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Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adv/Rom – Episode 13

Hmm. Didn’t quite make it to the expected cliffhanger … again.

I lost some of the afternoon with an emergency dental appointment for a cracked tooth, and I’m sitting here with my jaw still numb. The next chapter (the one with the cliffhanger that should have ended this episode) is difficult, and I don’t want to rush it.

Feedback of all kinds is welcome as ever.

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Chapter 27

 

Good intentions. I hardly seem to get a moment to investigate anything.

We’re so busy. In addition to half the academic lessons, I’m teaching Rhoswyn estate management and martial arts on alternate mornings. And two afternoons when the wind is right, I take her to the airfield and we fly in the glider. Hanna complains mildly that her dancing lessons will fall behind, but Rhoswyn prefers flying.

 

The second evening, under Gaude’s suspicious nose, Hanna and I check the wine cellars. The Cardu estate doesn’t produce wine, but Rhoswyn will need an educated palate in society. Stocking the cellar is Gaude’s responsibility and he’s prickly as a cactus when he sees me comparing the order history with the stocked bottles. He’s only distracted when Hanna picks a bottle for our evening meal and Rhoswyn’s first tasting lesson.

“An excellent choice,” he murmurs, unctuous as a wine trader, his fingers brushing the bottle and, totally accidentally, Hanna’s hand.

I smile tightly and close the old ledger. It seems the bottle found on the Low Lady didn’t come from this cellar. So where did the Duchess get it? Why didn’t she take one from her own cellar? If someone gave it to her, who was it? Shohwa-nia agrees with me: if I’m to solve this, it’s in the small details that others have overlooked. I believe the Duchess was drugged, and I want to find out who had access to the food and wine she had on board.

I’m becoming obsessed by finding out what happened to her. She’s invaded my sleep almost as if she’s haunting me. I dream of her, and of her last day. I dream of the Duke, looking out from his storm porch to the distant bay below, wondering why his wife is late. Or wondering when the body would be found.

Little surprise that I wake unrested.

I take no consolation from the fact that Hanna seems to not sleep well either. As much as she maintains her cheerful mask, her face looks thinner as the days go on, making her eyes seem larger. Now that’s a haunted look.

But it’s Hanna and Talan together who finally provide me with an opportunity to progress my investigation, on the afternoon of the fourth day.

Hanna’s claimed Rhoswyn for the afternoon. They’re driving to Bandry to select a ball gown for Rhoswyn and have it fitted. Hanna has a gown in her luggage. I haven’t of course, and I can’t afford one.

And Talan is held up in another part of the fort over some police business.

I’m supposed to wait for Talan. On the other hand, tomorrow the Duke is back.

I’m running out of time.

I can’t solve this murder in the next day, but maybe, just maybe, I can find something that eliminates him from the list of suspects. I’m going to tell him everything I know, for Rhoswyn’s sake, and I will feel so much better if I know I’m not helping a murderer.

I try to justify my plans to myself by noting that Talan doesn’t accompany Rhoswyn and me in the glider – there’s barely enough room as it is.

It’s not as if Talan is expected to be with me the entire time, I whisper to the empty room.

Doesn’t work; I feel a little sick at betraying her trust. I leave her a note that I’m out for fresh air and will be back in the evening. I tell myself that perhaps I’ll be back before she is.

The other problem, of course, is someone else might stop me. I am still under arrest.

I walk down to the stables, my heart hammering in my chest.

No one challenges me as I find the same placid mare Talan chose for me before and lead her out of her stable into the forecourt. A groom makes me jump by calling out a greeting as I fetch the saddle and bridle. I manage to return the greeting.

The stable is a busy place and the mare isn’t anyone’s prized cavalry mount. No one stops me. No one asks what I’m doing. And no one signs me out.

My heartrate is still sky-high as we canter gently down to the Coast Path. Every moment I’m expecting someone to yell and come after me.

It’s not till we’re hidden by a bend in the path that I slow the mare to a walk. My heartrate sinks, and her ears twitch as if she’s amused at my stress.

But I’m out on my own now, and getting back in will be even easier. As useful as it has been to me today, I add the stables to my list of security issues to discuss with the Duke when he gets back tomorrow.

I follow the Coast Path down to Stormhaven village below, and half an hour later, I hitch my mare to the post outside the Spyglass in the harbor.

Warwick greets me as I walk through the door.

