lady penelope and the cultists of thule
by
david england

Another tale from the author's NHOSS continuum, in which space travel was achieved in the early nineteenth century and, a hundred years after that, the powerful nations of Earth have extended their sway in what one might call the "Scramble for the Solar System"...


Part I

 

“Well, Elias,” the woman commented approvingly.  “This year of schooling appears to have agreed with you.”

Lady Penelope Hillcrest, fifteenth baroness Botelier, suppressed a smile as the youth’s spine straightened ever so slightly and his chest puffed out just a bit.  It did her own ego no great favors, she thought to herself, knowing how his reaction to her complement was driven by an overwhelming passion to please her.  On the other hand, her words were not flattery, either.  The young man standing before her now bore little resemblance to the scrawny, ill-fed petty thief she’d caught picking her pocket on the streets of the Venusian capital, Aphrodite, only a year ago.  Perhaps he only needed proper feeding, she mused.

In any event, the changes over these several months of the school term were nothing short of remarkable, though to some extent this was emphasized by the fact that he’d been away from her for most of that time and she’d not been witness to the incremental alterations day by day, but instead had been presented the end result all at once.  Good food and proper exercise can do wonders for a body which has been deprived of both.  She gave her head an imperceptible shake.  If one didn’t know better, she thought, he might easily be taken for the son of a prosperous merchant who’d sought to provide the boy with a solid education in order to improve the young man’s chances out in the worlds.  And, she added to the observation before she could stop herself, a rather handsome young man, at that.

“Thank you, my lady,” Elias replied, his tone serious and respectful—though the effect was marred somewhat by the broad smile he wore.  His hair, the color of dark cinnamon, made some attempt at an ordered arrangement and those brown eyes were warm and kind, another feature with which Penelope was both familiar and yet seeing for the first time.  “I have tried very hard to apply myself during my time here.”

Penelope nodded.  “I understand that your studies have been completed most satisfactorily.”  That much she would have been expected to have gleaned from his intermittent letters and from the official notices sent to her from the dean of students.  What she left unmentioned was the fact that she’d been in constant correspondence with Professor Franske from the time she’d first arranged for Elias’ attendance at the flagship university of the Austro-German imperial territory of Mercury until just a few weeks ago when she’d departed on her journey to retrieve the lad.  “You managed to enjoy yourself as well, I hope,” she added.  “All work and no play…”

“Elias’ smile spread into a grin.  “I did, my lady.”  The smile dimmed just a bit.  “Though to be honest, I did miss our adventures somewhat.  Football just doesn’t compare to a trip to Vulcan.”

Her own suppressed smile broke from its confinement at her young assistant’s still-boyish enthusiasm and she gave a slow nod.  “While I cannot argue the point, I also cannot say that there’s much of your wished-for adventure ahead just yet.  We’re heading to my family estate where I’ll be continuing your practical education.”

Elias tried very hard to conceal his disappointment and succeeded not in the least, but then his expression regained some of its former excitement as he fully processed her statement.  “Your estate, my lady?  We’re going to Mars?”

He hadn’t yet had the opportunity to visit her family’s lands on the Red Planet, though he’d heard tell of them.  Penelope had arranged for his term at the university shortly after their Vulcan adventure and had done so from her London townhouse.

“That’s precisely what I mean, Elias,” she replied.  “The good Captain will be expecting us aboard this evening and we’re slated for departure first thing tomorrow.”

“An’ we’re going on the Remembrance?”  Elias’ spirits were obviously revived by this point.  “Do you think the captain…”  He caught himself and fought to re-establish some composure.  In a more dignified manner, he continued.  “Of course, my lady.”

Penelope laughed, knowing exactly what was going through the young man’s mind.  “Now, Elias,” she said, gesturing toward the door.  “Let’s go bid farewell to the professor.  Then we’ll have dinner before heading to the aetherport.  The Remembrance’s dinghy will ferry us to orbit.”

“Yes, my lady,” he responded with a slight bow, then opened the door for her.  The two of the moved down the dormitory hall, then stepped from the building into the quad beneath the high arcing dome that covered the Mercurian capital and headed across the campus.

 

###

 

“Elias did very well, my lady,” Professor Reinholdt Franske informed her.  “Remarkably well, in fact, given his lack of prior formal education.  His academic performance was consistently above-average, even superior in select subjects.”  The professor’s eyes glinted mischievously as he glanced at the young man.  “Though I suspect there was a correlation with his interest level in those cases.”

“That is good to hear,” Penelope replied, glossing over the light jab.  Elias’ face reddened only slightly, she noticed, and he was wise enough to say nothing.  “I appreciate the university making the necessary allowances for his particular program of study.”

