, you’re just going to be the victim of it.”

In the silence, the Duke’s eyes get that lock-on-laser focus again.

“What do you know about it?” he says.

His voice is calm, but I can sense a volcano building. There’s a lot of long-term anger just beneath the surface of that face.

It’s not directed at me, not all of it, but that’s little comfort when you stand next to a volcano.

“I apologize, sir,” Gaude says. “Miss Aguirre was just leaving—”

The Duke’s hand comes up and Gaude shuts up like a switch was thrown.

“What do I know about it?” I say. “I watched this happen on Newyan.”

“You watched what happen on Newyan?”

“A conspiracy has taken over the government of Newyan. The system there was very similar to here, with a lot of power residing in the Founding Families. It was a carefully laid plan, with immense backing. The media companies were bought up. The reputations of the Founding Families destroyed with exactly this sort of story.” I nodded at the screen.

The Duke’s purses his lips. “I read that it was all about corruption.”

“You read what the Newyan media wanted you to read.”

Gaude can’t stay quiet. “Sir, this is simply an attempt to get us to reverse our decision on hiring a Dancing Mistress. Apparently, the term in the Margin actually refers to the historical style of personal tutor and bodyguard. Miss Aguirre claims to be that, as if that would help her case. We wouldn’t—”

“The historical style of Dancing Mistress?” the Duke says, still fixing me with his eyes.

“Yes,” I say. “Deportment and dancing and etiquette, but also self-defence, estate management, threat—”

“Aren’t you a little young for all that?” the Duke interrupts me. “Wouldn’t some grizzled Dancing Master be a better bet?”

I have to bite my tongue. He’s goading me, for his own reasons.

“Quite possibly,” I say. “If you can find one.”

“How honest of you.” He sits down and leans back in his chair.

Gaude wants to speak, but a look from the Duke keeps him silent.

“Let’s say…” the Duke stares at the desk and begins to run a finger in a circle on the wood. “Let’s say I might be about to make some strategic decisions about security. Let’s say I might be interested in your view as a relative outsider. Possibly.”

He returns his focus to me.

“I need to discuss today’s immediate issues and tactics first. Strategy will follow.” He drums his fingers. “It seems that coming in here, you’ve made some connection between security issues and my decisions on my daughter’s education. Do enlighten me.”

His face is carefully blank, but that’s the sort of invitation where I’m meant to bow and scrape my way out of the room backwards, while telling him there’s nothing wrong with his decisions.

Wrong woman.

“As a security issue, sending your daughter away to a school on another continent is stupid,” I say. “You relinquish all control over her safety to a school, who might just have an aging security guard who patrols at night until he falls asleep. You’ve got a poor setup here, given you’re sitting on top of a fort of your own troops, but at least you can fix things here.”

Both of them have gone pale.

I’ve shot my chances of any employment here, but at this stage I just want to get through to him about Rhoswyn.

“It’s more than that. Ignoring all the security issues, what in the Goddess’ name are you doing sending your child away the year after her mother dies? What kind of father does that?”

“Have you considered that a dutiful father might be trying to get her academic results back on track,” he says. The muscle in his jaw twitches.

“That’s the worst possible way to do it. She’d take love over duty any day. And even if you succeed in with her results, what are you preparing her for? Will she learn everything she’ll need to use, on a day-to-day basis, here on the estate? Or do you just plan to marry her off?”

The Duke comes back to his feet in a rush.

I don’t back away. I can’t now.

We’re almost nose to nose. I can see him trembling with anger.

I may have overdone this.

His voice is strained when he speaks.

“I will take your comments, purged of their provocative tone, under advisement,” he says. “In the meantime, I will need to meet with my estate manager, and I wonder if you and Trooper Sandrey would be so good as to occupy Rhoswyn’s time until mid-afternoon.”

He takes a couple more breaths before adding: “It’s probably not advisable to tell her I’m back until I’m ready to meet her.”

His arm extends toward the door, inviting me to leave.

More an order than an invitation, and I comply.

Talan falls into step behind me.

“Ringside seats,” she murmurs in her lowest voice. “Five dynare each. I’ll be rich.”

I try to snort, to show I don’t care.

Yes, I may have got through to him about his daughter. I may also have made it easier for him to throw me back into the justice system in Central District.

 

Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adv/Rom – Episode 7

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.)

LINKS
This section continues directly after:
https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/06/22/zara-a-name-among-the-stars-scifi-advrom-episode-6/

And please copy the link for the start of the series as widely as possible:
henwick.wordpress.com/2017/05/28/zara-episode-2/

Thanks! Enjoy!

++++++++++

Chapter 14

 

“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.”

“Oh?”

“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?”

“Yes.”

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.”

 

Chapter 15

 

“Call me Talan,” Trooper Sandrey says, looming over me.

“Zara.”

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.”

“How’s that?”

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.”

Like me.

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.

 

Chapter 16

 

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.

“Moyley!”

“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?”

He nods.

“Then how come I hear there are not one, but twoDancing 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.”

“Oh.”

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?”

 

Chapter 17

 

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.

Yes.

Please confirm there is no one who can see this conversation taking place.

Yes.

Then…

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.”

Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adventure Romance – Episode 5

This leads straight on from https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/06/10/zara-a-name-among-the-stars-scifi-adventure-romance-episode-4/

The start of the series is at https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/05/28/zara-episode-2/

The roads have been damaged, so Zara sets out to walk to Stormhaven along the coast path and claim her job as Dancing Mistress. Easy…

Chapter 9

 

After five minutes walking, I know I will never make it as far as Stormhaven.

My improvised rucksack is cutting into my shoulders. My boots are too loose despite being tied so tightly that they squeak. And I’m walking in a sort of limbo; there’s a heavy fog coming off the ocean that swirls around me and makes macabre ghosts of the stunted coastal trees along the path. Every step feels like climbing.

After twenty-five minutes, I allow that I might make it in a day or so. Except I haven’t brought any food apart from crackers and water. I have no idea how far to the next village along this path and whether they might sell me food. But yes, I will stagger into Stormhaven eventually, my boots caked in mud, my clothes wet, stained and wrinkled from sleeping in the wild, grass and twigs in my hair, my face badly sunburnt. I’ll be met at the door of the house by the new Dancing Mistress. She’ll be a beautiful, blonde-haired lady, cool and slim, dressed in the most elegant and fashionable style. She’ll actually call the family to laugh at the ridiculous apparition that has arrived at their door.