“It’s our very own flying mermaid,” he greets me, and stands me an ale for having saved Lord Roscarrow’s life the night I’d arrived.

As I’d hoped, it’s a quiet time at the Spyglass, and Warwick is an easy man to get talking.

There’s little that happens in Stormhaven he doesn’t know something about. My problem is twofold: not making him wary, and knowing which half of what he tells me to discount.

He spins me the local tales of piskatellers, how they warn the fleets about storms, or rescue drowning men. How the fishing communities set an honorary place for them at table and fishing ships make offerings on leaving harbor.

I buy him an ale and a top-up for me.

He explains Feast Days on the Welarvor coast, and I finally understand what was going on when I met the troop of mounted police on the day I walked from Bandry.

Every summer three villages are chosen for a ‘raid’ on their Feast Day. The Welarvon Mounted Police turn up on horseback, dressed in ‘traditional’ costumes, which they never actually used, and round up all the townsfolk by blowing hunting horns and waving lances. A court is held in the town square and several miscreants are summarily punished by being thrown into the harbor. These usually include the mayor and any publicans. Then the police, including the Duke, serve the villagers their feast in the town hall, waiting on them hand and foot.

While he’s telling me that, I buy us another round of ales.

I tell him how Talan warned me against mutant pigs on the Coast Path, and when we’ve finished laughing, I slide in a casual question about the marriage of the Duke and Duchess.

“Sound as a new roof, it was,” he says and takes a quaff of ale. “I’m not saying it’s a good idea marrying for politics, not my place to comment, but it worked for them. Couldn’t believe what I read last year. Lot of people never been near the place saying those things about them. And that inquiry. Suicide? Nonsense. Don’t know what happened, but the Duchess wasn’t that kind of person.”

His eyes darken and he polishes the gleaming bartop with a cloth.

“Here, look at this.” He tosses the cloth aside and retrieves his infopad from behind the bar. What he shows me is a video of the last Stormhaven Feast Day. The Duke is strutting about in his cloak, his helmet tilted back. He’s sentencing Warwick and the mayor to their swim in the harbor. The Duchess is playing a part, kneeling and begging mercy for the ‘accused’. She’s dressed all in white with green seaweed wound around her.

“That’s an old tradition on the coast,” Warwick says, pointing at the dress.

“To symbolise Bounty?” One of the representations of the Goddess in the Shrine has a seaweed crown and sashes.

“Mmm,” Warwick says. “Bounty’s a city-folk name. Here on the coast we say morrohow—the gifts of the sea. What the sea gives, it may take back. The least of its gifts may be costly, or the greatest may be free. We’re all the same on the deeps.”

I’m not really listening—I’m looking at the Duke and Duchess. They fall out of character as judge and advocate when he haughtily refuses to listen to her pleas and passes judgment. They laugh, and as the villagers hurry Warwick and the mayor to their watery doom, she takes her husband’s arm. His hand comes to rest gently on hers, and the camera catches the exchange of looks.

I can feel it, with a stone-cold certainty. The Duke did not kill his wife.

There’s more on the Feast Day, but I close the video. It’s in a folder devoted to the Tremaynes. Warwick is an obvious supporter. There are pictures and videos of the pair and their involvment in the life of Stormhaven. The Duchess opening the new gardens at the Shrine. The Duke at a launch ceremony for a new fishing boat. Both of them at the election of a new mayor. A thanksgiving. A funeral. A wedding.

And a picture of the Duchess holding a bottle of wine outside the Spyglass.

The same wine I’d seen in the court report.

“Is that one of your wines?” I ask, peering at the image.

He squints. “Oh, no, that’s special that is. Only a few dozen made every year. The Duchess’ family makes it on their farm down near Port Eyren. They sent her a bottle every year. Was her favorite, you know.”

Unexpectedly, my eyes prickle and I cover it by blowing my nose.

That’s why I haven’t been able to find any mention of the wine on the InfoHub. It’s her family’s hobby wine.

I’ve taken a risk of alienating Talan, or getting us both into trouble, and I’ve barely made any progress. Aside from that I’ve settled in my mind that the Duke was not responsible. But am I being objective about that? I’m deciding that on the basis of seeing a video of him with his wife?

No. Not really objective.

Customers come in, and Warwick stops chatting to serve them. I realize I’ve spent too long. The light is fading and I wanted to be back before evening.

