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.

 

Part II

Trial by Fire

 

Major Peterson finally looked up from the document in his hands, a grim expression on his face, apparently having come to a decision.  “My orders do not address these circumstances,” he admitted with obvious reluctance and handing the papers to Charlie.  “My lady.”

Charlie took the document, then squared her shoulders, and raised her chin a defiant fraction.  “If you do not have a writ for my arrest,” she challenged, her tone low, careful, “then I demand that you withdraw your men from this estate immediately, Major.”

The officer did not reply, but looked between Charlie and her mother, assessing the two women.  “Very well, my lady,” he responded after a long moment.  “If her la--,” he cut off, correcting himself.  “If your mother would come willingly, then I have no further orders that would require the presence of His Majesty’s forces here.”  He gave Charlie a level look.  “For the time being.”

Charlie held her gaze level, saying nothing.  The major’s eyes shifted over to her mother.  “Madame?”

Penelope stood.  “Sara, please bring my bag.”

The major’s face took on an expression of distaste.  “Madame, this is not a pleasure cruise.”

“Rest assured, Major,” Penelope replied, “that you may examine the contents at your leisure.  There are simply some things, however, that a woman requires.”

 Peterson coughed uncomfortably.  “Very well, then.”

Sara had barely left the parlor before she returned, holding what Charlie recognized as her mother’s old overnight bag.  Penelope took the bag in hand and turned to the soldiers.  “I am ready.”  She looked back to Charlie and gave a small nod.  Emerald eyes gleamed.  “I have the utmost faith,” she said.  Then the soldiers escorted her from the parlor and the estate house.

Charlie stood slowly, her mind still fogged by the sudden shifting of the landscape, and she watched through the large windows as the major issued orders to his officers, who then began relaying those orders to the soldiers lined up in formation on the estate grounds.  Her mother was escorted by the lieutenant and the other two soldiers to the dirigible which sat at anchor.  The major stood alone, observing the ranks of men realign and begin to march away, down the road to Dorlaan or back to the transport at the estate’s canal dock, then he too made his way to the airship.  It was only after the dirigible had started its engines once more and begun rising into the orange Martian sky that Charlie turned from the window. 

Her eyes found Leone’s.  “What the hell,” she demanded, “just happened?”

“My lady.”  A polite clearing of a throat sounded to her right and it took Charlie a moment to realize that she was the person being addressed.  She turned to see Sara standing in the parlor doorway.  “My lady,” the woman repeated, “if I may, what just happened is that your mother saved this estate and its tenants from being seized by the Crown.”

“What do you mean about the tenants, Sara?”  Charlie looked at the woman, confused.  “Our tenants aren’t bond-servants.  They’re not property of the estate.”

“Lotte,” Leone said softly.  “How long would that have remained the case?”

Sara nodded in agreement.  “My lady, your mother has kept the rents low and within the ability of the tenant villages to pay.”  The headmistress gestured vaguely with one hand.  “Another owner might not be so inclined.  Higher rents would force the tenants into debt.  Debts which, in the end, would prove impossible to repay.”  A careful look.  “And we know where that road ends.”

Charlie frowned.  That logic made sense, however distasteful the chain of thought was.  “So Mother dodged a bullet.”

“She has bought you time,” Sara said.  “At the expense of her own freedom.”

And her own life, Charlie observed silently.  There could be little doubt as to the outcome of her mother’s trial.  And treason had but one possible sentence.

“What are we to do?” Charlie asked quietly.

“That,” Sara indicated with a deferential inclination of her head, “is entirely up to you, my lady.  You are Baroness Botelier.”

Intellectually, Charlie knew this.  Had known it for the last quarter-hour in the wake of her mother’s dramatic revelation.  But having someone say the words, putting the stark fact before her so plainly, struck her like a punch to the gut.  The reality of the situation crashed upon her.  Her stomach churned.

She turned abruptly, her face paling.  “Excuse me,” she said quickly, almost in a whisper, and fled the parlor, rushing down the long hall toward her suite.  In her blind haste, she nearly collided with Amber as the young woman turned a corner.  Charlie raced past the chambermaid, who leapt out of the way with a small cry of alarm, and through the entrance into her chambers.

The doorway to the water closet beckoned and a moment later she found herself kneeling over the porcelain bowl, her breakfast surging upward.  She wretched.

Suddenly, there was a presence beside her, a gentle touch holding her shoulder-length hair back and out of the way.  Charlie heaved again, the last of her morning meal arcing into the toilet.  She started to sob.