After about forty-five minutes, the sun’s up and the fog’s ebbing back into the ocean. The shoes have stopped squeaking and my feet have swollen to fit. A couple of passes of tape, right around me and my duffel bag have stopped it rolling so much, and I’ve kinda forgotten it.

I’ll buy or beg some food from villagers. I’ll pick berries and ask the villagers to tell me which I can eat. Pride is a luxury I can no longer afford, and while that’s something in the future, it doesn’t feel so bad.

The coastal path is an old cart track. It’s made from crushed white rock so it stands out, and it follows the contours of the land. It sways and dips, lifts and falls in front of me like the track of a bird’s flight.

I’ve slowed down from the pace of the first few minutes, and the rhythm of walking is now permeating through my body. My doubts receed with the fog and the beauty of the scenery starts soaking into me.

It’s a wild and spectacular coast.

Black rock plunges into an endless blue-grey ocean, and forms isolated towers and stubborn headlands, all crowned with deep-green grasses. Pale sea-birds ride the currents of the strong on-shore wind and scream at each other in faint, high voices.

Don’t fall in love with this place until you have that job, I warn myself.

It does no good.

The stunted trees that loomed out of the fog like grotesque ghosts are now shown to be works of art, fashioned by the dominant weather. Branches are gnarled and knotted into fantastic shapes, and roots look like muscular arms and fingers gripping and anchoring the trees into the scoured cliffs.

They’re almost like bonsai.

I wonder if Shohwa would like to see them, and make a mental note to take pictures and post them to my account on the Xian bulletin board for her to see. Would she be able to send a construct down here? Could the construct enjoy the sensation of running fingers along the rough bark and narrow, oily leaves?

When did I start thinking of her as a person? As Shohwa and not a ship called the Shohwa.

I’m not sure and I find I don’t care. I sigh, fill my lungs with salty air and feel lighter than I should in the 98% gravity of this planet.

Things could be much worse.

It wouldn’t be so bad, if I became a vagabond, walking up and down this coast, living off the land.

That would be better than dead, or in a prison cell, which is what the conspirators on Newyan want.

I’m still a loose end for them.

If I get this job, they could find out about it easily enough. Employment information is exchanged freely between planets. But they wouldn’t want to make an extradition order; that would give me a forum in court to present my side of what happened.

The alternative option is exactly the sort of thing that the Dancing Masters and Mistresses were set up to defend against—they could send an assassin. If I can’t defend myself against an assassin, it’s hardly a recommendation for my employment.

And if I don’t get this job, if I live like a vagabond, or drift from one temporary job to another, that would make it an order of magnitude more difficult to find me.

On the coastal path, with the sun on my face and the wind buffeting me as I walk, those worries seem remote, unreal, and just a tangle of incalculable possibilities.

It’ll go where it goes.

I’ll concentrate on one thing at a time.

Get to Stormhaven first.

I comb my hair with my fingers, futilely. The wind messes it as soon as I let go. The thought that I’ll look like a scarecrow if I pass someone on this road makes me smile. A couple of months ago, I cut my hair, short as a boy, as part of my disguise, and it’s barely started to grow out again. It wasn’t just to change the shape of my face. On Newyan, Founding Families and the wealthy tend to wear their hair long. Cutting it so short changed people’s initial impression of me, made them make assumptions which helped me pass as someone else.

I haven’t studied Amethys enough, but it seems it might be the same. Maybe I’ll be able to confirm that when I find a village.

As if conjured up by my thinking of it, I see a village in the distance as I trudge around a headland.

It looks tucked in, crouching down out of the wind. It sits in a valley between two promontories, partly shielded on either side, and it has a harbor with quays reaching out like arms. There are a score of large boats moored there, and plenty more small ones pulled up out of the water. Upslope of the village, I can see the brighter green of grazing fields surrounded by dark trees, all along the valley and the lower slopes of the hills above.

It looks so peaceful, from a distance.

Closer up, it’s very different.

The town itself is picture perfect. Narrow houses with freshly-scrubbed pastel faces cluster around tidy cobbled squares. Windows gleam and even the standing water pump has a recent coat of black paint. The fishing fleet is in harbor and every one of them has been cleaned or has crew swarming over them with buckets and brushes. Little boats pulled up on the dock are glistening with new varnish. There are smart wooden benches on the sides of the squares, but they’re all empty. Everyone’s in motion.

There’s a food stand set up in the main square where people are hurriedly taking snacks before rushing off to some other task. It’s looked after by an old woman in a wheelchair.

She can see the expression on my face.

“Feast Day,” she says solemnly. “Gets a little hectic.”

That is an understatement. From their laconic way of speaking, this frantic activity was the last thing I expected from the people of the Welarvor coast.

“Is it possible to buy something to eat?” I ask. “Something not expensive.”

I have no idea what food costs out here. Just because I could buy something for 5 dynare in the city doesn’t mean that’s what it costs in a little village on the coast.

“No,” she says. “You won’t find a soul to take your money here today.”

Seeing my face fall, she takes pity on me and laughs.

“Feast Day, lass! No money must change hands. Go on. Help yourself.”

“I can’t. Surely I can pay something? A donation.”

“Not to me. Nor anyone here. Not on Feast Day. Bad luck that is. Might bring the piskatellers to knock on our doors at midnight.”

I have no idea what a piskateller is, and despite what I thought out on the road, I’m having to struggle with my pride. Accepting the food feels like begging.

But she takes no prisoners, this old woman.

“Come on with you. These here, these are raw, night-caught. You have to eat them in the next couple of hours or they spoil. Take them with pickles and the pepper, like so.”

She demonstrates. The small fishes have been neatly beheaded, gutted and boned, but the tail left attached. She picks one up, rolls it in something that looks like chopped onions and peppers and chews it in three bites, leaving just the tail.

I follow her example, and my eyes stream tears. It’s tasty all right, just a bit hotter than I expected. Vinegar and chili and onion and raw fish. Hmmm.

