the last baroness
by
david england

[The trigger warning which I issued in connection with One Who Burns Worlds applies here. Squares like myself beware.]


Part I

Strategy and Tactics

 

“What troubles you, love?”

Charlotte Hope Conner, heir to the barony Botelier and her family’s Martian estate at the edge of the unsettled southern highlands, didn’t reply but continued to stare somewhere beyond the subtle, swirling designs that adorned her bedchamber’s ceiling.  A soft touch grazed her right cheek and she closed her eyes, allowing herself to topple into the sensation of that caress as it continued along the curve of her face and traced the angle of a determined yet feminine jawline.

That touch soothed troubled currents deep within her.  At least for the moment.  A gnawing sense of...something...that loomed portent, but lay somewhere over the horizon of her awareness.  Beyond her perception but tantalizingly, even dangerously, near.  A formless thing as vague as it was ominous.

 Charlie let out a low sigh, relished the lingering touch for a few more seconds, then sat up in her bed.  Shifting herself toward the headboard, she leaned into the pillows propped behind her, allowing the cool sheets to fall away from her modest bosom.  Thick locks of deep auburn fell to her shoulders, contrasting with a soft complexion one would not quite describe as pale.  Thoughtful eyes of a rich and vibrant hazel regarded the companion in her bed.

Leone Brownstone’s clear, ice-blue gaze expressed that young woman’s concern unambiguously.  Long, flame-red hair spilled about her face like rippling fire, cascading over the crisp, clean fabric of the pillow on which her head still rested.  Skin the color of white cream stood out against the darker ivory of the sheets which covered her breasts and the lithe frame with whose contours Charlie had become well-acquainted in these last weeks.  The touch which had brushed against Charlie’s cheek moments before now withdrew and the other woman reached for her hand instead.

“I don’t know,” she admitted as Leone’s fingers entwined with her own.  She shook her head slowly.  “It’s just a feeling I have.”

“About what?”

Charlie considered the question, a pensive quiet settling about her.  It had been a little more than three weeks since she and Leone had returned from that village, nestled within canyons deep in the wild southern highlands of Mars and comprising part of that shadowed system of secret settlements of runaway bond-servants, following the crash of Leone’s aethership in the wake of their escape from abduction by pirates.  A new band of brigands, calling themselves the Order of Solar Knights Teutonic, had sprung up among the worlds in recent months and had attempted several such attacks on nobles or other prominent figures of the empires.  After a number of failures, the swarming tactics of the Knights’ vessels had succeeded in destroying the ship carrying the heir to the British throne, Prince Edward, while he had been returning to Earth from Mars.  As the various Great Powers accused one another of complicity in the attacks and tensions rose to the breaking point, the worlds had stepped to the brink of war.

And yet, in the end, reason had prevailed.  Aided by the fact of the prince’s survival in one of that vessel’s escape pods and his outspoken efforts in the aftermath of the attack, the Great Powers had stepped back from the edge of that cliff.  A conference of ambassadors had been scheduled, the first round of discussions to be held on Luna two days hence, and it was hoped that a solution to the present set of crises could be found short of the horrors of interplanetary conflict.

Charlie frowned to herself.  Certainly, these shiftings of the political currents were of vital import, but while the thing which nagged at her touched on those events--of that she was certain--they were not the focus of it.  There was something else.

“I don’t know,” she repeated.  “I can’t put my finger on it.”

Leone rolled toward Charlie and propped herself up on her left elbow, her expression still one of concern.  She reached up and brushed stray strands of Charlie’s hair behind her right ear.  “Did you dream again, Lotte?”

The tension in Charlie’s shoulders fell away as Leone’s fingers made contact.  Ever since the encounter in the caverns with whatever that being had been and ever since her return to her body from the boundary of what she could only think of as death, Charlie’s attunement to physical sensation had been heightened.  Colors were crisper, aromas more pungent, sounds sharper.  And because the path her soul had taken to reunite with her body had gone through her emotional connection with Leone, she found that those effects were even more pronounced with respect to her companion.  She could feel the layers of emotion in Leone’s question, sense the love in the other woman’s touch, smell the mixture of scents emanating from her skin.

Among the consequences of her experience had been Charlie’s decision that she would no longer dance at the periphery of her own life.  Upon their return to the family estate, she had announced that Leone, who it had been determined would be staying at the estate for the present due to the international and interplanetary situations, would be moving out of the estate’s guest quarters and into Charlie’s suite.  Neither of her parents had commented, though her father’s lopsided grin and her mother’s quirk of a smile had spoken volumes, and the staff had seen to the transfer of Leone’s belongings forthwith.

It seemed, however, no one had explained the implications of this move to Amber, the young chambermaid who serviced much of the estate house and Charlie’s suite in particular.  The first morning, Charlie and Leone, entwined in a slumbering embrace, had woken to a shocked gasp and a loud crash as the tea-tray Amber had been bringing into the chamber had fallen from her grasp, shattering the ceramic teapot, several teacups, and splattering tea over the sandstone floor.  It was hard to tell what had mortified the poor girl more, the smashing of the tea set and the resulting mess or the discovery of her young mistress in the arms of another woman.  Later that day, after the remains of the morning mishap had been cleaned up, Charlie spotted Sara Meade, the no-nonsense head-of-staff speaking quietly to Amber, the younger woman’s eyes wide as she blushed furiously.  Following mornings had been far less eventful, though Charlie noticed that the soft-spoken chambermaid was even more reticent than usual, and she cast furtive glances toward Charlie and Leone when she thought herself unobserved.

