Gosh, that week rushed by and another episode is due…
This episode feels as if it will need more polishing. What do you think?
This section continues directly after:
And please copy the link for the start of the series as widely as possible:
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, 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.
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.”
“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.