She packs some in paper with the piquant sauce in a little carton, and refuses any money. She also advises me that I can eat any berries that are red, brown or black. That I must avoid berries that are yellow and green. And every village has a standing pump which I can drink from. They’re about an hour’s walk apart, the villages, she says, so I don’t need to carry so much water.

I’d stay and ask more, but a man looking like a cartoon of a mayor from ancient history rushes up and frets about some preparations that are not done. The old woman appears to be a former mayor and proceeds to laugh off all the problems.

I interrupt briefly to thank them, and then leave, passing a town hall which gives off aromas that tell me this is going to be where the feast day earns its name.

It’s far too late to worry about not falling in love with this coast.

My love story continues throughout the morning, walking over more hills and headlands, through more villages, past the odd farmstead, and by the ruins of some mining industry.

The people are busy and friendly in a casual way. I get the feeling everyone notices me but no one is aggressively curious. No one laughs at my jury-rigged backpack. A few ask where I’m going, and on being told Stormhaven, they nod and smile as if to say, well if you can’t live right here, then Stormhaven’s not a bad second choice.

And apart from the first village, everyone’s relaxed.

Away from the villages, alone on the swooping white path, there’s only the wind to talk to me. It whistles and moans around oddly shaped rock formations.

I daydream that I’ve stepped back in time; way, way back. There’s none of the bloated complexity of life and politics and space travel and work and assassins. It’s a time before we ventured off our planet, when life was so simple and easy and people got along. And I don’t even have the whole world to think about. There’s just this coast, the road beneath my feet, the little villages, the sun, the ocean, and the sounds that the wind makes. Bliss.

And then the wind brings me a sound that is very different.

The clatter of hooves and jingle of harness: riders mounted on horses are coming down the path toward me. There’s something predatory about that sound.

I freeze and look up.

Just in time to see them pour over the crest of the next hill; a column of mounted troops, with gleaming full-face helmets, tall lances and flying banners.

I have stepped back in time, and I’m right in their path.

 

Chapter 10

 

I’m off the road and crouching between trees before they’ve seen me.

I might have gotten away with it, too, but I hadn’t counted on the lead stallion. He knew I was there. Obviously I was unexpected, and maybe I smelled like a horse eating kind of person, so he shied away, with his eyes rolling and his hooves kicking.

In a heartbeat, the column has turned in its own length and I’m faced with a score of them; dusty, curious horse faces, pre-space helmets, with plumes, for stars’ sake, old military style uniforms, and even a lance or three waving in my direction.

I stand straight, but otherwise keep very still. Hands by my sides.

They’re long, those lances, and they look exceedingly sharp. They draw the eye. And dry the mouth.

Someone laughs.

Mr Lead Stallion pushes his helmet back so it rests on his forehead, emphasising the deep frown marks there.

The face is bluff, bold and arrogant; the eyes sharp as the points of those lances.

The voice is a surprise. Deep. Not as snide as I expected. I don’t know the voice, but I recognize the type without any effort. He sounds like my grandfather.

“Where away, lad?”

I bite my tongue. If I cut my hair and dress in a man’s cast-off work clothes, I guess I should expect people to make mistakes. And my instinct for self-preservation kicks in and grabs the first words I want to fling back at him, including blind and stupid.

I haven’t stepped back in time. I don’t know who these people are; maybe some re-enactment guild with a obsession for authenticity that has them drilling with horses every day, but Mr Lead Stallion is not a local fisherman or farmer. I’m looking to work in this part of the world, and I have no Name or eminence to defend me if I’m rude to a person of significance here.

“Stormhaven, sir.”

I’m very pleased to note the lance points begin drifting back up and away. Politeness appears to have worked.

He doesn’t acknowledge his mistake, and instead, Mr Lead Stallion’s eyes rake me up and down in an insolent sort of way that I would have objected to just three months ago on Newyan.

I will not react. I need to get used to it.

I am not a Name. I have no pride. I’m one step from a beggar.

“Stormhaven,” he says. His mouth turns down. “Then we’re both late.”

As if he might consider something else if he wasn’t in a hurry. Standing in the hot sun, my blood goes cold.

A safe, law-abiding place. Mostly.

That’s what the woman in the refreshment shop in Bandry had said as we shared the teapot.

I guess that comment could be interpreted different ways. A law for people snug in their villages, maybe, and a different one for travellers out on the paths. A lesser law for those that wander and ‘bring things on themselves’.

I don’t know, and I’m not going to find out this time: the archaic helmet slides back down and the lead stallion wheels in place, kicks off down the road at a leisurely canter.

The remainder of the troop follow smoothly, all but one.

She, I know it’s she, despite the uniform, has to tug her horse’s bridle to prevent it from joining the others. She uses just a finger’s worth of pressure.

“You know how to use that staff?” Her voice sounds peculiar from inside her helmet.

I cut a stout stick earlier, as a hiking cane rather than a staff, but it would serve the purpose. I spin it casually. Yes, I do.

“Some,” I say. “I thought the predators stayed inland.”

“They do,” she replies. “One of the reasons they do, stranger, is that some of the old farm stock mutated when they brought them here. Hides out here, near the coast path.”

“I’m going to be chased off a cliff by a berserker ram?”

“Perhaps.” I can hear her smile. “But the really nasty ones are the boars. That’s what we thought you were, hiding in the trees. That, or a morlader.”

Her horse is fretting as the others disappear ahead.

“We’ll see you in Stormhaven,” she says, “if the boars don’t get you.”

She touches heels to her horse’s side and it gallops down the road, eager to rejoin the rest.

Morladers. Piskatellers. Mutated pigs. Mounted troops with lances. There’s a lot on this coast that doesn’t seem to feature on the InfoHub.

They’re not a re-enactment company. That level of horsemanship isn’t really something you achieve without living in the saddle. They’re the local military or police force. But the helmets? The plumes? The banners? Those damned lances?

The expansion of the human race across the Inner Worlds and the Margin has created pockets of strangeness, but those tend to be whole worlds. Where I came down the Skyhook in Kensa seemed normal. Even Bandry, way back behind me where I started this morning, was normal, if a little rural.