She had made certain decisions regarding her newly-acquired and somewhat unorthodox assistant during the return trip from Vulcan via Mercury just over a year ago.  The professor’s stray comment during their in-bound visit about considering enrollment in the university’s interdisciplinary program had sparked an idea and upon her return to Earth, after making her report to the prime minister, Lord Salisbury, she had written to the professor.  A month or so had passed as the two of them had worked through the details of her proposal by way of correspondence and during that time she’d focused her attention on Elias’ tutoring.  As the arrangement came into its final form, however, she’d broached the topic to the young man.

“What would you say, Elias,” she remembered commenting one morning as they sat in the study of her London townhouse working through a series of third-declension Latin verbs, “if any opportunity arose for you to study elsewhere for a time?”

“Wha’ would you mean by tha’, my lady?” he’d asked, obviously perplexed.  “His diction had improved by leaps and bounds under her tutelage, though he would readily slip back into old habits of speech, particularly when caught off-guard.

“A young man like yourself needs breadth of experience, Elias,” she’d explained.  “You’ve done remarkably well in a very short period of time, but I feel that you need something more than what I’m able to provide you right now.”

His expression had frozen.  “You’re not a-wantin’ to be rid o’ me, are you, my lady?” he’d asked quietly.

“Not at all,” she’d reassured him softly. “I could not have asked for a better assistant, believe me.  But I want you to live up to the considerable potential I see within you.  And that means making certain choices.”

“What sort o’ choices?”

“I’ve made arrangements for you to spend a year at Frederick-Wilhelm University on Mercury, pursuing a special program of study I’ve designed for you.  Professor Franske has agreed to oversee your curriculum and act as your mentor, but you would live in the dormitory and take classes along with the other students.”

Elias’ eyes had widened as the implications of her statement had sunk in.  “By myself?”

“You survived on the streets of Aphrodite for much longer than that, as I recall.”

“The streets I can handle,” he’d replied.  “I dunno ‘bout no fancy school, though.”

“The professor will help you,” she’d answered with a small smile.  “Besides, I think that you’ll find that young men aren’t all that different, regardless of their habitat.  You might even have fun while you’re learning.”

He’d sat quietly, thinking her proposition over.  “Do I have to keep doin’ Latin?” he’d asked.  “’Cause I don’t see how that can be fun nohow.”

Penelope remembered chuckling.  “Well,” she’d allowed, “the point of the entire exercise is to expose you to new opportunities, so I doubt it would be the best use of a limited curriculum to focus on subjects you can learn here.”  When Elias’ expression had turned hopeful, she’d continued.  “But you’ll be picking that subject right back up on your return—to what degree your skills have become rusty, I suppose I can leave to you.”

“Awww…” Elias had muttered.  “I mean—my lady, you just can’t cut a body any slack, can you?”

She’d ignored the comment.  “In exchange, however, I can permit some flexibility in other areas.  The course of study I’ve established for you has allowances for several electives, so I’d like you to give some thought as to the topics you’d like to pursue.”

“Oh, that’s easy, my lady,” Elias blurted.  “I wanna study--”

“Elias’ study of astronavigation and aether mechanics,” the professor’s voice snapped Penelope back to the present, “proved exceptionally promising.  The young man has an excellent grasp of mathematics.”  Franske looked at her pointedly.  “I’d like to encourage him to continue these studies.”

Penelope nodded in response.  “I believe I can arrange for further tutoring in those subjects,” she answered.  To a certain extent, the young man’s choices had not overly surprised her—she’d seen the enthusiastic way he’d taken to the Captain’s attention during their first adventure together.  The sheer emotive force behind that enthusiasm, on the other hand, was another matter entirely and a part of her wondered if Elias did have other motives besides a penchant for adventurism.

“That is excellent to hear,” the professor replied.  Turning to Elias, he continued.  “Well, young man, I cannot say that I am happy to see you leaving our academy so soon, but I am extremely pleased that you had this time with us.”

“Thank you, sir,” Elias replied respectfully.  “I’m very grateful for the time here.”

“We’d enjoy having you again in the future, should you decide to continue your studies,” the professor offered.  “Though I suspect your interest lies in the practical rather than the academic arena.”

Elias smiled.  “I cannot deny that, sir.”

“Alas,” the professor responded with a sad smile of his own.  “Another engineer.”  Turning back to Penelope: “My lady, I believe that concludes our business.  If I may be so bold as to inquire, what are your plans for the balance of the day?”

“Elias and I will be departing on the Remembrance when she leaves orbit tomorrow morning for Mars.  So far as the remainder of the day goes, my plans were for Elias and I to take our supper at one of your fine establishments here in Dämmerung and then board the Remembrance in preparation for our journey.”

“I see,” the professor responded.  “Again, please pardon my boldness, my lady--”

“You needn’t apologize, professor,” Penelope cut in.  “Friends are not impositions on one another.”

Franske gave a slow nod.  “I am honored, my lady, for that appellation.  In that case, allow me to ask if you and Elias would join me for dinner this evening?  I have an acquaintance who is most anxious to speak with you.”