I leave with a wave and point my patient mare back up the winding path to the fort. The gentle rocking motion of her walk is relaxing. I sigh and close my eyes.

I’m not being objective about this investigation.

The fact is, I don’t want the Duke to be guilty.

Who do I think I am anyway?

I should drop this sleuthing. I have the Duke’s three month’s of ‘termination’ payment. That’s enough to get me a passage to the next world through a broker.

Where?

Anywhere beyond the reach of the conspirators on Newyan and Amethys. That’s the sensible course of action.

That rocking is making me sleepy.

And Warwick’s ale is stronger than I thought!

Stupid to match drinks with an innkeeper. I can’t afford to get drunk and let my guard slip. For all the arguments that Newyan will go for a legal attack against me rather than an assassin, I could easily have misread the situation. I’d be an easy target tonight.

I turn and look back down the path nervously. I can’t see anyone, but it is getting darker. Just my imagination spooking me, thinking there was someone behind me.

Yes, run away now. My grandfather would approve. Become nothing and nobody again. Offer no weakness, suffer no wound.

And yet, if I ran away now, I’d be letting Rhoswyn down. The Duke, too.

Not that letting him down is so important. He can look after himself.

But Rhoswyn’s begun to look up to me.

And I’m beginning to really love this place.

It’s bone-deep already.

Such a tangled web.

It’s a good thing the mare knows her way back, because I doze off, sitting right there on her back.

I’m kneeling at his feet, crowned and bound with the gifts off the sea. He lifts me up, then offers his arm.

I look up at his face, but the sun is shining in my eyes.

I wake up with a jerk as my mare snorts and tosses her head, happy to be home.

The stables are dark, the one light in the empty forecourt pointed at me and serving only to make the shadows on the sides deeper.

I dismount wearily, slipping down from the saddle.

“DOWN ON THE GROUND! NOW!”

I don’t even have time to react.

Hands grip my arms and force me, face-down, into the mud.

 

Chapter 28

 

I’m handcuffed, lifted back to my feet, then thoroughly and professionally patted down for weapons.

Facing me is Pollard, the Duke’s security advisor. A couple of Mounted Police troopers did the searching. They’re holding my arms.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Pollard snarls at me.

“I was out for a ride,” I reply. “It was a pleasant evening, until you happened. What do you think you’re doing?”

“You’re under arrest!”

“Yeah. Old news, Pollard. I’m well aware of it. No one said I couldn’t go for a ride.”

I sense a hesitation from the troopers. One of them’s a guy I’ve been training with in the dojo. I don’t think they’re really happy with Pollard.

“You are supposed to be accompanied by Trooper Sandrey at all times—”

There’s an almighty clatter of hooves behind.

I twist around.

Talan, on her gelding, and she’s not happy.

We scatter and she leaps off, landing in front of Pollard, who backs away.

“Get those cuffs off,” Talan says over her shoulder before turning back. “What the nova do you think you’re doing, Pollard?”

“The prisoner was—”

“Escaping? Just how much do you not understand about horses? This is the front end.” She holds out her hand to the side, and her gelding immediate trots up to stand next to her. “That means the horse is moving towards you. If Miss Aguirre had been escaping you would have seen the horse’s ass. You’ll recognise what one looks like from your shaving mirror.”

“She’s supposed to be accomp—” Pollard tries.

“I was accompanying her,” Talan lies well.

She turns on the two troopers. They’ve freed me and they’re standing at parade rest and looking embarassed.

“You two! Saddles and bridles, then rub the horses down.”

She grabs my arm and pulls me past Pollard, slowing just enough to deliver one last comment.

“You don’t have authority over a single trooper in this fort, Mister Pollard, and you’d do well to remember that.”

We walk in icy silence for a couple of minutes.

I glance back. There’s no sign of Pollard.

“Thank you,” I say.

She doesn’t reply. Ominously, she says nothing at all while she hurries me through the fort until we’re standing outside the Duke’s office.

The Duke is back early.

And there’s a strange tension in the whole fort; a silence broken by the sound of troopers hurrying down passages.

My relief at being rescued evaporates, and is replaced by apprehension.

“Stay there,” Talan says curtly and slips inside.

I’m wearing the outdoor clothes that Danny gave me. They’re filthy with mud from the forecourt. I take the jacket off and use it to wipe my face and hands.

Talan must have known I’d gone down to the stables and shadowed me. That was why I’d felt there was someone behind me on the path.