I could understand the economies of a rural police force that was mounted, but surely nowhere substituted lances for firearms.

It’s a mystery I may clear up in Stormhaven, and Mr Lead Stallion clearly thinks I’m behind my schedule to get there, so I start walking again and try to pick up the pace.

The afternoon wears down, the main difference being that the sun tends to be on the right side of my face, and the wind veers. The sounds it carries change. At one point I’m sure I hear hunting horns. Makes me shiver. It’s imagination, or something about the bizarre shapes of the rock formations.

Late afternoon, I use a water break to stop and examine one such formation.

It’s black rock, the same mineral as the cliffs. I can’t see how erosion would shape it the way it is—a large, tapering arrowhead shape rising at one end of a long, rounded base. There are too many like this for it to be coincidence. Also, they all have a hole bored through the middle of the arrowhead. That’s one of the causes of the wind sounds. It’s as if the stones were made to sing with the wind.

I need more time to research, but the sun touches the ocean and the western clouds begin to boil up in yellow and red. It’s beautiful, but it doesn’t look promising for this evening.

And the storm hits about an hour later, just as the daylight dies. The wind begins to howl and cold rain comes in horizontally like ice spears.

I’m torn between seeking some kind of cover and toughing it out. I argue with myself that I can’t be that far from Stormhaven. I’m not that far from the cliff edge either, but the pale road stands out, even in the darkness, and so I put my head down and march. As long as the boars don’t like the rain, I’m reasonably safe.

But all the things that kept me going during the day are lost to me. Without distraction, my feet are blistering, my shoulders are numb, my legs wobble. Exhaustion hits hard.

When the next village looms unexpectedly out of the night, I’m fighting to keep walking. A little voice is telling me I could sleep under an unpturned boat. Just a couple of hours out of the rain and be on my way.

But I know when I stop, getting going again will be hard.

The only person outside looks like a sailor, making his way home across the square in the dark, with the peak of his stormcoat pulled down over his head.

“How much further to Stormhaven,” I croak.

He jumps. His night-blind eyes can barely make me out. Perhaps that’s an advantage.

“You’re here,” he says when he recovers. “This is Stormhaven.”

Goddess be thanked.

But I can’t turn up at my future employer’s house tonight. Apart from not even knowing which house it is, I look like a drowned scarecrow.

“I need an inn. Is there one here?”

“Down in the harbor, lass. The Spyglass. Look for the lighted sign above the door.”

His eyes are adjusting to the darkness. He peers closely at me.

“Are you all right?” he says.

“I will be, thank you. A bath, a night’s rest, you won’t recognise me. I hope.”

He chuckles and points me down a street.

The Spyglass is easy to find, and just getting out of the cold rain is a blessed relief.

I don’t go too far in because I’m dripping water like I brought in my own stormcloud with me. I stand, swaying, starting to steam in the heat and using my knife to release me from the tape holding my backpack.

“Oh! Lad, lad, look at you!” the innkeeper bustles up. “Thought a merman had swum up out of the harbor for a minute.”

“Mermaid,” I manage to say, as the duffel bag slides from my shoulders and I groan with relief.

He roars with laughter, and pulls me inside, placing a chair in front of the fire.

“I’m your host, Warwick,” he says. “And these fine people here are the salt of Stormhaven and the finest of Praedarth, from up the way.”

I’m the center of attention, which was not how I anticipated arriving in the village I hope is my future home and place of employment. Especially not looking like a bedraggled tramp, or a sunburnt mermaid. A Dancing Mistress should have poise. I’m sure it says that in the manual.

I can afford the light beer that appears in front of me, and the lamb pie, I hope.

It being quiet enough, the innkeeper sits down to find out all about me, and gives me an opportunity to ask, with some anxiety, what a room costs.

“Oh, no, lass. Got no rooms left in this inn, and this is the only one in town,” he says. “You can sleep in the stable though. It’s dry and it’s warm enough. And free.”

“Done.” My pride has shrunk in the rain. “I need to get presentable tomorrow. Do you think you might loan me the use of a bathroom in the morning?”

“Oh, yes. You’re not going back on the road tomorrow, then?”

“No,” I say between mouthfuls of pie. “I’ve come to take up a job in Stormhaven. I just need to find which house when it’s not dark and raining.”

“A job?” He looks puzzled and sits back in his seat. “Now, lass, I know everyone in the town. Unless you’re a sailor or a shepherd, I’m not sure there’s work for you.”

His audience nods wisely along with him. He knows everyone. And there are no jobs.

“Not that type of job,” I say. “It’s a job I arranged through a broker.”

“Oh! Broker! Heard of that. City type of thing I must say. Not what we do here.” The listeners heads shake. Not what we do here. “But still, what’s the job?”

“A Dancing Mistress,” I say, through gritted teeth. My heart plummets at the expressions on their faces.

But the innkeeper’s face clears. “Ah! That explains it, lass.” He laughs. “Dry yourself out, eat your pie and drink your ale. Old Warwick will make a call.”

Fortunately, his audience stare at him in puzzlement, and he knows he has to explain to them, if not to me.

“Well, we don’t have call for Dancing Mistresses and the like in Stormhaven, do we?” he says. “But there’s a place that does.”

“Ah!” another man gets it and claps his leg. “It’s the sort of thing you’d get up at Stormhaven Cardu.”

“I’m in the wrong place?” I sigh, feeling every muscle whimper. “How much further?”

“More than you want to walk tonight,” Warwick says. “Yes, this is Stormhaven Wyck, the village of Stormhaven. You want Stormhaven Cardu, up on the headland. Another hour or so, a steep climb, and one you may not need to do. I’ll call Gaude.”

With that obscure comment, he goes off and I’m left fielding gentle questions, mainly about where I’d walked from and how long it’s taken.

Warwick is quickly back in the bar. “No answer. Don’t fret, I’ll try calling Lady Roscarrow. It’s at the back of my mind Gaude had need to be over that way today.”

I try to stop him; I don’t want any Lady being disturbed tonight, but he’s quicker than I am in this state.

By the time he comes back, still unable to get through, I’m fading fast. It’s been a long and hard day. The food and sitting still have finished me off. All I can think of is lying down and sleeping.