“I must admit that you have me intrigued, Professor,” Penelope replied.  Glancing at Elias, “Yes, I believe we can accommodate you.”

 

###

 

After leaving the professor, Penelope and Elias returned to the dormitory to supervise the final packing of Elias’ belongings and see to their transport to the city’s aetherport for conveyance to the Remembrance.  That task completed, and with some time yet before their dinner engagement, Elias offered a suggestion.

“Seein’ as we’ve got a bit yet, my lady,” he said.  “An’ asking pardon if it’s not my place, but would your ladyship care to take a walk?  The gardens at the city center are very beautiful.”

“How gentlemanly of you, Elias,” Penelope responded, forcing herself to suppress a smile at the young man’s furious blush.  “That is a lovely idea.  Please,” she gestured.  “Lead the way.”

As the university was situated near the heart of the Austro-German territorial capital, the walk to the gardens was a brief one and they found their way to the trails lined with scented blossoms and carefully maintained ponds.  Penelope found herself enjoying the relaxed pace and the pocket of lush life on an otherwise harsh planet.

“What do you think this friend o’ the professor’s want to talk with you about?” Elias asked.

“I cannot say,” she answered thoughtfully.  “I must admit that I’m rather curious, however.  In any event, we shall find out soon enough.”

Their walk continued, the conversation drifting to Elias’ favorite topic of aethermechanics, but at six o’clock, Penelope and Elias presented themselves at Der Graue Schwan, an elegant-looking establishment which the professor had named as the location of the evening’s appointment.  The maître d’ escorted the pair to a private dining salon off to one side of the main dining hall, a fact which struck Penelope as most interesting.  Whoever this acquaintance of the professor’s might be, it was clear that the dinner conversation was not to be for general consumption.

Professor Franske had already arrived and rose from his seat when the maître d’ opened the door.  The professor’s companion did likewise.

“My lady,” the professor greeted them.  “Elias.  Thank you very much for acceding to my humble request.”

“It is a small enough thing, Professor,” Penelope assured him as the maître d’ departed.  “Elias and I were planning to dine in the city at any event, as I’d indicated.  And now we have the pleasure of one another’s company for a while longer.”

The professor gave a curt bow in response.  “My lady is too kind.  Please allow me to introduce the acquaintance of whom I had spoken earlier.”  He gestured to his companion.  “This is Herr Grossman, of His Imperial Majesty’s Colonial Office.  Mein Herr, this is Baroness Botelier and her young assistant, Elias Conner, of whom we have spoken.”

Herr Grossman belied the etiology of his surname in practically every manner imaginable, Penelope thought to herself.  He was a spare man with a thin face and an unfortunate nose rather like a hawk’s beak on which perched wire-framed pinz-nez.

“My lady,” the man said.  His voice was deep, as much as odds with his stature as his stature was with his family name.  “Thank you for coming.”

“Herr Grossman,” Penelope replied.  “I am admittedly quite intrigued now.  What interest would one from the Imperial Colonial Office have with a private person such as myself?”

Grossman smiled tautly.  “I see your reputation for directness is not undeserved.  Still, let us commence with the evening’s pleasures before getting to business.”

“But of course.  Elias?”  Penelope waved her assistant to a chair as she sat herself next to him.  The two gentlemen returned to their own seats.  Within moments, a member of the waitstaff had materialized and begun the task of taking down the party’s dinner selections.  As Elias’ German was not as proficient as his Latin, Penelope took it upon herself to suggest an entree for him.

“You are not incorrect to be suspicious, my lady,” Herr Grossman began after the waiter had departed.  “My friend has lured you here that I might have the opportunity to speak with you—quite unofficially, of course—on behalf of my government.

“Why am I thinking, Herr Grossman, that your position within the Reichskolonialamt is not a minor one?”

Her question was answered with another taut smile.  “Direct and perceptive.  You are as formidable as they say, my lady.”  He glanced to the professor, then returned his attention to Penelope.  “My particular position is situated, shall we say, in the less public aspect of Office affairs.”

Penelope nodded in understanding.  “I take your meaning, mein Herr.  I presume that I am speaking to...a colleague of sorts?”

“You might put it that way,” Grossman agreed.  “Although ‘former colleague’ might be more appropriate.  I am not in the field so much these days.”

 “I see,” Penelope replied simply.

“The reason I asked the good professor to arrange for this meeting is fairly straightforward, even if the underlying circumstances are not.  In short, my lady, I would like to enlist your help.”

“My help?”  Penelope arched a single eyebrow.  “Surely, mein Herr, you are aware of my position with respect to His Majesty’s government?”

“I am aware,” Grossman acknowledged, “that you act in the capacity as agent from time to time.  I am also aware,” he continued, raising a hand to forestall her response, “that you hold yourself to be a loyal British subject.  Understand that I am in no manner asking you to compromise that loyalty.”