“Yes,” Charlie acknowledged.  “I dreamed.”  She shook her head again.  “Don’t remember anything, though.  As usual.”

The dreams had always been a part of Charlie’s life, as far back as she could remember, and she had never spoken of them to anyone, not even her father, with whom she had always had a particularly close relationship.  That was another thing that had changed in these last weeks: she had opened that secret part of herself to this woman she loved, laying bare the deepest and most shadowed aspects of her psyche.  The mists of uncertainty which swirled in her dreams.  The glimpses of the shape of things she could not quite see.

And Leone had responded in kind, sharing of her own insecurities which lay behind that barrier of supreme self-confidence she bore like a shield.  The two of them, despite a clashing of wills, had embraced the challenge of their relationship, diving deep into unknown waters and, so far at least, surviving the dangers of those currents.

“It will make itself known in time, Lotte,” Leone said quietly.  “You shouldn’t worry so much.”

“What’s the point of these dreams,” Charlie countered, “if I can’t do anything with them?  Why do I have them if I can’t figure out what they mean?”

“Love,” Leone whispered.  “Look at me.”  She took Charlie’s jaw in her hand, turned Charlie’s head toward her.  “Those dreams--and whatever lay behind them--brought you back to me.  I, for one, am grateful for that much alone.”

Charlie let herself tumble into Leone’s open gaze, that heightened awareness of the other woman cresting over her in wave after wave.  She doves through those currents for a moment longer, then rose up into herself again.  “You are right,” she answered softly.  Charlie leaned over and their lips touched gently.  “Thank you.”

Leone’s smile was easy, genuine.  “As much as I enjoy your bed, Lotte--and believe me, I do enjoy it--we probably should get dressed and join your parents for breakfast.”

“You’re right once again,” Charlie agreed, smiling herself.  “I’m sure you’re starving.  Let’s go eat.”

 

###

 

“Ah,” Charlie heard her father comment as she and Leone stepped from the enclosed veranda onto the back terrace.  “The sluggards arise and join us at last.”  He paused pointedly, flashing that puckish grin of his.  “Though I’d wager that the two of you have been awake for some time already.”

“Pa…” Charlie replied with an undisguised rolling of her eyes and an exasperated tone.  “That’s not the only thing on our minds, you know.”

Elias Conner shook his head.  “Perhaps,” he allowed.  “But a good bit, I’d warrant.  I’m not so old that I can’t remember the vigor of youth.  Why, I could tell you stories--”

“Please don’t,” Charlie cut him off.  “I beg you.”

“Would you care for some tea, Leone?” her mother broke in, a definitive smirk dancing on her lips.

“Why, thank you,” Leone responded with a smile of her own as she and Charlie sat at the stone table.  Charlie, as usual, felt terribly outnumbered.  It wasn’t fair, she thought to herself, three against one.

“It actually amazes me,” Elias continued blithely, unfazed by the interruption, “that we managed to bring you into the world as soon as we did, what with us tripping over secret cults and stumbling over madmen every which way we turned.  Hardly had sufficient time for such indulgences.”  He raised a forefinger indicatively.  “Even our honeymoon managed to get interrupted by your mother’s nemesis and his doomsday weapon--”  He turned to his wife.  “What did he call it?  The ‘Eye of Horus’?”

“The ‘Eye of Ra,’ dear,” Penelope corrected.  “And he wasn’t a nemesis, only someone I’d encountered many years before.”

“Well,” Elias responded emphatically, “he certainly remembered you.  And that was only a few months prior to our little expedition to Olympus Mons.”  He trailed off and his eyes slid back over to Charlie.  “Though if my math is right, that must have been about the time we must have--”

“Okay, Pa,” Charlie interrupted again.  “You’ve had your fun.  Please.  There are details about her parents that a person just isn’t supposed to know.”

Elias grinned, but said nothing, taking a bite of a biscuit instead.

“What would you care to have, Charlotte?” her mother inquired lightly, gesturing to the serving dishes gathered at the center of the table.  “Suzanne has prepared a fine breakfast this morning.”

Charlie didn’t answer right away, but Leone spoke up.  “Those biscuits look amazing,” she said.  “May I?”

“Of course,” Penelope replied, passing the woven basket.  “Actually, the biscuits are Justine’s handiwork.”

Charlie’s eyebrows rose.  “Really?”

Her mother nodded.  “That girl is coming along quite nicely under Suzanne’s tutelage.  She’s well on her way to becoming a fine cook herself.”

“Now,” Charlie observed, “if I could only get her to look me in the eye and speak an entire sentence, we’ll be all set.”

Elias chuckled.  “You might give the young one a bit of a break, Charlie.  That prospect can be somewhat intimidating, you must realize.”

Charlie gave a derisive snort.  “Please, Pa.  How exactly am I intimidating?”

Her father didn’t reply, but cast an inquiring glance at Leone, who smirked in response.

Penelope took a sip of her tea.  “You do have something of a forceful personality, my dear.”