The innkeeper takes my duffel and a lantern. Seeing me wince and limp when I walk, he quickly grabs a bottle from behind the bar and then guides me out to the barn behind his inn.

A couple of horses blink sleepily at me. My stall is the free one at the end, and it’s a measure of how exhausted I am that I don’t argue with Warwick taking my boots off.

He hisses through his teeth at what he sees.

“Ah! Thought so,” he says.

He takes the bottle he brought and sets it in the straw beside me. It’s a quarter full.

“Now, lass, I would advise you to wash your feet with that.”

“What’s that?” I mumble.

“Well, officially,” he replies, “it’s bale-fruit brandy. But ’round here, we just call it Headless. Whatever you do, don’t drink it, but it the very thing for blisters and the like. Now, I must get back to my bar. I’ll try calling Cardu again later and we’ll sort you out in the morning whatever happens.”

I mumble thanks and keep myself awake long enough to clean my feet with the brew.

It stings, so it must be doing good.

The smell, on the other hand, is a mixture of boat varnish and day-old dead things.

Doesn’t make any difference. I’m asleep before I’ve got the cork back in the bottle.

 

And awake to lanterns and flashlights and loud voices.

It’s still pitch dark outside. Warned by the smell and the feeling of damp, I look down. In the bobbing lights, I realize the uncorked brandy bottle has tilted and leaked over my shirt as I slept.

“For sky’s sake! She’s a bloody drunken tramp off the road, Warwick, not some missing Dancing Mistress come to see me! I don’t have time for this.”

Even to my tired brain, certain things are clear, foremost among them that I have created the worst possible first impression with my employer. That’s my prospective employer—I haven’t got the job, and it doesn’t sound like I’m going to get it.

 

Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adventure Romance – Episode 4

This continues straight on from https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/06/02/zara-scifi-romance-3rd-installment/

Okay, okay, y’all giving me such trouble over the cliffhanger endings. This is a little quieter. 🙂

Comments, please. 🙂 Everyone! I really love to hear feedback on how it’s coming from a readers point of view. And yes, we’re getting to the romance. Not long now.

++++++

Chapter 7

 

Over her shoulder, the comms log screen jumps a line and a new message catches my eye.

Freighter Shohwa: “Newyan Traffic Control and Customs Cutter Duhalde, this is the freighter Shohwa of the Xian Hegemony, regarding your request for one Izarra Azenari. You are misinformed. We have no record of this person as passenger or crew aboard this ship. End transmission.”

I gape at the screen, not able to believe my eyes.

Then there’s a sickening, swiveling, jarring sensation, and feeling of falling that has me clutching the armrests. Just as my stomach seems to be about to exit my mouth, there’s a thump as ‘gravity’ re-establishes itself.

Both comms screens blank and disappear. The walls return to plain beige.

“I have engaged the Chang field,” the Shohwa says calmly. “My apologies for the temporary discomfort and restraints, but the acceleration compensators are configured for normal transport, not for high-G missile evasion.”

The Duhalde fired!

“But…”

The restraints disappear. I jump to my feet.

If we’re within the Chang field, we’re safe, we’re not exactly not there any more, because there’s no precise there, there. I mean here, inside the field. But for the purposes of missiles and laser beams in the Newyan system, we have left the area.

“You were wrong,” the Shohwa says conversationally. “The Duhalde fired no warning shot. Their first salvo was intended to disable this ship.”

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I… Why? They… You’ve saved my life… took my side—”

“Not at all. I have not taken your side. I have saved this ship from an attack, as I am entitled and required to do.”

They won’t see it that way.” I’m supposed to be thanking her—it, and instead I’m arguing. I’ll have to put it down to the understandable effects of an adrenaline overdose that has my legs wobbling.

“Will they not?” the Shohwa smiles and another screen appears behind it. “Let me summarize. The publically available records show we accepted, among others, a bid for a single person, basic level, one-way passage from Newyan to Amethys.”

The details of the transaction we made is displayed.

“That bid was from an electronic travel broking system called AnyTick on Newyan, and made by an anonymous user name: zara2735. As is standard with these broking systems, no proof of identity is required and the contract was made under a unique identifying code. Payment was made to this ship’s account which secured that contract. We do not care where the money came from; it’s of no concern to us. A person named Zara Aguirre duly claimed that contract by presenting the identifying code in the bay, and she boarded our shuttle.”

Of course I made the bid anonymously. But that unique code the Shohwa supplied was logged to my ID card, which says Izarra Azenari.

The screen splits. One half shows a video of me at the docking bay presenting my ID to the scanner.

The other half shows the electronic data scanned from my ID, including the Shohwa’s contract number.

But the name reads Zarate Mirari Aguirre.

The Shohwa gives me no time to question that as it continues: “Then, while in transit between Newyan orbit and our designated jump point to the Amethys system, we were subject to unexplained and unjustified routing requests from Newyan Space Traffic Control. We were under no obligation to comply, and did not. Eventually, Newyan Control, now represented by Customs Cutter Duhalde, provided a sufficient explanation of their requirements and a theoretically acceptable solution which would not impinge our schedule. However, it then turned out that their records were in error and this was all a mistake. We informed them of that.”

In my former life, my duties, loosely under the heading of ‘estate management’, have made me familiar with manure products, and this is premium quality, raw manure from the biggest horses in the stable. I am not about to complain, no, but…

“Thank you,” I manage to say, though it seems inadequate. It’s at least good manners, and manners matter, especially if your next job is about teaching them.

But to get to that job on Amethys, I need to survive.

My paranoid instincts rush in and short-circuit the muscles that move my jaw, leaving all my questions unspoken.

I need that caution. Despite everything, Shohwa does not like me. It has not taken my side. It has reasons for what it did. I am an incidental beneficiary.

“In spite of being informed of the error,” the Shohwa continues, “Customs Cutter Duhalde clearly continued to act under their misapprehension, and compounded it by firing on this ship, in contravention of its own system’s laws, federal rules, all the conventions and universally accepted rights of free passage, and disregard for the life of the crew and passengers on this freighter. This was a completely illegal and unjustified attack from which we barely escaped, and only then at great risk, by engaging the Chang field.”