I can hear her speaking and the Duke’s deep voice replying.

Was she spying on me, or just trying to protect me?

Then Talan is back out. Her nose wrinkles at the jacket but she motions me to give it to her.

She’s standing in front of me. We’d be face to face, but she’s too tall for that. I’m going to get a crick in my neck, but this is probably not a good time to make that sort of wisecrack.

She’s still angry, but I don’t think it’s all directed at me.

I whisper, “I’m sorry, Talan. I put you in an awful position. I owe you.”

“You do,” she says. “So do me this one thing in return. Tell nothing but the truth in there.”

She moves to aside to usher me in. The door closes behind me.

 

Chapter 29

 

Duke Tremayne is standing looking out of his open window, hands behind his back. However he might try to disguise it, every line in his body tell me he’s furious.

I clear my throat. “Is Rhoswyn all right?”

He turns abruptly, perhaps surprised at my first words.

“Yes.”

His eyes travel up and down me, taking in the mud on the front of my trousers, the smears on my hands and face. I seem to be making a habit of turning up in front of him worse for wear.

What does he see? What’s going on behind those eyes?

“Talk to me about Rhoswyn,” he says.

“What do you mean?”

This can’t be about my escapade today. What have I done?

“You’re part of the team teaching her. I’m her father. Report your findings so far.”

While I gather my thoughts, he takes one of his storm-capes and covers a chair for me to sit down without ruining the fabric.

“She’s an excellent pupil—”

“I seem to recall that you got close to implying I’m responsible for her poor results in some way. Explain. Why are her school grades so poor?”

He pulls a chair up and sits opposite me, tense as a bowstring.

I decide against speaking tactfully or evasively. He probably isn’t going to get any more angry.

“She’s deliberately failing,” I say.

“Why?”

“Because, in the past, when she had difficulties, you’d help her.”

He blinks.

“That’s what she’s trying to make happen again. She’s longing for you to spend time with her. You’ve given up teaching her gliding, you never really spent as much time as you should on the estate management, you’re away a lot, the only thing she has left is her academic work.”

He surges back to his feet, so I do too. It’s another neck-crick to lock eyes with him, because he’s even taller than Talan, but I’m not going to let him look down at me in the chair.

“You have no idea—”

“No, perhaps not,” I interrupt him, “but you asked my opinion based on what I’ve seen, and if there are things I haven’t seen, then you’ll have to tell me about them.”

He doesn’t respond to that, so I go straight on.

“As for what I’m working on with her, where she really shines is in estate management. She’s a perfect student. I’ve only spent a couple of mornings with her, but I already know by the end of the summer, there won’t be anything more for me to teach her.”

I don’t add if I’m still here, by the end of summer.

“She’s also a natural pilot,” I say. “She feels the air around that glider. Understands the ridge effect from the onshore winds.”

His eyes narrow. “You flew all the way down to Marazion and back, didn’t you?”

“She flew. I was just in the back seat. And we went to Bandry as well. I thought she needed those sort of flights to counter a comment she made about not being able to go anywhere in a glider.”

That gets a snort from him.

“Tell me, Miss Aguirre, how comfortable is that glider with the pair of you in it?”

That knocks me back on my righteous ass. Of course he can’t continue to teach Rhoswyn as she grows bigger. She and I are squeezed tightly in, so there’d be no chance for him to get in with her. I’ve been stupid on that point.

Fair enough, but as I’m on the topic, I might as well get in another item from my long list: “What she needs is a target to focus on. A challenge. So, I’ve put her down for the junior section of the gliding championships in Kensa.”

The Duke knows exactly which one I mean. There’s the small matter that he has a dozen trophies from that competition over the years, and it’s so important to Rhoswyn to excel at what her father’s good at.

“That may not be possible,” the Duke murmurs and returns to his seat. “What about martial arts?”

He obviously knows exactly how we’ve split the tasks between Hanna and me. And I’m really pleased he’s shown such an interest in his daughter’s education. But what does this have to do with whatever has happened to make him angry today? Is it me, or something Rhoswyn’s done?

“She’s a good student, but it will take time.” I sit back down too.

“And all the academic problems…you’re effectively saying that’s all my fault?”

“Not in so many words—”

“But yes.”

I swallow and don’t contradict him.

“You also warned me there’s a conspiracy targetting me and my family,” he says. “Does that mean I should trust you?”