Charlie frowned.  “I’ve always made a point to be respectful and friendly toward our staff, Mother.  Particularly the younger contingent, like Amber and Justine.”

Elias shook his head.  “It’s not what you are saying or how you are saying it,” he noted.  “Although your efforts in that regard are commendable.”

“What is it then?” Charlie persisted.

“It’s simply who you are,” her father replied.  “Above and beyond the fact that you are heir to this barony--which by itself sets you apart--you exude a certain...willpower.”  He flashed that sly grin Charlie knew all too well.  “Rather like your mother, in fact.”

Charlie muttered something unrepeatable under her breath and the other three at the table laughed.

Charlie turned to Leone, her eyes narrowing.  “Et tu, Brute?” she snapped.  “I understand these two.”  A sweep of her arm indicated her parents.  “But I rather thought I’d have support from you, at least.”

“You know I love you, Lotte,” Leone smiled.  “But let’s face facts: you are who you are, just as I am who I am.  We might as well get used to it.”

“So...what would you care to eat, my dear,” Penelope repeated, shifting topics away from her daughter’s frustrations.  “Fruit and cheeses?  Sausage and biscuits?”

“Just tea would be fine, Mother,” Charlie responded.  “I’m not terribly hungry this morning.”

 A look of maternal concern crossed Penelope’s features.  “Are you feeling unwell, Charlotte?  You haven’t had much of an appetite of late.”

“I’m fine,” Charlie reassured her mother.  “It’s just this odd feeling that I’ve been having and that I can’t quite pinpoint.”

“Intuition can be a tricky thing,” her father observed, catching the reference.  “Particularly early in its development.  Not to mention the unknown aspects involved in communicating with whatever or whoever that being might have been.”

Charlie nodded in agreement.  She had shared an outline of her encounter--hers and Leone’s--in those caverns below the surface of Mars without delving too deeply into the details of what Leone had called Charlie’s “near death” experience.  Charlie felt even that description fell far short of the mark: to her mind, she had been all the way dead.

But her father was still talking and Charlie pulled herself from her inner dialogue, redirecting her attention outward again.

“Given what your mother and I discovered those many, many years ago,” he was saying, “about the energy or life-force or what-have-you that lay at the heart of the planets, I think it is clear to say that there are depths here which humanity is ill-equipped to plumb.”  His usually puckish grin was replaced by an uncharacteristically somber expression.  “I remember those dying words of T’ka, the Vulcan chieftain.  What he said about the planets being one.”  He paused.  “Being alive.”

A moment of silence fell over the group.  Charlie had never seen a live Vulcan, nor had anyone in the last ten years.  The last of those creatures had perished a decade before, the entire race going extinct.  This event had provoked outcry among a small cadre of naturalists, but had been largely unremarked-upon by the people of the worlds generally.  The mechanization of Vulcan mining by the joint British-American consortium, the Hephaestus Corporation, had continued unabated.  Of course, even now that effort was falling short as the output and quality of those mines had slipped into decline. 

“Pa,” Charlie said after another moment, “what do you think--”

“The morning post, my lady,” a voice from the veranda doorway interrupted.  The estate’s head-of-staff approached the table and handed Penelope a pair of envelopes.  “I believe you had requested to have it brought to you immediately.”

“Thank you, Sara,” Penelope replied, taking the letters.  “That is all for now.”

“Yes, my lady,” Sara replied and retreated back into the house.

Charlie watched as her mother opened the smaller of the two envelopes first and extracted a rectangle of fine cardstock embossed with elegant lettering.  Penelope gave a most unlady-like snort and slid the card back into the envelope.  “Ridgemoor,” she commented, but did not elaborate further.

“This letter, however,” she said, lifting the second envelope, “is one for which I’ve been waiting.”  The seal was broken with a well-practiced motion and several folded sheets removed.  Penelope gave a nod to Leone.  “Your father has been able to insert certain...assets...within the various ambassadorial delegations to the conference on Luna, which are preparing to meet as we speak.  While the details of those discussions will take some time to report, I had asked if a summary of the initial positions of the various powers going into the conference might be obtained.”  She began scanning the lines of script, her emerald eyes flicking back and forth rapidly, and she soon slipped the first sheet to the rear of the stack as she progressed onto the second page.  “Interesting,” she said, almost to herself.

   “Could you elucidate, my dearest?” Elias commented with his usual grin.  “My mind-reading powers are rather on the fritz this morning.”

“Ass,” Penelope smiled.  Charlie rolled her eyes.  Leone stifled a laugh.

“It would appear,” her mother said, returning her attention to the letter, “that our efforts to diffuse that information regarding the state of Vulcan mining have yielded fruit.  All of the major delegations, even the British and Americans, wish to develop greater dialogue and a more cooperative approach to what they all recognize as an issue of common concern.”

“And what of these new pirates?” Leone inquired.  “What of the Solar Knights?”

“Also seen as an issue of common concern,” Penelope replied.  “The reflexive, hot-headed responses in the wake of the attack on His Royal Highness Prince Edward have cooled considerably.  I have no doubt that the prince’s efforts have been a substantial influence in that regard.”

“That is good to hear,” Elias commented.  “An interplanetary war would bring much destruction and misery while accomplishing little.  Certainly nothing constructive would come of it.”