Penelope considered the man for a moment, then nodded.  “Very well.  With that understanding quite clear, please do continue.”

“Thank you, my lady.”  Grossman gave a curt bow of his head.  “In addition to those facts which I have stated, I am moreover aware of the formidable reputation you have earned these past several years.  Your efforts, while acting on behalf of your government, have also impacted and aided others—a fact which has been noted.  Your work on Venus, for example, terminated a despicable drug cartel whose evil had plagued all the settled worlds, including this one.  My government was most grateful for that reprieve.”

Penelope nodded to herself, recalling that particular adventure which had in fact been her first official assignment.  “I am pleased that the results of that incident propagated through the settled worlds so rapidly, mein Herr.  Such vileness is, of course, beyond the boundaries of mere politics.”

“It is precisely because you see things in that light that I have asked to speak with you,” Grossman replied.  “For my government has stumbled upon a puzzle with ominous echoes of that cartel.”

“You have seen a resurgence of the drug trade?”

“No,” Grossman answered.  “But you may recall that the cartel you handled so effectively those years ago cloaked itself in a veil of mysticism.”

“I do recall that, in fact,” Penelope allowed.

“Artifacts of a similar nature have been discovered in recent weeks,” Grossman explained.  “Specifically, runes inscribed on artifacts found here in this city and her sister at the southern pole.”

Penelope nodded to herself again.   The Austro-German capital of Dämmerung sat at Mercury’s northern pole, along the narrow habitable band between the fire-world and ice-world of the planet’s two hemispheres.  Within that band of twilight, the great World River flowed, encircling the planet.  The sister-city, Morgen, was Dämmerung’s twin, perched at the far end of that circular river.

“Runes, mein Herr?” she inquired.  “Of what nature?”

“That is part of the mystery, Freiin,” Grossman replied, slipping into his native German form of address.  “We know nothing of their origin, purpose, or meaning.”

“I am hardly an expert on such matters,” Penelope pointed out.  “Surely there are those far more knowledgeable who would be able to assist you in answering those questions.”

“Perhaps,” Grossman admitted.  “But you possess a certain unique combination of qualities which may be necessary for an inquiry of this nature.  There are two aspects involved here which have compelled me to seek your assistance.  The first, as I’ve mentioned, is your first-hand experience with similar matters on Venus those years ago.”

“And the second?”

“Grossman smiled thinly.  “You may perhaps think me foolish, Freiin, but the second reason is that I have a sense...an intuition, if you will, that these runes portend something darker and more sinister than any of my fellows is willing to admit.”

“I do not think you foolish in the least, mein Herr,” Penelope assured him.  “I rather understand, in fact.”

“You are willing to assist us, then?”

Penelope considered the question.  Certainly, an investigation of this kind could take any amount of time, but despite her intentions, she did have some flexibility in her schedule.

“I cannot commit to an indefinite time-frame, I’m afraid,” she replied.  “I can, however, agree to an examination of the matter, within the limits of my current commitments and provide you a report of what, if anything, I discover.”

“I can ask little more,” Grossman responded.  “You have my thanks.”

“I will have to see to lodgings for us this evening,” Penelope observed.  “Elias and I had anticipated boarding for our return journey to Mars, you see.”

“I can take care of that, Freiin,” the professor spoke up.  “The university has a guest-house which I took the liberty of reserving for you tonight.”

Penelope gave the professor a knowing smile.  “I must admit that I am a great admirer of German efficiency.”  That comment brought a chuckle from the two men.  Penelope turned to Elias, whose eyes gleamed.  “Well, young man,” she said.  “You were asking for adventure.  It seems that you have gotten your wish!”


Part II


“If you wouldn’t mind, my lady,” Elias commented  as the two of them sat in the parlor of the University’s guest house that evening, “what adventure on Venus was Herr Grossman talking about?  The one before us, I mean.”

Penelope frowned slightly at the memory, then her features cleared again.  “That occurred about three years ago now, a good two years before you and I encountered one another,” she explained to her young assistant.  “That particular assignment, in fact, was the first task I had undertaken in any official capacity as an occasional agent of His majesty’s government.”

Elias nodded, obviously eager to hear more.  “Can you tell me about it?  Herr Grossman mentioned drugs.”  His face flushed slightly and he hurriedly added: “I understand if you can’t.”

Penelope allowed herself a small smile.  Despite his rapid maturation in this last year, Elias was still a young man, with all the typical qualities one would expect.  “I can, Elias, and yes, that is correct.  The prime minister had asked me to conduct an inquiry into a particularly heinous drug trade which had sprung into existence in the months and years prior.  Previous investigations by other agencies of the government had exhausted their efforts with little tangible result.  Lord Salisbury thought that a fresh perspective might yield fruit.”

“Did it?”

Penelope nodded slowly.  “It did, I’m almost sad to say.”

“I don’t understand, my lady.”  Elias’ brow furrowed in confusion.  “Why would a body be sad if you were successful?”