“It’s okay, Lotte,” Leone said quietly.  “It’s okay.  I’ve got you.”  A hand stroked Charlie’s back.  Through the fog of emotion, the love in the other woman’s touch gleamed like a desperately-sought lighthouse.  Charlie reached out for it.

The psychic tide began to subside and Charlie took a deep, ragged breath, closed her eyes.  “Thank you,” she whispered. 

There was a nudge against her shoulder and Charlie looked to her right.  A glass of water was held out to her.  “Here,” Leone said, “have some of this.  It’ll get the taste out of your mouth, at least.”

Charlie complied, allowing the first swallow to wash her mouth before taking a second sip.  She handed the glass back.  “And thank you,” she replied.  “I needed that.”

“Do you need a bit longer, Lotte?”

“No,” Charlie responded.  “I’m alright.  That was just...sudden.”  She took another deep breath.  “I hope I can handle this.”

“I know you can,” Leone said firmly.  “And so does your mother, else she would not have done what she did.”

   Charlie gave a weak smile.  “I can’t say I’ve exactly distinguished myself here.  Puking is hardly the appropriate reaction to being elevated to baroness.”

Leone’s hand rested on the small of Charlie’s back.  “I thought you were perfect in there.”  A smirking half-smile.  “The puking part afterwards aside.”

Charlie rose to her feet, Leone joining her.  “I suppose I should clean up a bit and go show myself so that the staff isn’t left wondering what’s going on.”  Her eyes narrowed.  “And then we need to decide what we’re going to do next.”

 

###

 

Three days later, well into the afternoon, she found herself sitting in an expansive office at the edge of the Government Quarter of Barsoom.

“What I need to know, sir,” Charlie said, eyeing the man sitting across from her carefully, “is what lies ahead for my mother.”

She had spent the balance of that dramatic first day speaking with the staff of the immediate household, and much of the next day visiting the various villages on the estate, speaking to the tenants and allowing herself to be seen, projecting a confidence that she was trying to cultivate yet within herself.  With those necessities completed, travel to Barsoom to assess her mother’s situation was the obvious next step, and arrangements were made to catch the overnight ferry at Monmouth.

Bartholomew Robertson sat on the other side of his broad desk and regarded the intense, young woman with an even gaze.  “My lady,” he replied, “I fear that your mother’s prospects are grave indeed.”

Charlie’s jaw clenched and she felt her stomach tighten.  She should be grateful, she thought to herself, that the solicitor was forthright in his assessment of the situation.  “I understand,” she replied after a moment.  “And I appreciate your candor.  If you could, please clarify what these prospects entail.”

The older man gave Charlie a curt nod, as if approving of her reaction.  “I have engaged Mr. Lawrence Blumenstein to act as your mother’s barrister.  He is a very capable gentleman and has some particular experience arguing before the Territorial High Court.  It is that court--and more specifically, the hands of Lord Justice Hollington--in which the immediate fate of your mother rests.”

“Immediate fate?” Charlie inquired.  “Please explain.”

“Madame Conner, as your mother has elected to style herself, has claimed the right of in terra navitatis suae,” Robertson replied.  “As you might surmise from the Latin, this refers to the traditional right of the accused to be tried within his home territory or concession, rather than transported to Earth for trial in Great Britain.”  The solicitor’s brow furrowed slightly.  “This is something of a daring move on your mother’s part.”

“How is that?”

“Peers under a charge of treason are specifically excluded from that privilege by custom.”  He gave Charlie a knowing look.  “This was done to prevent a rebellious noble from obtaining particular leniency by a jury drawn from a potentially sympathetic audience.  However, as Mr. Blumenstein has noted in his filing before the court, your mother was not a peer at the time of her arrest, though she may well have been at the time of the grand jury’s indictment.”

“May have been,” Charlie echoed.  “How is that uncertainty possible?”

“The date of the indictment coincides with the date of your mother’s articles of renunciation,” Robertson explained.  “This rather grey area aside, this case nonetheless represents a unique circumstance not directly addressed by precedent.  The Lord Justice could easily rule either way in regards to this motion.”

Charlie nodded slowly.  “When will the Court make its determination on this claim?”

“Quite soon,” the solicitor replied.  “The Court has scheduled a hearing tomorrow morning, in fact, and I expect the decision will be rendered at that time.”  He paused for a moment.  “If your ladyship would like, you might consider viewing the proceedings from the gallery.”

“Yes,” Charlie agreed, her tone level.  “I would very much like to do that.  What time will the hearing be held?”