“Quite so,” Penelope agreed as she continued to scan the final page of the letter.  “We can only hope--”  She stopped suddenly, her brow furrowing.

“What is it, Mother?” Charlie asked, concerned.

Penelope did not reply right away, but kept reading silently.  Then she looked up, her expression smoothing over.  “Nothing with which you need concern yourself at the moment, my dear.”  The pages were folded again and returned to the envelope.  “Elias, would you join me in the study after breakfast?  There is a small matter that has come to my attention which I’d like to discuss with you.”

Charlie watched her father nod, a look of mild confusion on his face.  “Of course, my love.”

“Excellent,” Penelope responded, placing the two envelopes aside and settling back in her chair.  “Let’s partake of this wonderful food that Suzanne has prepared for us.”  She looked over to Charlie.  “You know, Charlotte, it is such a lovely morning.  Perhaps you and Leone might enjoy a walk through the gardens after our meal here.”

“That sounds like a wonderful idea,” Leone concurred, taking the hint.

“I agree,” Charlie replied with an equal nonchalance, even as she asked herself what else had been in that letter.

 

###

 

“I can’t help but wonder what that was all about,” Charlie pondered out loud as she and Leone ambled casually along one of the footpaths winding through the estate gardens.

“You and me both,” her companion replied.  “Getting operatives placed inside the delegations is exactly the sort of thing I’d expect of Father.”  A sideways glance.  “Most likely low-level clerks or household servants.  People of the upper classes tend to forget about the help, you know, and speak among themselves as though their social inferiors weren’t even there.”

Charlie could only nod in agreement, all too aware of how her fellows among the better-off viewed those of the more menial classes.  “There was that something else, though,” she observed.  “For a moment, it looked as though Mother had been caught off-guard.”  She frowned.  “Not an occurrence I’ve witnessed very often.”

“What do you think that business was about her wanting to talk with your father?”

Charlie shook her head.  “I have no idea.  But if there’s one lesson I have learned, it’s that Mother will not divulge anything until she feels it to be the proper time.  And Pa will back her to the hilt, even if he disagrees with her.”

“I have to say, I rather like your parents,” Leone commented.  “They certainly make for an interesting pair.”

Charlie quirked an eyebrow.  “From Mother’s description, your parents sound no less interesting.”

Leone laughed.  “Oh, they are that, I assure you.  What with Father being so literary and calm and generally unflappable, while Ma can outswear an entire work-crew of drunken aethermen on leave.  They are quite the contrast.”

“I would love to have been in that room with the four of them that first time they all met together.”

Leone cocked her head.  “So you’ve heard that story, too, I see.”

Charlie nodded, a broad grin on her face.  “You mean the one where the Sons of Eris rescued my parents from being marooned in space, but only after Pa had confessed his love to Mother because he was certain they were going to die?”

“And after they were put in that crew’s quarters,” Leone picked up the narrative, “Ma totally chewed him a new one for traipsing about after a noble like a witless sop?”

It was Charlie’s turn to laugh.  “Exactly.”

“Your father has quite the romantic streak in him, Lotte.”

Charlie shrugged.  “That’s Pa.  Just how he is, I guess.”

Leone placed a hand on Charlie’s arm and brought the two of them to a halt.  “Why do you suppose,” she asked, looking deep into Charlie’s hazel eyes, “that it takes imminent death to get some people to acknowledge their love for one another?”

“I can’t say,” Charlie replied, her own gaze unwavering.  “The habit does seem to run in my family, though.”  One corner of Leone’s mouth curled into a half-smile and Charlie leaned forward to kiss it.  After she pulled back, her companion considered her for a long moment.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Leone asked quietly.

“Yes,” Charlie answered, waving toward a stone bench nearby.  “Let’s sit, though.”

The two women lowered themselves onto the ochre sandstone seat.  Charlie shifted uncomfortably, then turned herself so that she angled slightly inward toward Leone.  The other woman regarded her silently, waiting for Charlie to speak.

“When we were in that underground river, on that island of rock in the caverns,” she began.  “When I was...gone…”  Charlie gave an imperceptible shake of her head, not quite able to utter the word dead.

Leone nodded, but said nothing.

“There was a moment,” Charlie continued, “when I had a choice.”  She held Leone’s eyes with her own.  “A choice to leave or to stay.”  Charlie let out a slow breath.  “What brought me back, what held me here,” she said finally, “was you.  Not righting the wrongs of society.  Not fighting to better the lives of the down-trodden.  Not even Mother or Pa.”  She paused pointedly.  “You.”

“Lotte--”

“Hush,” she cut Leone off.  “Let me finish or else I’m not going to be able to get started again.  There’s more.”  She paused for a moment.  “In order to return, I had to agree to something.  This task, whatever it is.”

“I remember,” Leone replied.

“I have no idea what is going to happen, Leone.  What this thing to which I agreed might ask of me.  But I want you to know how very much I care for you.”

“I know that, Lotte.”

“Leone--”  Charlie buried her face in her hands.  “Dear God, I’m making such a mash-up of this.”  She lowered her hands to her lap, straightened her spine, and looked at the other woman directly.

“Leone Brownstone,” she began.

“Lotte--”  Her companions ice-blue eyes suddenly got very wide.  “What are you doing?”

Charlie’s serious expression broke into a smile.  “There really isn’t social protocol for this scenario, is there?”