“I was able to track down the ringleaders of the cabal which had been directing the drug trade, but in the process of doing so I discovered that the man assigned to assist me in doing so was, in fact, the shadowy mastermind behind the entire operation.”

“An’ what happened to them?  The ringleaders and the other man, I mean.”

“The ringleaders were, rather conveniently, killed in a gunfight deep inside the abandoned coastal fort they’d co-opted as a base of operations.”

“An’ the other one?” Elias asked.

“Thaumiel Phospheros,” Penelope said quietly, her gaze slipping to a point on the wall somewhere behind Elias.  “He’d asked me to call him ‘Tom.’”

Elias said nothing at first, but Penelope remained quiet.  “What happened to Tom?” he asked finally.  “Did he die, too?”

“I don’t know, Elias,” she replied.  “I honestly don’t know.  When I confronted him, he escaped in the airship—his airship—that we’d taken to the fortress.  I shot it out of the sky with one of the fort’s guns.”  She paused.  “The debris scattered widely over the bay below.  No body was ever found.”

“Do you think he’s still alive?”

“Doubtful,” she answered.  “The viceroy certainly considered the matter ended.”

Elias thought for a moment.  “An’ what does any of that have to do with these runes that Herr Grossman was talkin’ about?”

“Of that, I am unsure,” Penelope admitted.  “One of the more curious aspects of that drug cartel I’d encountered those years before was the fact that their operations were disguised within layers of mysticism and dark lore.  Perhaps Herr Grossman thinks those characteristics similar to the artifacts his office has discovered.”  She shook her head.  “In any event, that is business for tomorrow.  I think it is time for both of us to retire for the evening.  After breakfast, we have an appointment with Herr Grossman at his office and from there, we can make further arrangements once I’ve had a chance to see these runes which are the cause of so much concern.”

 

###

 

Penelope rose early.  Following her morning exercise routine, she dressed and sat down at the writing desk in the parlor and drafted three successive letters.  The first was to be conveyed by the good Captain and the Remembrance to the headmaster of her Martian estate, outlining the priorities and tasks she’d set out for the coming harvest.  The second was a reservation for two on the evening ferry and the third was for the telegraph office.  She had just handed the letters to a member of the guesthouse staff for delivery when Elias entered the parlor.

“Apologies, my lady,” he said, somewhat sheepishly.  “I didn’t mean to oversleep.”

“Not to worry, Elias,” she assured him.  “I had a few tasks to get out of the way before breakfast.  You are right on time.”  She cast a glance at the wall clock.  “Shall we eat?”

“Please,” Elias cracked a grin.  “I’m starving.”

Penelope shook her head as she rose from her seat.   “Growing boys…” she commented offhandedly.  An odd look flashed over Elias’ features so quickly that she hadn’t quite been sure of what she’d seen, but she put that aside and gestured to the door.  “Let’s find a nice cafe; our appointment at the Ministry isn’t until later this morning.”

There were several such establishments nearby, as it turned out, catering to the various tastes and appetites (and purses) of the University’s student body.  Penelope opted for a well-appointed but reasonably priced eatery going by the name of The Open Book, which by its posted menu offered a fair variety at a fair budget.  Elias selected a good-sized breakfast platter while she contented herself with tea, biscuits, and fruit salad.  Observing her assistant begin to consume the sizable meal set before him, she noted how his table manners had much improved since that first luncheon a standard year prior.  Not a growing boy at all, she thought to herself.  He’s turning out to be a fine young man.  A fine young man indeed.  A strange sense of satisfaction passed through her along with that thought, then was gone.

“I hope you found your time here instructive, Elias,” she commented.

“I did, my lady,” he replied.  “Though I am very glad to be done with the examinations.”

Penelope couldn’t help but laugh.  “I cannot blame you for that.”

Elias didn’t respond, but grinned and took another forkful of his breakfast.  Soon enough, the pair had finished their meal and Penelope had settled the bill.  Stepping to the curb outside the cafe, she hailed a cab—one of those battery-driven beastless carriages they’d encountered previously—and they set off for the offices of the Reichskolonialamt and their appointment with Herr Grossman.

As they climbed the brief flight of broad steps toward the building’s entrance, Penelope noted that Elias remained a half-pace behind her, only to step ahead as they approached the doors so that he might open it for her.  It was an understated act, without the theatrical politeness which so many men of her own age exhibited during her infrequent yet still necessary forays into the social scene, and the young man’s efforts bore a stamp of authenticity she found touching.  Giving her assistant a silent nod of thanks, she stepped through the doorway and into the entrance hall of the administrative building, Elias following close behind.

From the open hall before them, multiple corridors sprouted, leading deeper into the labyrinth of Germanic bureaucracy.  The target of her initial inquiry, however, was plain enough—a large desk prominently situated in the center of the space, complemented by several sitting chairs set slightly off to one side to service waiting visitors.  An efficient-looking woman of later middle-age sat behind the desk, looking up from the files she’d been arranging as the pair approached.