Robertson leaned back in his chair.  “The Court session opens for the day promptly at nine o’clock, though there will be some preliminary business of the day before your mother’s case is brought before the bench.  However, to be blunt, a certain notoriety has become attached to this particular proceeding and I suspect that the gallery will be quite well-populated.  I would suggest, therefore, that your ladyship arrive somewhat earlier.  Half-past eight, perhaps.”

Charlie’s mouth set itself in a firm line.  “Very well,” she replied.  “I will plan accordingly.  Perhaps we might discuss the results of the hearing afterwards?”

“Of course, my lady,” he replied respectfully.  “We could repair to my offices here after your mother’s case has been heard.”

“Thank you, sir,” Charlie acknowledged as she stood, Robertson mirroring her action a moment later.  “Until tomorrow then.”

She returned to her hotel suite for the evening, restless.  She found herself desiring a later meal, despite having had such a diminished appetite recently, and ordered a tea service with light sandwiches, sweet fruit jam, and a delightfully sour pickled slaw.  Her sudden hunger satisfied, she prepared for bed and fell into a fitful slumber.     

Despite the solicitor’s warning, Charlie found herself unprepared for the crowd of spectators which had already gathered in the gallery of the court.  She made her way to the far side, near the edge where she might have a clear view of the proceedings below.  She heard low murmuring around her as she moved past the other people and a small bubble of space opened up around her, just enough to be noticeable.

Charlie frowned inwardly even as she kept her expression studiously blank and unconcerned.  Obviously, the notoriety to which Robertson had alluded extended to her person as well.  Honestly, Charlie thought to herself, I ought not have expected anything less.

She stood quietly in her chosen location, carefully ignoring the looks and whispers around and behind her.  There was some activity in the courtroom below as various attendants prepared for the day’s business.  Precisely as the hands of the clock showed the ninth hour, the ornate door at the back of the court opened and a man in the rich robes of the Lord Justice ascended to the bench.

“All rise!” the bailiff announced.  “The Territorial High Court is now in session.”

The Lord Justice rapped the gavel and looked with some distaste to the crowded gallery.  Then he turned to the bailiff.  “The first order of business pertains to a disputation of venue in the case of the Crown versus Conner.  Bring in the prisoner.”

The bailiff bowed to the bench and departed.  After a brief period of time, he returned, followed by Penelope, herself flanked by a pair of guards.  Charlie noted that her mother wore the same outfit as the day of her arrest and that, for now at least, her hands were unbound.  Her mother halted before the bench and dropped into as elegant a curtsy as one could execute while wearing trousers.

The Lord Justice frowned.  “We do not take kindly to jests in this court, Madame,” he said sternly.

“My lord,” Penelope replied evenly.  “I meant no offense.”

Hollington looked down at her silently for another moment.  “It is this court’s understanding that you have claimed the right of  in terra navatatis suae.  This is correct?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“You understand, furthermore, that your claim rests on a highly dubious technicality that flies in the face of all precedent of which this court is familiar?”

Penelope’s response was calm.  “I have made my claim based on my understanding of the facts, my lord.”

“Madame.”  Just as Charlie wondered if the Lord Justice’s expression could become any more stern, it did.  “This court is ill-disposed to grant your claim, as you may have surmised.  I therefore--”

“My lord.”

Hollington paused in mid-sentence, likely as not out of sheer surprise at the interruption.  “Madame, you do yourself no favors.”

Penelope gave a single nod of acquiescence.  “My lord, if I might be permitted to speak before this court rules on my claim, I have something which I would like to offer to the Crown Advocate.”

“This court,” the Lord Justice said slowly, “does not negotiate with prisoners.”

“My lord,” Penelope responded.  “If I may be allowed to see what the opinion of the Crown might be?”

Hollington looked over to the Crown Advocate, who in turn considered Penelope with an expression of astonishment.  “My lord,” the man said after a moment, “the Crown would be curious to hear of this matter to which Madame Conner refers.”

“Very well,” the Lord Justice replied with a vague gesturing of his gavel.

Penelope turned to the Crown Advocate.  “In exchange for the Crown’s stipulation to my claim, I am prepared to offer the Crown information pertaining to the identity and location of the one known as Mother Esperanza.”

A shocked murmur rippled through the gallery.  Charlie’s frown deepened.

Hollington looked to the Advocate, his thick eyebrows raised.  The Advocate’s expression showed the man’s shock.  Then his brow furrowed.  “The Crown will not be subject to any sly tricks, Madame.”

Penelope shook her head.  “I will provide this court and the Crown the identity and location of that person in exchange for acceptance of my claim.  I will do so immediately and under oath, if such is desired.”