“Not necessarily,” I reply, and give him the same reasoning I gave his daughter. “It could be a bluff to put you off your guard.”

His mouth stretches. It can’t be called a real smile.

“Despite that, Rhoswyn tells me she trusts you.”

“I’ll thank her. What in the Goddess’ name has happened, sir?”

“I took your words to heart, Miss Aguirre, and started asking difficult questions about the ownership of media on Amethys. The result was an immediate push back. Rhoswyn and Miss Esterhauze were ambushed in Bandry by a dozen news agencies.”

He can’t sit in his seat, but this time he doesn’t try looming over me. He goes to the window and glares out into the night.

“They were asking my daughter questions about the state of my marriage at the time of my wife’s…death.”

“That’s disgusting.” But what I would have expected from the conspirators. And I notice he didn’t say suicide.

“Yes, it’s bad enough on its own, but there’s another problem.”

“Sir?”

“How did they know to turn up in Bandry?” He swivels around to look at me. “Very few people knew that they were going. I knew. Sandrey and Moyle knew. Pollard knew. Gaude, Rhoswyn, Miss Esterhauze and you knew. The shop itself. Who told the media?”

“It wasn’t me.”

“Then what were you doing in Stormhaven this afternoon?”

Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adv/Rom – Episode 12

Ah. Hit a writing problem and so I’ve only got one long-ish chapter for you tonight. It’s getting a little complicated and needs laying out clearly.

I *might* add another chapter later in the weekend – no promises.

So no one believes the Duchess committed suicide, but how was she murdered and by whom?

Questions, comments, observations, theories welcome. 🙂

New readers – the story starts at https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/05/28/zara-episode-2/

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Chapter 26

 

After we have lunch in the main dining room, I beg off dancing in the afternoon. Nothing to do with the bruises I picked up in the dojo.

It suits me to spend the afternoon evaluating threats and courses of action.

Back at our apartment, Talan lies down on the sofa and is immediately asleep. It makes me smile. The woman has a gift the gods themselves must envy.

I sit across from her with the infopad, but I hesitate before logging in.

What should I be doing, given all the threats hanging over my head? Gather information? Or start running?

The conspirators on Newyan will be moving against me soon. They have to.

Their options are to either send an assassin or start legal proceedings to extradite me.

Meeting me in court would be, in a fair universe, something they’d avoid: courts should be open and proceedings reported. Not only would they have difficulty proving the case against me, but I’d get a chance to make counter accusations.

But… Shohwa believes the conspiracy in Newyan is closely associated with the conspiracy here. I certainly wouldn’t get a fair hearing on Newyan, so it’s not a stretch to imagine the same happening here. Probably they’d arrange a closed court session and ignore any defense.

So, court is a better option for them than hiring an assassin.

My ending up at Cardu makes it an even more attractive option for them, if Shohwa is correct that the Tremayne family is going to be subject to the same attacks as my family in Newyan.

The conspiracy will know I’ve already got to turn up in the Central District court to have the ridiculous charges from saving Lord Roscarrow’s life quashed. They’ll know I’m currently in the custody of the Welarvon Mounted Police. I bet they’ll use that court appearance to start an extradition appeal. That gets them two targets for one attack – the Duke will seem guilty by association. That’s the way their media reports will spin it.

The Duke would be forced to disassociate from me as quickly as he could.

I know what Grandfather’s advice to the Duke would be: Offer no weakness; suffer no wound. The Duke has to pick his battles, and his own family is at stake.

For me, I should warn the Duke, even if that means revealing who and what I am. I might as well advise him to throw me out too and save him troubling his conscience.

With all of that hanging over me, why do I feel so involved in questioning the Duchess’ death?

Because it doesn’t fit.

It was over a year ago. Sure, the media jumped on it, but there wasn’t any real follow-up. On Newyan, the attacks on my family came one after the other, relentlessly.

And if the Duchess’ murder doesn’t fit, maybe it was a mistake.

Someone jumped the gun.

Or they thought the Duchess had found something out about the plots and they had to work in a hurry.

Haste breeds mistakes, Grandfather always said.

If I can find that mistake, maybe I can unravel this plot. Not on my own, but I could provide the Duke a defence, or maybe just something additional for Shohwa. Any setback for the conspirators is a win for me.

But what if I find the Duchess was murdered by the Duke?

I bury my face in my hands.