“Kann ich Ihnen helfen?” the woman inquired.

“Yes,” Penelope replied.  “Baroness Botelier to see Herr Grossman.  I believe my assistant and I are expected.”

“Yes,” the woman answered in mildly-accented English. “Indeed you are.  Welcome, Frei--”  Penelope noticed the surreptitious glance cast at her left hand.  “Freiin.  If you and your assistant would have a seat, I will notify Herr Grossman’s secretary of your arrival.”

“Thank you,” Penelope responded and led Elias to the sitting area off to the side.  Settling herself, she observed the woman draft a brief note and had it to a young clerk she’d summoned with the lifting of a hand.  The message and its bearer disappeared down one of the branching corridors and the woman resumed her filing.

Elias had sat himself in a neighboring seat and now leaned toward her slightly.  “If I may ask, my lady,” he said in a low voice.  “When the receptionist addressed you, what was the reason for the hesitation?  I didn’t catch the word she used.”

“You noticed that,” Penelope replied approvingly.  “Very good, Elias—nuances such as that can be quite useful in our trade.  In this case, however, I suspect she was only wishing to be properly respectful and not mistakenly rude.”  Seeing Elias’ quizzical expression, she continued.  “I had introduced myself as Baroness Botelier, so she was aware of my title.  In German, though, there are two words which might apply: ‘Freifrau’ is used for the wife of a baron , whereas ‘Freiin’ is used for a woman who holds a title in her own right.  She was pausing to check for a wedding band.”  A familiar sense of regret washed over her and then was gone.

Elias thought for a moment, then nodded.  “I see.  That makes sense.”  He looked at her again, then frowned slightly.  “Is something the matter, my lady?”

Penelope shook her head.  “Nothing of importance, Elias.  Only foolish remembrances of childhood dreams.”

“My lady?”

Penelope was saved from further explanation by the return of the messenger, who walked past the reception desk and approached them.   Penelope stood, Elias mirroring her a moment later.

“Freiin,” the young man bowed in greeting.  “Please follow me.  Herr Grossman is expecting you.”

“Thank you,” Penelope replied and the two of them followed their guide back along the way he had come.  Down the corridor, up one broad flight of stairs, and down a second passageway, the young man stopped at one door in a row of several.  The clerk rapped twice on the stout door, then opened it.  Stepping in and to one side, he stated, “Baroness Botelier and guest for Herr Grossman.”  Penelope stepped past him, Elias following just behind, and found herself in an antechamber.  Their guide had already departed, shutting the door.

A second young man was rising from his seat behind a desk, presumably Herr Grossman’s secretary.

“Freiin,” he greeted her without hesitation.  “Welcome.  Please follow me.”  He led the pair to another door on the far wall.  He also knocked twice, then swung the door inward.

“Mein Herr,” he said.  “Baroness Botelier.”

“Thank you, Paul,” came the reply.  “That will be all.”

Paul stepped back from the doorway to allow Penelope and Elias room to pass by, then shut the door behind them.

“You are most prompt, Freiin,” Grossman observed as he rose from the chair behind his desk.

“A virtue my father worked very hard to instill in his heir,” she replied.

“I knew your late father only by reputation, of course,” Grossman said respectfully.  “However, I understood him to be a worthy gentleman.  Please,” he gestured to the pair of chairs arranged in front of his desk.  “Make yourselves comfortable.”

“Thank you, Herr Grossman.”  Elias held her chair as she sat, then took his own a moment later.  Penelope looked at their host evenly.  “I am admittedly curious to see these specimens of which you spoke last evening.”

“Of course,” Grossman acknowledged as he resumed his seat.  Opening a folder on the desk, he withdrew several sheets of thick paper and a smaller number of rectangles of heavier card stock.  Handing these to Penelope, he explained.  “Here we have several sketches and a few photographs of the inscriptions.  The locations of each are noted on the back.”

Penelope accepted the documents, then took several minutes as she examined each one, handing them to Elias in turn.

“And you have uncovered nothing as what these symbols might mean?” she inquired as Elias placed the papers back on the desk.

Grossman shook his head.  “Nothing remotely conclusive.  They have certain similarities to traditional Nordic runes, but are fundamentally distinct from those characters.  Our cryptographers—who are quite good, I assure you—have been unable to extract an underlying text.”

“I thought that might be the case,” Penelope observed quietly.

“Now that you have had a chance to view the figures yourself,” he asked in turn.  “Do you have any notions as to what they may mean?”

“Nothing definite,” Penelope allowed.  “Only a vague sense.  Cryptography is not my area of expertise, but I have been taught...other traditions which may be relevant here.”  She sat back.  “Herr Grossman, this is a puzzle which quite intrigues me.  I see no conflict with my responsibilities to His Majesty’s government, so I am willing to assist you to the degree I am able.”