The Shohwa stands up and the two unused seats sink into the floor without trace.

“A formal complaint regarding this incident will be transmitted to the federal authorities on Earth, copied to the Xian Hegemony and the Newyan planetary government, and will be made available to all planetary jurisdictions we visit until we have a satisfactory conclusion.”

My jaw is clenched shut and my mind is working furiously.

Why, why, why?

The scenario presented by the Shohwa absolves the ship of any wrong-doing and puts the blame for the incident entirely on the Duhalde. Of course, I need to go along with its story—that’s a given.

But what logical reason could the ship have for saving me?

My mind flashes back to the log of demands made by Traffic Control. Return to orbit. Okay, any freighter might refuse that one with inadequate explanation. Then the Duhalde’s demands. Stop. Same thing as return to orbit—the freighter had a valid reason to ignore that request unless justification was made.

Then: Your passenger manifest includes a fugitive criminal. We will match velocities and board to apprehend her.

Ahhh. Boarding.

The Shohwa wouldn’t have minded the routine customs inspections in orbit, where a couple of inattentive officers would inspect the cargo holds and check the manifest. But that wasn’t the same as a platoon of officers coming aboard after a ‘misunderstanding’ involving a fugitive.

If I could harbor suspicions about the ship just from a few questions about the unnamed flight crew, the shuttle specifications and Shohwa’s performance parameters, what would trained people see? What questions would they ask that the freighter would not want asked?

Almost anything.

My instinct says this isn’t a freighter. It’s a Xian military vessel masquerading as a freighter and, on top of all that, it’s commanded by an AI.

The Duhalde didn’t realize how lucky it was. I’m certain, as I go over the incident in my mind, that the Shohwa could have blown the cutter into elementary particles without breaking stride. The only thing that saved the cutter was the Shohwa wanting to maintain its disguise.

What about when Duhalde changed from demanding a boarding to ejecting me in a survival pod?

Why not go along with that?

What if those survival pods weren’t civilian specification?

What if they were military? Built for extended use, with military beacons and hardened shell construction to withstand the environment of a battle.

If all of that was the case, I could see that the Shohwa’s only option finally was to provoke the Duhalde into firing on it, knowing it had the capability to escape that fire. No one’s going to be asking questions about the freighter’s behavior now—all the attention is back on the cutter’s actions.

All good for Xian and their disguised warship.

But I know the Shohwa is an AI, it’s admitted it to me, and that on its own would also cause questions that the Hegemony don’t want asked.

So what’s keeping me alive?

The Shohwa has assessed that I’m no threat.

I’m not going to argue, and I am certainly not going to ask questions that make the Shohwa realize I suspect that it’s a military ship.

I need to keep quiet. No questions. No comments other than agreeing.

“I understand,” I say. “It must have happened exactly as you’ve described.”

“Good,” it says. “Of course it was appropriate that I confirm your identity while talking to Newyan authorities. That is why you were called up here, and you convinced me that you are indeed, who you say you are. During the following disturbance, you appear to have dropped your cards.”

The floor shimmers and the table reappears.

On it, there is a set of the ubiquitous cards of modern life without which you are nothing: ID; credit; employment. I pick them up. They look identical to my Izarra cards, except for the name. They all say Zarate Mirari Aguirre.

The table sinks and disappears again.

The Shohwa is still watching me, still smiling.

“Enjoy the remainder of the journey, Zara,” she says. “I will disengage the Chang field in 53 hours, when we reach the planar zenith of the Amethys system, and we should enter orbit over the planet approximately 91 hours later, depending on traffic. I remain fascinated by your ongoing story. When my business leads me to visit Amethys again in the future, be sure I shall enquire after you.”

The cards are the most tactful, gently stated threat that I can imagine. Yes, she has given me my Name back, but these are cards she’s fabricated. She’ll know them, be able to track them. I have no way of buying any alternatives, and no prospect of being able to, not starting out dirt-poor on a new planet. She knows that. These cards would lead her to me, if she needed to find me.

And her final comment confirms it in my mind. If I talk about her secrets, she will find me, and no doubt rectify the situation.

I lift my head, look her steadily in the eyes, and nod my understanding. It’s fair enough, I owe her my life and my silence.

If I could just ask a few questions… No. Shut up.

As I’m thinking that, she shimmers and sinks into the floor.

I have to stop myself yelling and reaching out, as if grabbing her would prevent that body disappearing.

It’s the most peculiar, two-horned sensation. One, that I should have stopped chiding myself for attributing the Shohwa with human characteristics, thinking of her as she. And two, that she could so casually de-fabricate her physical presence like that; a construct maybe, but one that was imbued for a time with the intangible her. She had cast off that body with less concern than I might cast off an old sweater. Much less. I have unwearable, shabby sweaters from my Academy days hanging in the closet back in my old room that I have refused to throw away.

No longer mine, or my concern.

The Newyan Bureau of Industry has seized the manor and my room. Most likely, those old sweaters, and everything else I owned, are ash now.

At least the Shohwa can re-fabricate her construct.

The door I entered through reappears and the lights in the corridor outside go on.

I return the way I came, down the elevator, and go straight to my shared cabin.

On the far end of the cabin, set in the wall, there are four small combination code safes, one for each of the occupants. I open mine.

It’s nearly empty. I don’t have much of value. My cards were in there, but it appears the nanotechnology of the Shohwa reaches every part of the ship.

I put my new cards in and lock the door.

If only it was as simple to lock my questions away.

 

Chapter 8

 

The passengers know nothing about what happened. The majority of ship staff are similarly unaware, beyond that there was an unusual and quickly-corrected problem with the acceleration compensators just before the Chang field was engaged. An alert had been broadcast and everyone had managed to strap in or hold on somewhere.

However the security team know I went to the flight deck and came back down. That gives me legendary status with them, as none of them have. I believe most of them are unaware of what’s up there. I think Danny knows. Maybe. We don’t discuss my visit to the flight deck, at all.

The good news is that I get to join in their training sessions.

Of course, they now know that I’m quick and sneaky in sparring. My element of surprise is lost and I spend much of the time picking myself off the floor or thumping the mats in surrender. Life’s like that.