If the Duchess was murdered, if it wasn’t the Duke, if the conspiracy ordered it, if they made a mistake…

I’m going in circles. I have to do something.

With a sigh, I switch the infopad on.

There’s a message from Shohwa in my intray. It’s encrypted, naturally. She can see that there are programs hunting through the Amethys InfoHub for suspicious activity, and the sort of information gathering she’s doing is illegal.

Of course, just about everything she’s doing is illegal, even just being there, and it would be a massive diplomatic problem if they find her. Not to mention Amethys’ authorities will certainly require the Xian delegation’s servers to be disconnected and purged. Killing her.

For me, the Shohwa on the ship is a person. I can’t quite get my head around the Shohwa in the Xian delegation’s computer network being the same person. In our last conversation, I took to calling her Shohwa-nia, Shohwa’s daughter, and as her message decrypts itself into a folder, I see with a grin that’s what she’s calling herself too.

The bulk of her message is a completely illegal copy of the state’s confidential court reports from the inquest into the death of Duchess Tremayne. Not the published report, but the full transcript and private deliberations of the inquiry.

I glance guiltily over at Talan. It takes a moment to set up the screen so I can switch to doing something less unlawful if Talan wakes or someone else calls on us, then I settle down and start reading the summary.

 

The Duchess was seen by several people setting out alone in her boat, a ten meter, gaff-rigged sloop called Low Lady, the summary says. It was just after dawn. It was particularly noted that she was alone because the old sloop usually took two to sail her. No one was alarmed because she was known to be an excellent sailor.

Her failure to return by nightfall caused a huge search to be mounted along the whole coast. Ships in orbit turned scanners down onto the ocean, air-sea rescue planes flew, trawlers pulled in their nets and divided up segments of coast between them to hunt for the Low Lady.

By dawn, the sloop had been discovered, anchored out of sight of land. There was no one on board.

It wasn’t until a day later, a creeler boat found the Duchess’ body in a secluded bay.

The post mortem showed she was dead before she was in the water.

Her blood and stomach contents showed she’d taken potent mixture of sedatives and alcohol in batches, which had eventually amounted to a fatal dose at some stage in the evening.

There was no disturbance on the boat. Everything was neat and tidy in the cabin. Sails had been hauled down and tied loosely as if they were expected to be used again.

But there was nothing to contradict the story that emerged: she’d sailed until midday, anchored, eaten a small meal, then laid on the foredeck and begun washing down strong pills with glasses of water and wine, possibly passing out and semi-reviving from time to time, until she finally succumbed to the cumulative dose.

It was speculated that a wave could have rocked the boat and the body had fallen overboard.

There was no note. No indication from anyone who knew her that she was suicidal or even depressed. She wasn’t on medications and no one knew where the pills had come from. No one who had met her immediately before her death had thought she was behaving unusually.

Equally, there was no sign of a struggle. No indication she’d been forced to swallow the pills. Indeed, no sign of anyone else on the boat.

In the folder are media reports and photos. Archive photos of the Duke and Duchess at their marriage, and later, carrying Rhoswyn just after she was born. Then photos of the Duke at the inquiry into his wife’s death, his face an emotionless mask. Finally, photos of other Founding Families gathering around at the funeral; I recognise the Roscarrows, flanking the Duke and Rhoswyn, as if to protect them from photographers.

The media articles avoid making any direct accusations, but belabor just about every possible reason there might have been marital problems, including that the marriage had been arranged as a political union and there was no male child.

I read the summary once again, then steeling myself, rush through the post mortem report, avoiding looking at the photos in that section. It says what the summary says, in medical jargon, as far as I can tell.

I take more time over the forensics report. It’s hugely detailed: the condition of the sea at the time, maps showing the direction and strength of tides overnight, the painstaking effort to determine that there were no other fingerprints in the cabin or on the bottle of wine, the background of all the people who gave statements, and even the Tremayne family finances.

There’s a whole section on the boat. The Low Lady was allegedly an impounded smuggling boat, dating back to the first settlements when a crazy jigsaw of jurisdictions and tarriffs incentivised ‘marketing’ across boundaries. It had been in the Duchess’ family all that time. Rebuilt twice, each time carefully recreating the original design.

And at the end of the folder, there a file of text in two parts. One is intended as a media release and states that the court agrees with the proposal of the Welarvon Mounted Police that the Duchess had committed suicide.