“Not if you’re doing what I think you’re doing, no.”

“Well,” Charlie replied, “I am the baroness-to-be, so I suppose that would make me the guy in this case.”

“Ah,” Leone countered, “but I happen to be the scurrilous rogue, so wouldn’t that make me the guy?”

“Will you be quiet for once and let me ask you to marry me?” Charlie responded with a huff of exasperation.

Leone’s rebuttal died on her lips.  “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

Charlie nodded.  “I want you with me.  I want us.”  Another pause.  “More than anything.”

“But what about…” Leone trailed off.

“But what about what?” Charlie asked, puzzled.

“You know,” Leone said softly.  “Others.”

”Since when has Leone Brownstone cared about the opinions of others?” Charlie challenged.  “You’re not concerned about Mother, are you?  Or Pa?  Because they adore you.”

“If there’s a mother I’m worried about,” Leone rejoined, “it’s mine, not yours.  Cavorting about with a bleedin’ noble…”  She shrugged.  “Although she has mellowed somewhat in these last years.”  Ice blue looked into soft hazel.  “But Lotte, the point is that you are a baroness-to-be.  You still have to manage and navigate through that society, regardless of how little I care for it.”

“Do you think,” Charlie replied curtly, “that I give a flying Venusian swamp-fig what society thinks when it comes to us?”

Leone’s hands went up, acquiescing.  “I give in, Lotte.  You’ve won me over.  Yes, I’ll marry you--whatever that might mean in our circumstances.”

“Good.”  Charlie lifted her own hands, reaching behind her neck.  “I don’t have a ring or anything, but…”  She unclasped a chain and brought a locket from beneath her blouse.  “This was my Grandmama’s, who died when Mother was born.  My grandfather gave it to Mother when she was little, as a remembrance.  And Mother gave it to me.”  She held the locket out.  “I want you to have it.  As a token.”

“Lotte…” Leon said, very quietly now.  “I don’t know what to say.”

“Say ‘thank you’ and take the locket.”

Leone smiled.  “Thank you, Lotte.”

“Very good,” Charlie smiled.  “Now kiss me.”

“You’ve gotten very bossy ever since our engagement thirty seconds ago,” Leone smirked as she leaned forward.  Their lips touched, lingering for a delicious moment as they tasted one another.

“Like you said,” Charlie replied as they pulled away.  “I am who I am.  Now, let’s go find my parents.”   

They made their way back along the garden trail, back to the house, hand in hand.  Stepping through the doorway, the two moved along the hall, their spirits light.  The atmosphere changed, however, when they came to the study door, firmly shut.

The sounds filtering through the stout wood were muffled and though she could not make out words, the nature of the discussion occurring on the far side made itself clear to Charlie.  Her parents were having a heated argument. 

“Perhaps we should come back later,” Leone suggested, her expression worried.

Charlie paused, then turned to her fiancée.  “Why don’t you meet me at the stables,” she said.  “I’ll be there in a little bit.  We can get you some practice with Marlo in the corral.”

“Are you sure you should…” Leone nodded at the door.

“Just go ahead,” Charlie shooed her away.  “I’ll be there soon.”  Giving her one more look, Leone turned and headed further along the hall toward the front entrance.  After the other woman had disappeared around the corner, Charlie turned back to the study door and frowned.

Her parents never fought.  Not once that she could recall, even from her childhood, had her mother and father fought.  Partly, she was sure, this was due to the nature of their marriage, with its crossing not only lines of class but also of age.  Her mother was a peer of the realm as well as being nearly thirteen years older.  Her father was an orphaned son of a Venusian laborer who’d scratched out a life on the backstreets of Aphrodite as a petty thief before her mother had taken him into her service as an assistant.  To say that their pairing was characterized by a definite asymmetry would be a considerable understatement.

Not that her father never contradicted his wife.  Far from it, in fact.  But he always respected her final decisions, even when he disagreed with them.

It didn’t sound like that was happening this time.

Charlie wavered, undecided whether or not to intrude.  The oddness of the circumstances, however, overcame her desire to respect her parents’ privacy and she pushed the door open.

Elias’ voice was tense.  “I’m not going to let you just--”  He cut off abruptly as he caught sight of Charlie in the doorway.  “Charlie,” he said to his wife, indicating the doorway with a nod of his head.

Penelope turned.  Charlie saw her mother’s features, taut with emotion, shift smoothly and a mask of calm settle into place.  “Yes, Charlotte?”

Charlie’s eyes shifted from one parent to another, then back again.  “I heard fighting,” she said.

“We were having a discussion, yes,” her mother allowed.

“You two never fight,” Charlie pressed.  “What’s going on?”

“This is between me and your father at the moment,” Penelope explained.

“I’m a member of this family, too,” Charlie responded pointedly.  “I have a right to be a part of these conversations.”

“Charlie,” Elias said quietly.  “Please.”

“Pa…”

“Charlie,” he said again.  “I will be taking a trip shortly.  I may have to be gone for quite a while.  Allow me this time here with your mother.”

Charlie’s brow furrowed.  “I don’t understand.”

“Charlotte,” her mother said, her tone softer now.  “Please listen to your father.  I promise to explain later.”

Charlie looked between her parents.  “I wish the two of you wouldn’t keep me in the dark like this.”  Then she turned and left the study, closing the door behind her.