Fat Boy, real name Gartz, is especially keen to be my partner for sparring. He collects his payback with a toothy grin and a gleam in his eye.

Out of his hearing, Danny mutters thanks in my ear that the boy has turned a corner with the effort he’s putting into training now.

Best of all is Slow Guy, real name Bernard. I learn a lot from him, despite the fact that I can never actually lay a hand on him unless he lets me. He’s always not there when I grab, like he has his own personal Chang field. I end up grabbing thin air and he’s standing a little to one side, blinking and with a look of faint surprise, as if he were saying ‘how come I’m over here?’.

I split most of my waking time between training and researching on the ship’s InfoHub. I devour all the additional information on Amethys that the Shohwa has released. It’s all great overview and broad brush, population statistics and political parties, but there’s nothing on the family I’ll be working for, or even the place I’ll be living.

Once we’re in the Amethys system, the ship links directly to the local InfoHub, but there’s not really a lot more information and my search ability is restricted by the bandwidth.

There are general maps. They show me that I’ll be descending the only space elevator, which they call the Skyhook, to Kensa, which is the largest continent and sits on the equator. Then I have to make my way across to the smaller, southerly continent of Murenys, and once there, to the western coastal region of Welarvor. The only further clue I have is ‘Stormhaven’—but whether that’s the name of the estate or a town is not clear.

The local InfoHub is full of advertising and that doesn’t bring me good news.

The local credits are called dynare.

Five dynare gets me food for a meal from a store. Fifteen would get me a meal in a restaurant, but double that if I include alcoholic drinks. It looks like forty would get me a night in a hotel, or a new set of ordinary clothes.

What remains of my pan-system credits converts to less than a couple of hundred dynare and the trip on the scheduled passenger plane from Kensa to Welarvor costs a thousand.

The transport system is the same as on Newyan, which gets summed up with the phrase broke or broker. In other words, if you fly on the standard passenger fare, you’ll go broke, so register with a broker system and put bids in for special deals.

The trouble is that it takes time to get a ticket with the broking system. I can’t afford to stay in Kensa because my money would run out inside of a week. I could bid higher, and maybe I’d get a ticket sooner. Maybe I don’t need to eat this week. Or sleep in a hotel.

There’s added stress I don’t need at the moment. My job offer came through a pan-system employment broking network. The way these work is hampered by the difficulties of communication from one system to another. The same job offer is broadcast to multiple planetary systems. It takes too long for any detailed negotiation to go back and forth between wherever the offer originated and wherever someone applies, so the local agent is granted a limited authority. At the time I was offered the job, the local agent in Newyan was not aware of anyone else being offered the job, but that doesn’t mean someone else on a different planet wasn’t offered the same job by their local agent at the same time.

It could be a race to get there, and second prize would be the termination salary in the offer—three month’s wages.

I could be left jobless and with barely enough money to live on while I apply for another job.

I have to get there, and I have to get there quickly.

I send a message through the employment broking system that I’m on the way, but it isn’t even acknowledged. That could just be a holdup in the comms system which is still all channeled through the Shohwa’s connection.

The day we make orbit over Amethys, I’m on the InfoHub, checking my bid on the travel broker in case a ticket has come up, checking if I have a response from the employment broker. There’s nothing.

When you log into the InfoHub, there’s a messaging utility. It’s the way Danny told me when the security team planned to train. I open the utility and there’s a new message. It’s anonymous, a tag that links me to a small news item just broadcast from the Amethys InfoHub: the captain of a customs cutter in the Newyan system had gone mad on duty, firing at ships. Luckily no damage was done, the article says, and the man ended up killing himself.

Believe what you will. The Newyan conspirators are cleaning up loose ends and presenting their defense and apology to Xian.

That leaves just the one loose end, here in the Amethys system. Me.

As I read, another message arrives and a second tag links me to a message board on the Amethys InfoHub which is maintained by the Xian delegation on the planet. It gives me an account and password. I guess I have a way to report what I’m doing to the Shohwa. And she’ll have another way to keep track of me.

I change my entries at the two brokers to my new Xian-sponsored address and check the time. The infopad shows me there’s only an hour left before the shuttle leaves.

It doesn’t take long to clear my stuff out of the cabin. I have a single long duffel bag which contains everything I own, apart from what I’m wearing. Embarrassingly, what I’m wearing is cast-offs from Danny. They’re durable fabric, pants and jacket, faded dark brown and with lots of pockets. I re-stitched the seams, washed and pressed them. They’ll do. I can’t afford to refuse charity now. This is my new life. I’ll get over the embarrassment. Or I’ll get used to it.

Not just Danny; all of the security team have been real friends.

I didn’t say anything, and I don’t think the Shohwa told them, but they work out that I’m in a bad way financially. There’s nothing too obvious. If we sit down to eat, somehow my meals get paid for when they divide up the bill. Danny and others casually ask if I wanted anything from the stuff they’re throwing out.

I’m angry. Not with them, but with myself, or with fate, that I have to accept charity. And I have to keep smiling.

I blink the thoughts away. There’s a new life on Amethys to concentrate on.

But I’ll miss them, I’m thinking, just as I spy Danny, Gartz and Bernard at the docking bay.

Paranoia kicks in with a scenario where they’re here to hand me over to the police as soon as we land, but Danny’s grin dispels that.

I lift my mood by going on the attack.

“Things are that bad they’ve put you in charge of bidding for freight planetside?” I say.

Danny laughs. “That would be bad. No. Just new rules. Security on all shuttle operations, until further notice.”

We banter some more, which is better than me choking up.

Gartz has actually taken shore leave on Amethys once before, and while we all board the shuttle and strap in, he lists all his recommendations. These are mainly seedy bars in the coastal resort on Kensa he stayed in. Not much use for me, but his exaggerated descriptions are worth listening to for the laughs.

I guess it’s my last chance to ask more about the Shohwa, but I don’t. The shuttle is still part of the ship, and I suspect the lens next to the comms unit at the front of the seating area is for recording everything in the passenger area.

The questions continue buzzing inside me like wasps, but they’ll die down soon enough, I hope.