The second is internal to the judicial system and clarifies that the ruling was taken on the balance of probabilities, and that many unexplained anomalies and unanswered questions remain.

I’m no detective, and certainly not an expert on the case, but that media release conclusion stinks, even without knowing what the writer thought were ‘anomalies’.

There are so many questions. Why eat a meal first? Why even take the food on board if you’re planning to kill yourself? Why drink water and wine? Why dose yourself over the course of an afternoon?

I know those aren’t any kind of proof and that people contemplating suicide don’t behave rationally.

There’s more, something I can’t put my finger on yet.

Included in the report is a section on motive, or rather, lack of it. The Duke and Duchess had no financial problems. There were no medical diagnoses of terminal illness. Nothing legal pending. Nothing known about marital problems.

I close the files and re-encrypt them. I’ve given myself plenty to think about, but I’m no nearer finding out about the conspirators.

First impressions: this was no suicide. Anyone this prepared to kill themselves in this way would show some sign.

So the Duchess was murdered.

I shudder, remembering my Dancing Mistress whispering as she showed me around the sealed section of the laboratory she kept in the basement: There is a universe of poisons out there. Not all of them are known. Not all of them share the same purpose.

Someone who wasn’t on the sloop when it left harbor incapacitated the Duchess in some way, then fed her the sedatives and wine until she died, and then departed. The most obvious theory is it was someone she met in another boat. Someone she knew. Maybe they had lunch with her, sitting on the foredeck. Put something in the wine which rendered the Duchess partly conscious.

And then they stayed with her, feeding her sedatives, coldly, methodically killing her and taking the whole afternoon to do it.

I shiver again.

Someone she knew. An assignation, out of sight of land? The court report touches on this: there were other vessels off that part of the coast, but they were all fishing boats with multiple crew on board. No one reported any other vessels, but then, only one reported seeing the Low Lady. Another similar boat might have escaped attention.

I close my eyes. The obvious theory has plenty of holes in it. For example, there’s nothing in the forensics about chemical residue in the wine bottle, other than wine, or in the glass the Duchess drank from.

And it would have been risky for someone to be seen sailing away from the area.

I want to see the Low Lady, which is stored here in the fort, but I don’t expect to learn much from it.

The court report includes a section on the investigation, which looks thorough, but there are still some lines I want pursued.

Did any space ship in orbit happen to be scanning this area at any part of the afternoon? Maybe Shohwa-nia can find that out.

The other two are for me.

Where did the wine and meal come from? Who handled them before the Duchess?

And what was the real state of her marriage?

I have ideas how to go about these, but it won’t be possible today.

The biggest problem about any investigation is that my time is so limited and I’m going to be busy.

The first stage would be to prove that the Duke didn’t murder his wife. How long do I have for that? I send a meeting request to his online address. Gaude has already warned me any appointment could take a few days, and the Duke’s auto-response comes back telling me he’s out at the moment and expected back in five days.

Five days.

That’s my timeframe to investigate the Duke. I want to be able to go into his office free of any suspicion that he’s a murderer, if I’m going to be warning him about the conspirators and the shortcomings of his security here at Cardu.

Not least of which shortcomings is his auto-response telling me when he’s due back.

Who am I kidding? Thinking about it, I realize whatever I find or don’t find, I still have to warn him about the conspirators. If not for his sake, then for Rhoswyn’s.

 

Before I close the browser I set up a search. This one can’t use the local InfoHub. I have to submit it to a data broking system to wait for the next millisecond of free bandwidth on the information packets that are passed between planets. I specify the Tavoli system as the target, and request complete data on Hanna Esterhauze. The search will terminate once the volume of data reaches a the size of a standard transmission packet, but it searches chronologically, so the most recent results will make it in.

Given the delays between systems, it may take a couple of weeks to return.

Of course, anyone can make that kind of search. On anyone.

I’d be stupid to think Gaude hasn’t done a search on me. Or Pollard. Or Hanna for that matter. Any search on me will return all the lies about being a fugitive wanted in connection with corruption on Newyan. Who knows, maybe by now the conspirators have charged me with murder as well. Whatever comes back, I’m sure it will be enough to change the Duke’s attitude to me. I will be under real arrest, not this parole system.

Unless I can prove links between Newyan and Amethys, the Duchess’ murder and my family’s persecution, that couple of weeks may be all I have left here.

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…

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

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.

 

 

 

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!

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

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.”