 

###

 

Her father departed the following morning, embracing her warmly but uttering no word as to his destination nor giving any hint as to when he might return.  Her parents had taken the news of her “engagement” to Leone with a genuine, if muted joy.  She and Leone went about their day as normally as they could, but the oddness Charlie felt within the household continued to linger.

Things became even stranger the next day when, shortly after the diminished family breakfast during which Charlie picked at her plate, a guest arrived and was immediately ushered into the study.  After her mother had joined the man, of whom she caught only a brief glimpse down the hallway, Charlie turned to the headmistress.

“Who is that, Sara?” she asked.

“The family solicitor, I believe,” the other woman replied.  “Up from Barsoom.”

“Ah,” Charlie responded, trying to fit pieces of a puzzle together but failing.  “Will he be staying long?”

Sara shook her head.  “My understanding is that he will be departing once the business her ladyship has requested is concluded.  He came up to Dorlaan yesterday and stayed overnight that he might arrive here early today.”

“I see,” Charlie said, not seeing at all.  “Thank you, Sara.”

The headmistress gave a nod and stepped away, moving on to her next set of tasks.  Charlie continued to ponder the strangeness of it all, but in an effort to clear her head, turned her mind to other things.  It was not until several hours later, as she and Leone were enjoying a light luncheon on the veranda, that the issue arose again as Sara appeared in the doorway.

“Miss Leone,” she said firmly.  “Her ladyship would like to speak with you, if you would come with me to the study.”

Leone cast a questioning glance at Charlie, but rose to her feet.  Charlie moved to stand as well, but Sara shook her head.  “I’m sorry, Miss Charlotte.  Her ladyship was most explicit.  Only Miss Leone’s presence is requested.”

Charlie frowned, hard, and stuffed down a surge of annoyance.  “Very well,” she replied curtly.  “I’ll just wait here, then.”

Leone’s expression was as puzzled as it was apologetic as she followed the headmistress into the house proper.  Charlie gazed out a window, seeing nothing, her mind churning behind a stoic mask.  Once again cut off from the main line of communication.  Once again seen as too inexperienced.  Once again the novice.  Damn it all, Mother, she thought bitterly, enough is enough.  You and I are going to settle this, once and for all.

The placid pane of glass didn’t answer her and the pleasant scene of the gardens beyond contrasted harshly with her mood.  She sat in silence, her low-burning anger steady and strong.

After an interminable wait that was only a half-hour by the clock down the hall, Leone returned without Sara.  Charlie’s sharp comment died on her lips.  “What’s the matter, Leone?” she asked, suddenly concerned.  “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Leone shook her head as she sat at the tea table, her fiery waves swaying.  “I’m okay.  It’s just--” she cut off.  “I can’t talk about it.”

“What do you mean,” Charlie’s eyes narrowed again, “you can’t talk about it?”

“I mean I can’t talk about it,” Leone replied.  “Your mother made me promise.”

That fire in Charlie’s belly flared, her anger returning with a vengeance.  “Damn it, Leone.  After everything we’ve been through--”

“Please!”  The almost plaintive tone in Leone’s voice made Charlie stop short.  The other woman continued, her voice uncharacteristically small.  “Please, Lotte.  Don’t be angry.  You have to trust me.”  Her ice-blue eyes were open, pleading.  “Even if you feel that you cannot trust your mother, trust me.”

Charlie’s jaw clenched and she swallowed a retort.  “I trust both of you,” she said, her voice carefully controlled.  “But I’m tired of this backhanded treatment.”

A polite cough interrupted.  Charlie looked to the doorway and saw that Sara had reappeared.  The woman looked at Charlie intently. “Your mother asks for you,” she stated without preamble.

Charlie stood and looked down at Leone.  “Mother and I are going to sort this out.  Now.”

Leone said nothing, though Charlie felt her fiancée’s gaze on her as she followed Sara into the house.  A few minutes later, the headmistress had delivered her to the study door.  Charlie took a deep breath and reached for the door handle.  She stepped into the library, her jaw set, pausing inside the entrance and allowing the door to swing shut behind her.

Her mother stood by that writing desk set, her back to the door and to Charlie, gazing wordlessly out the large window that overlooked the gardens beyond.

The surface of that writing desk was clear, save for the antique inkwell and pen set in one corner.  The square table that occupied the center of the center of the chamber, however, was another matter entirely.  Several bound ledgers were stacked to one side, while the balance of the table’s surface was covered by file folders, some open and some closed; various documents with dense blocks of type or columns of figures; a few pencils; and a mechanical tabulating device.

Penelope did not turn as the click of the latch sounded in the quiet of the room and Charlie waited as another beat passed before her mother spoke.

“Have a seat, if you would please, Charlotte,” Penelope said, still looking into the gardens.  “We have much to discuss.”

Damn straight we do, Charlie commented to herself.  Out loud, she replied, “Of course, Mother,” allowing her tone to convey her undisguised frustration.  “Though I must confess that I thought we were done with this sort of nonsense.”

Her mother turned at that.  “What nonsense would that be?” she inquired as Charlie moved to the table and took as seat on one of the four empty chairs.

“Your need to control everything,” Charlie responded curtly.  “This obsessive compulsion you seem to have to keep me in the dark until the last possible moment and to feed me spoonfuls of information only when you deem me ready.”