It’s harder for us all to talk while we’re in flight because Bernard and Gartz are in the row of seats in front of us. But once we’re accelerating at a constant rate down the Skyhook, they unstrap and kneel backwards on their seats to continue talking to us. In doing so, they happen to block the line of sight to the recording lens at the front.

Danny ignores what they’re saying.

“Zara, just listen, can’t talk long,” he says. “Boss wouldn’t like any recorded evidence of there being any substantial association between us and you. Understand? No evidence we planned with someone from Newyan to cause a fight with the cutter. No evidence you’re a particular friend, outside of us training together and talking to you.”

I nod. I wonder where this is going. Boss is just his way of saying Shohwa.

“We’re the good guys, okay?”

I nod again. I don’t know what the Shohwa is really doing. I don’t think they’re spying, or that the Xian Hegemony is planning an attack of systems on the other side of human space. The only thing I can think of is some kind of anti-piracy patrol. Not that they’d get attacked in the Margin or the Inner Worlds, but a Xian freighter that only travelled out in the Frontier would be suspicious. Pirates aren’t dumb, and they monitor traffic movements to spot the best targets.

Piracy is an ugly, ugly problem in the Frontier and anti-piracy patrol would require the sort of absolute secrecy Shohwa wants.

It half-fits. The questions come buzzing up again, but Danny doesn’t give me time to voice them.

He presses a battered old wallet into my hands.

“Despite the stories Gartz tells, the guys didn’t manage to burn all their spare dynare last time they had shore leave on Amethys. This is what’s left.”

“Danny, I can’t take this.”

“Hush. It’s really not much. In there is a ticket as well. A printed ticket. You know, retro-style, a piece of paper. Don’t lose it. It’s not traceable and not replaceable.”

“I can’t take this,” I say again.

“You don’t have an option. We hacked the employment broking system you used. You’re in a race. There’s one other person who has applied for the job. Only one—the offer has been closed now, so no more are coming—but that one person is on their way.”

I look down at the wallet and blink tears away. My friends don’t owe me anything. They don’t really even know me. And yet, without them, I could have waited in Kensa for a ticket to become available, and lost the job.

“Put it away in your pocket,” Danny says. “Now, as soon as you clear Immigration, change your pan-system credits to dynare, because you won’t be able to do that anywhere else. Then take the first bus you can find to the commercial airfield. It’s only a couple of kilometers away. The name and loading areas are printed on the ticket. This is not going to be a quick or comfortable trip—it’s a Xian industrial transport plane that flies out once a week to places including Welarvor—but it starts off in a couple of hours. Don’t miss it.”

“Thank you, all of you,” I say, blinking again.

He grins. “And in case you’re wondering, it didn’t cost us anything. It’s a favor.”

He looks up at Gartz and Bernard. “Guys, sit down and strap in. You’re setting a bad example, and we’re about to start braking.”

Beneath the view of the recording lens again, we talk about neutral things and I try not to choke up.

 

All of which is how, a couple of days later but a whole continent away, I am able to step down from the cargo plane onto a dusty little airstrip in Welarvor, on the western coast of Murenys, and start trying to find out how to complete my journey.

 

“Stormhaven, you say?”

The local merchant who had come to collect his delivery from the Xian transporter rubs his nose, and squints away westwards.

“There’s a Stormhaven down the coast,” he says. “Fair distance, mind.”

The accent is soft and slow. After listening to Xian accents, it sounds very unhurried.

“Are you going that way?” I ask hopefully.

“No, lass. I’m heading back with this load up the coast. I can drop you in Bandry. That’s the biggest town ’round here, and it’s on the coast road.”

“That would be good, thank you. Do they have buses there that go along the coast?”

“Can’t say I’m sure they do,” he replies. “But they have an inn, and you could call ahead, get your friends to fetch you, maybe.”

I could call ahead if I had their telephone number. I could find their telephone number if I had their name. Unfortunately, every time I’ve managed to check on an infopad there’s been no response to me from the employment broker, and I have nothing except the validation code which I was given on accepting the contract, and the name of the town, Stormhaven. All references in the contract are just given as ‘the Employer’.

I help with loading his truck and then we talk while he drives to Bandry.

When we get there, I buy tea from a little refreshment shop and talk to the owner. It’s a slow day. She joins me with her cup.

However slowly I feel she’s talking, by the time we finish, I know many things:

This is a sparsely populated area. It’s also a safe, law-abiding place. Mostly. It’s a step back in time, and the inhabitants like it that way.

It suffers from powerful storms coming in off the ocean.

A ‘fair distance’ to Stormhaven is a long day’s walk and it would be better to take the coast path, not only because it’s more direct than the coast road, but also the road suffered major subsidence in the last storm. Traffic on that road is very light.

And the predators, mainly nighttime, she assures me, tend to stay inland. Thank you.

I spend some of my dwindling money on a new pair of walking boots, some strong tape, a plain meal and a good night’s sleep at the inn.

At dawn, I’m walking on the coast path. The handles of my duffel have been converted into a backpack harness with tape and some foam I’d been able to beg from the innkeeper.

I’d also been allowed to use his infopad. No messages. The continued silence from the employment broker is unnerving me, but I’m out of options.

I glance upward. Somewhere up there is Shohwa. I wonder if she has surveillance watching me now, but thinking of that makes my flesh creep. Her message, through Danny, is clear enough. Even with the explanation that the incident with the Duhalde was all down to the cutter’s captain going mad, the conspirators on Newyan will be trying to turn it around and point at the Shohwa. Trying to show that the Xian ship had some plan involving using me to provoke an incident. To counter that, it has to be obvious to all observers that I’m completely independent of the ship, and that my travelling in her was a coincidence. She won’t be able to help me, even if there was a logical reason for her to want to.

I hit a low point, and I walk with every doubt in my head weighing me down.

What if the other Dancing Mistress beats me to Stormhaven?

What if there’s a problem with the contract?

The broker’s no longer in business? Does that impact on the contract?

Coming second to another applicant would be bad enough, but if there’s no job at Stormhaven, I don’t even have enough money to make my way back to anywhere populous enough that it could offer a chance to work, let alone enough money to survive while I find that work.

So much for being a Name.

I won’t just be poor, I’ll be a beggar.