“I am most grateful.”

“However,” she continued, “there are a few preliminary issues.  I may be a baroness, but I am not a woman of unlimited means.”

“I take your meaning, Freiin,” Grossman answered.  “Rest assured that my government will compensate you for the time and expenses incurred in your efforts on its behalf.”

“Thank you, mein Herr.  It is appreciated.”

“You speak most frankly for one of your class, Freiin, if I may be permitted the observation.  Most nobles of my acquaintance are reluctant to delve into mercantile matters so directly.”

Penelope smiled tightly.  “My father was a practical man, mein Herr, and educated me in a similar vein.  Directness saves time better spent elsewhere.”

“Quite so,” Grossman agreed.  His gaze floated to Elias for a moment before returning to Penelope.  “You have an idea of where you might begin your investigations, I take it?”

“I do,” Penelope affirmed.  “Elias and I will be departing this evening.”  She reached for the sketches and photographs.  “May we be permitted to take these?”

“Of course.  Please do take care to return them.”

“Of course, mein Herr.”  The documents were returned to the folder and the folder found its way to Elias’ hands.  She stood. “I will provide you an update on our progress once I have something to report.”

The two men stood with her.  “I thank you,” Grossman said, bowing slightly.  “I wish you both godspeed.”

 

###

 

Each of the settled worlds had its defining feature, Penelope considered silently as she observed the stark Mercurian scenery slipping past the large porthole of their suite.  She and Elias had returned to the guest house to oversee the transportation of their luggage to the ferry docks at the edge of the city, then spent the balance of preparing for the journey ahead.  After a later luncheon and some time spent in the university’s library, they boarded the ferry and settled into the rooms which would be their home for the next few days.

Elias had not held his tongue terribly long after their departure from Herr Grossman’s offices.

“Lady P,” he had said softly, falling back into the more casual form of address he sometimes used when they were alone.  “Where are we going?”

“I’m hoping to meet with a man I know of, an independent research of sorts, who may be able to tell us something about these mysterious runes.”

“Anyone I might have heard of?”

She’d shaken her head.  “I doubt it.  Herr Steiner is not too well known outside of a fairly small circle.”

“But you know of him,” Elias pointed out.

“My father’s view of education,” she’d answered, “was quite comprehensive.  It included a number of subjects which one might tactfully call ‘obscure.’”  As they’d approached the guest house, she’d given a vague gesture.  “I know of him by reputation and by his scholarship.  One of the telegrams I sent this morning was to request this meeting.  We’ll find out when we reach Eisküste.”

A rocking of the ferry brought her back to the present and her contemplation of Mercury’s notable feature.  Vulcan—that whirling world at the edge of the solar furnace—had a fantastical hollow interior, though few people had seen it outside of the Americans involved in the Hephaestus Corporation which mined the crystals that powered this civilization.  For Venus, it was the Great Ocean that covered some ninety percent of the planet’s surface.  Mars had the towering heights of Olympus Mons soaring fair above the wild steppe of the southern highlands.  And though the Belt wasn’t a planet (or, as some researchers claimed, wasn’t a planet any longer), its remoteness at the edge of human settlement and the hardscrabble existence which characterized the people’s living there defined that region well.

But for Mercury, the prize was claimed by the World River, that ribbon of liquid which circumambulated the planet from pole to pole along the interface of its two hostile hemispheres: the Fire World forever facing the Sun and the Ice World forever facing away.  The River was the pulse of the planet, a liquid necklace along which the various cities and settlements were strung like so many gemstones.  There were the usual concessions, of course, for the other Great powers and a few lesser ones, but the planet as a whole fell under the territorial administration of the Austro-German empire, just as Mars was to the British, Venus to the Franco-Spanish, and the Belt to the Russian empires, respectively.

“I was wondering, Lady P,” Elias broke into her thoughts.  “How did you know to contact this man, Herr Steiner, in the first place?  We hadn’t even met with Herr Grossman yet.”

They’d been on the ferry for a day and a half at this point, and would be arriving before noon the day after tomorrow.   Their destination was just to the upriver side of city of Morgen, which sat at the southern pole.  As the World River flowed in a single direction, one spoke of “upriver” and “downriver” when orienting settlements to one another.

“A fair question, Elias,” Penelope replied with a small, knowing smile.  “You might call it something of an intuition.  When Herr Grossman mentioned runes, a thought arose in my mind and I decided to follow it.  A ‘hunch,’ you could say.”

“And after you saw the pictures?”

“The hunch was confirmed.”  She frowned.  “They struck me oddly, Elias.  I cannot say why, but they felt dangerous somehow.”

Elias nodded slowly.  “And you believe Herr Steiner can tell you more?”

“I hope so, Elias.  I very much hope so.”