Penelope gave a sigh.  “I suppose I cannot blame you for seeing things that way,” she allowed.  “Or frankly, for resenting me for what you see as a lack of confidence in your abilities.”  Moving away from the window and settling herself in a neighboring chair at the table, she continued.  “I don’t expect you would take it on faith that I have every confidence in your capability.”

“You have certainly have an odd way of showing that,” Charlie challenged.

Her mother looked at her levelly.  “I can only say in my defense that I have taken the course I thought best at the time.”  She glanced into a distance past Charlie’s shoulder for a moment before her eyes found Charlie’s again.  “Perhaps your father was right.  Perhaps I ought to have brought you into the fold earlier and of my own accord, rather than more recently and only after having been forced by circumstance.”  A soft sigh.  “Be that as it may, we must deal with what is, not what might have been.”

“Where has Pa gone?” Charlie demanded.  “And what was all that secrecy about earlier today?”

 Penelope shook her head sharply.  “I cannot tell you that, Charlotte.  Not yet.”

“But you could tell Leone?”  Charlie’s tone was sharp.  “Is that it?”

“Leone had a necessary role to play,” her mother confirmed.  “You will understand.”

“When?”

“When the time comes.”

Charlie’s jaw clenched.  “I’m not a child, Mother.”

“I have never said that you were,” Penelope replied calmly.

“Only implied it.  Heavily.”

Penelope’s left eyebrow rose fractionally.  “I am attempting, my dear, to prepare you as best I am able.”  Charlie’s retort was cut off by her mother’s upraised hand.  “Please.  We have work to do this evening and it is time we got to it.”

Charlie’s mouth snapped shut and she gave a reluctant nod.  “Very well, Mother.”

“Thank you.”  A quiet moment.  “This is important, Charlotte.”  Her mother’s emerald eyes considered Charlie evenly.

A beat passed.  Charlie nodded again.  “I understand.”

“Good.”  Her mother sat back in her chair.  “I have decided,” she said, “that the time has come to delegate certain responsibilities to you.”  A sweep of an arm indicated the table.  “Effective immediately, you will be managing the affairs of this estate.  You have been introduced to many of the operational aspects already over these last several months.  Now we shall move on to financial considerations.”  Penelope looked at Charlie.  “It will be necessary to go through all of the accounts, expenses, and tax records.  You will need to clear your afternoons and evenings for the next several days.”

Charlie’s brow furrowed in confusion.  “Okay…”  She gave the table a bleak look.

One corner of Penelope’s mouth twitched upward.  “Behold the glories of peerage.  Being baroness is a considerable responsibility, as you will discover in due course.  I have every faith, Charlotte, that you are equal to the task.”  She cleared her throat and reached for a ledger.  “Let’s begin with the accounts for the tenant villages…”

 

###

 

The days that followed fell into a steady rhythm.  Charlie had her mornings to do with as she wished, but shortly after luncheon, and then again following dinner, she sat with her mother in the study, attempting to absorb those multitudinous details of estate management with which she had not already become familiar.  It seemed, Charlie thought, far too similar to her childhood for her liking.

That rhythm, however, was fundamentally and irrevocably altered the morning of the fourth day.  Charlie and Leone had escaped to the stables, where Charlie was attempting to bolster her fiancée’s confidence in the saddle by having her ride Marlo in a circuit around the corral.  From the nervousness in Leone’s expression, this exercise was producing minimal results.

Charlie brought Marlo to a halt and reached up to touch the other woman’s hand.  “You’ve got to relax a bit.  Trust your mount--”

A distant noise caught her attention and Charlie turned, peering toward the horizon.  It took some searching, but after a moment she located the source.  There, a dot in the orange field of the Martian sky, was a dirigible, the thrum of its engines growing more and more distinct as it approached.  Movement in the corner of her eye brought her attention to the corral gate, from which James was rushing towards them, his features tense.

“What’s going on, James?” she asked, perplexed.

“Soldiers,” the man replied, slightly out of breath as he came to a stop amid a small swirling of dust.  “Territorial Guard, by the looks of ‘em.  There’s a transport at the dock and more comin’ up the road from Dorlaan.”  James nodded to the sky.  “And that’s probably more of ‘em there, too.”

Leone dismounted gracefully, for all her nervousness in the saddle.  Charlie looked to her and then to the stablehand.  “Guard troops?  Coming here?”

“Your mother asks the two of you to come to the front parlor,” James said.  “Quickly.”

“Of course,” she replied as she and Leone moved to do exactly that.  It took them only a few minutes to cover the distance to the estate house at a brisk trot.  Without pausing, they went through the front door and entered the parlor to find Penelope seated in one of the pair of armchairs, calmly sipping tea.

“Ah, Charlotte.  Leone,” she said, looking up from the window out of which she had been gazing.  “Please, have a seat.”  She motioned Charlie to the accompanying armchair.  Leone found a place on the short couch opposite. 

“What is the Territorial Guard doing here?” Charlie demanded.

Her mother took another sip of her tea and set the cup back on its saucer with the same deliberate precision which characterized all of her movements.  Those deep emerald eyes held Charlie for a moment before the older woman replied.

“I do believe,” Penelope said carefully, “that these men are here to arrest me.”