 

###

 

 The ferry pulled into port slightly ahead of schedule, though a tangled tow-line delayed things sufficiently that by the time Penelope and Elias had disembarked and arranged  transportation for themselves and their luggage to a nearby hotel, the time was closer to twelve-thirty.  She wasted no time, however, and no sooner had their belonging been settled in their small suite than the two of them were making their way along a street cutting through the settlement.  She had made some allowances, of course, but had desired to meet Herr Steiner at one o’clock.  Above them, the translucent dome covering the settlement filtered the light into a soft glow.

“How do you know where Herr Steiner lives, my lady?” Elias asked as they walked.

That brought a grin.  “It was one of the items I was looking up in the library before we left.”  She shook her head.  “You should have been paying better attention to our task at hand, Elias, and less to the pretty co-eds.”

Elias blushed furiously.  “I don’t know what you mean, Lady P.”

Penelope laughed, but decided to have mercy on the young man and refrained from further comment.

They continued for several blocks, then turned down a lane.  After a short ways, Penelope halted, examining the house numbers before leading Elias up the narrow walk leading to a rather nondescript cottage in row of similar-looking dwellings.  As they reached the front door, Elias stepped ahead.  “Please allow me, my lady,” he said.  Penelope nodded and watched as he lifted the prominent knocker, rapping it three times.

There was a long pause.  Elias glanced at Penelope, questioning, and made to knock again when heavy footfalls sounded on stone, approaching them from the far side of the portal.  The door opened.

The man in the doorway was only of very modest height, standing perhaps a little over five and a half feet tall, but carried himself in such a manner as to seem much taller.  He had dark hair and piercingly dark eyes.  His collar was slightly askew and he had a mildly disheveled look that was immediately contradicted by the air of energy and focus which surrounded him.  He greeted them somberly.

“Kann ich Ihnen helf…” he began, then stopped.  He examined them for a moment.  “Lady Botelier?” he inquired politely.

Penelope nodded.  “Indeed, Professor Steiner.  This is my assistant, Elias Conner.  I see you received my telegram.  Is this an acceptable time?”

Steiner glanced at Elias before returning his attention to Penelope.  “Indeed it is, Freiin.  Please do come in.”  He stepped aside to allow the pair to enter, then closed the door behind them.  “My parlor is this way.  Please excuse the mess.  I am in the process of packing.”

“Packing, sir?” Elias asked deferentially.

“Yes,” Steiner replied, waving them toward a short couch as he took his seat in an armchair opposite.  “Your telegram, Freiin, was rather timely for your inquiry.  In less than a week I shall be departing these lodgings.”

“Where are you bound, if you don’t mind my asking?” Penelope looked at their host.  “Somewhere off-planet?”

“Your surmise is correct,” Steiner nodded.  “I will be relocating to a settlement in the Belt.  My researches into the subtler, supersensible aspects of aetheric flow require a more remote locale.”  He indicated them with a wave of his hand.  “I am glad that your telegram reached me; it was most intriguing.”

“Thank you for taking the time to speak with us,” Penelope said.  “Your assistance in this matter could be quite helpful.  In fact,” she continued as she drew the folder from her day bag and extended it toward him, “I thought of your earlier research monographs on esoteric inscriptions immediately.”

Steiner took the proffered folder.  “Let us see…” he began, but trailed off as he saw the uppermost photograph.  He removed the small stack of documents, setting the empty folder on a side table just to his right, his attention fixed squarely on the images held before him.  The look of concentration deepened as he silently and purposefully examined each sketch and each photograph in turn, spending no more or less time with one than another.

“You indicated, Freiin,” he said finally, looking up from the papers, “that these inscriptions were found in Morgen and  Dämmerung.”

“I did,” Penelope agreed.

“Do you happen to know where in those cities these artifacts were found?”

“I believe the locations are noted on the reverse,” Penelope replied.  “I take it you deem that detail important?”

“I suspect so,” Steiner answered enigmatically as he turned the documents over and read the inscriptions.  “There are a few points I must verify.  Please excuse me for a moment.”  He rose from the chair and stepped to the far side of the parlor where several boxes sat at the foot of the partially-denuded bookshelves that ran the length of that wall.  Opening one of the boxes, he removed several volumes that were packed within, setting them on the floor, then lifted another book that had been beneath them.  Catching a glimpse of the title as he returned to his chair, Penelope realized the volume a Mercurian atlas of some kind.

Steiner paged through the book, stopping and examining the map on the left-hand page.  He then checked the notation on the reverse of one of the photographs before paging to another section of the atlas and repeating the process.

“As I thought,” he said.  “This is potentially grave, indeed.”

“What have you found, Professor?” Penelope asked.  “Do you have some notion as to the purpose of these inscriptions?”

“I’m afraid I may, Freiin,” he replied.  “And if my supposition is correct, then someone is attempting a terrible working.”  His dark eyes held hers intensely.  “A working aimed at nothing less than binding the immense power of the planet itself!”