Charlie’s mouth opened, then closed again.  It took a moment before she could find her tongue.  “Why?” was all she could manage.

“It would seem that the leaking of that Haephestus report has been traced to me,” her mother answered.  “And His Majesty’s Government takes rather a dim view of unauthorized distribution of imperial secrets.”

“But I was with y--” Charlie began, but a curt slicing motion of her mother’s hand cut her off.

“No, Charlotte.  You were not.”  The undercurrent of power in her mother’s response was unmistakable.  “It is absolutely imperative, my dear, that you remember our tea-time conversation on the veranda those months ago.”

Charlie was still digesting that last statement when Sara appeared in the parlor doorway.  “Major Peterson,” she announced, “of the Territorial Guard.”  As she stepped aside, four uniformed men entered the room with a determined air.

“Major John Peterson,” the first man announced as the group came to a halt in the center of the parlor.  “B Company, 1st Battalion, Red Cliff Fusiliers.”  He gestured to the second man behind him.  “This is Lieutenant Jeffers.”  The remaining two soldiers were not introduced.

“I see,” Penelope said calmly.  “I would like to ask, Major, why it is that His Majesty’s soldiers are crawling about my family’s estate?”

“I think you understand the reason for that very well, my lady,” Major Peterson replied.  “I’d ask that Mr. Conner join us here.”

Penelope gestured vaguely.  “My husband does not appear to be home at present, Major.” 

“Very well,” the major’s expression was hard.  “I must ask you to divulge his whereabouts, in that case.”

“I cannot say,” Charlie’s mother replied.  “He was not terribly explicit in the outline of his itinerary at the time of his departure.”  She gave a casual shrug.  “He might be in Shangri La for all I know.”

Charlie cast a quick glance to the major, but the man showed no understanding of the reference.  She saw his lips compress into a firm line.  “You only compound your errors, my lady,” he said after a moment of studious silence.

“Nonetheless,” Penelope replied, “this is my course to chart.  Why don’t you carry on with the business that has brought you and your men here today?”

“Very well.”  The major’s tone carried a finality that Charlie didn’t like.  His back straightened and he looked at her mother levelly.  “Penelope Genevieve Hillcrest-Carter, Baroness Botelier, I arrest you in the name of His Majesty King George V on charges of high treason against the British Empire.  You will accompany me to the territorial capital of Barsoom, where you will be arraigned prior to travel to London for your trial.”  He paused, surveyed the others in the room before returning his attention to Penelope.  “In accordance with applicable law, you are hereby informed that all personal property will be held under the authority of His Majesty’s government pending the outcome of that trial.  As a peer under charges of treason, your family’s title and all land grants will be held in abeyance.  In the event that you are found guilty, your life and your title shall be forfeit, all land grants cancelled, and all property revert to the Crown.  Do you understand these points as I have explained them to you?”

Charlie felt an anger surge within her, but held her tongue.  Her mother merely nodded, unbelievably calm.  “I understand you quite well, Major.  However,” she motioned to Sara, “I do have a few points of my own to clarify.”  Turning her attention to the headmistress of the estate, she reached into the neck of her blouse and withdraw a key on a thin loop of chain.  Lifting it from around her neck, she held the key out.  “Would you bring the papers from the safe, Sara?  I believe you know which ones.”

As the major looked on, perplexed, Sara took the key with a wordless nod and stepped from the parlor.  Peterson coughed.  “The estate is under guard, Lady Botelier, if you are planning something…”

“I am intending nothing so dramatic as an escape attempt, Major,” Penelope replied.  “I merely wish to correct you on a few points.  Ms. Meade will return momentarily, I assure you.”

True to Penelope’s word, Sara reappeared in the doorway a minute later.  Ignoring the soldiers, she moved across the parlor with a resolute stride and stopped before the pair of armchairs in which Charlie and her mother sat, an envelope in one hand and the key on its chain in the other.  She offered the envelope to Penelope.  The key, however, she placed into Charlie’s hand.

Charlie frowned and looked up at the headmistress, but Sara said nothing and moved to a place off to one side.  The young woman looked down at the key in her palm again, then to her mother as the older woman spoke.

“Major,” her mother commented as she extracted a document, neatly folded into thirds, from the envelope.  “You will find this to be relevant.”  She held the papers up casually.  

“What is this?” Peterson demanded, as he unfolded the document and scanned its contents.  His frown transformed into a scowl as he read.

“These articles are in order,” she said firmly.  “Quite properly witnessed and attested, as you can see, and executed some days ago.”  She paused as the major continued to read, moving from the first page to the second as his scowl deepened.  “With respect to my shipping company, of course,” Penelope allowed, “this has no bearing.  To the extent that you are able to locate those assets--or my husband, for that matter--you are within your authority to seize them, as you have said.  And I am here, at your disposal.”  Charlie sensed a pulse of anger that flared in that carefully controlled tone.  “But there your authority ends.”

Her mother’s eyes hardened.  “You may indeed arrest me, Major, but you will not touch these lands or this estate, for they are not mine.”  She gestured to the armchair beside her.  “They belong to the bearer of the family title, who sits there.”

A palpable silence, charged with portent, fell upon the room.  Charlotte Hope Conner, Sixteenth Baroness Botelier, felt the color drain slowly from her face.