The advocate looked to the bench.  “The Crown has no objection, my lord.”

Hollington frowned.  “This is most irregular.”  A long pause.  “But if the Crown has no objection to the arrangement, this court will not impede.  Madame, your claim is hereby granted.  Now,” he looked down at Penelope, “you will provide this information, as you have stated.”

“Yes, my lord,” Penelope replied.  She looked directly at the Lord Justice.  “The one you seek stands before you now.”  Her back was ramrod straight and Charlie swore she saw her mother’s chin lift just a fraction.  “I am Mother Esperanza.”

The gallery broke into a roar as everyone began talking at once.  Hollington banged uselessly with his gavel for several minutes.  Charlie’s hand went to her face.  Dear God, Mother, she thought, when I said to speak up, this is not exactly what I had in mind.

 

###

 

“Well,” Robertson commented dryly as the two of them sat in his office, “that was most certainly an interesting turn of events.”  He shook his head slowly.  “Not necessarily a better outcome in the longer run, as your mother has all but admitted to a slate of additional charges, but tactically an excellent result.  She would have a substantially greater chance of being convicted were she tried in London.”

Charlie’s eyes narrowed.  “Are you suggesting, sir, that there is a chance of acquittal?”

“Not really,” Robertson replied.  “In a London venue, the chances of acquittal would effectively be nil; here, they are merely infinitesimal.”

“You are not terribly encouraging,” Charlie commented.

The solicitor shrugged.  “I do not wish to present your ladyship with false hopes.  Both the verdict and the subsequent sentence in her case are practically certain.”

“What happens now?”

“Given the Lord Justice’s ruling today, preparations must be made to hold your mother’s first trial.”

“First trial?” Charlie asked.  “There will be others?”

“Undoubtedly,” Robertson replied.  “I am quite certain that indictments are already being drawn up based on the revelations from today’s proceedings.”

“Fair enough,” Charlie allowed.  “Very well, then.  Focusing on the charges at hand, however, what are the next steps in the process?”

“As I indicated, preparations for the trial in the Territorial High Court must be made.  A jury must be gathered, witness testimony arranged, evidence organized, arguments prepared.”

“Hmmm.”   Charlie frowned.  “And how long will that take?”

Robertson made a few mental calculations.  “Two, perhaps three weeks.”

“And the trial itself?”

“Given the nature of the case,” the solicitor responded, “another week, by my estimation.  After the close of the trial proceedings, of course, the outcome would be placed in the hands of the jury for its deliberations.  How long it would take for it to render its verdict is anyone’s guess.”

“I see.”  Charlie paused, as another question came to her.  “Where will my mother be held in the interim?”

“During the trial itself, she would be held in the cells within the High Court,” Robertson explained.  “Until the trial, however, she will be held in the Old Gaol.”

Charlie looked at the solicitor with an odd expression and something clicked in the back of her mind, a fierce light suddenly gleaming in her eyes.  “Sir, I have two requests to make of you.”

The older man’s eyebrows rose slightly.  “And what would those requests be, my lady?”

“To the extent my mother’s barrister is able, I would like him to make what efforts he can to delay my mother’s trial.”

“Delay?”

“Precisely,” Charlie affirmed.  “I am sure that there are any number of motions which Mr. Blumenstein might file that would produce that result.”

“There are,” the solicitor agreed.  “Though I cannot say that I comprehend your aim, my lady.”

“That is not of immediate concern,” Charlie replied.  “I do not mean to be curt, sir, but let us just say that a delay would greatly aid my mother’s chances of survival.”

Robertson frowned, but nodded in understanding.  “Very well, my lady.  I will direct Mr. Blumenstein to do as you wish.”  He paused.  “You had mentioned a second request?”

“Yes.”  A grim line formed on Charlie’s mouth.  “I would like you to arrange for me to visit my mother at the Old Gaol as soon as practicable.”

The solicitor nodded.  “That can be done, my lady.  Shall I contact you at your lodgings when those arrangements have been made?”

“Yes,” Charlie replied, rising from her chair.  “Thank you, sir.  I am staying at the King George.”

“Very well, my lady.”  Robertson stood along with her and gave a short, polite bow.  Charlie replied with a nod, turned, and left the office.

 

###

 

By means of timely and appropriately-directed requests, the solicitor was able to make those arrangements for the following day, as a message sent to her rooms at the King George later that afternoon revealed.  Charlie spent the balance of the day alone, venturing to the cafe across the street for tea and a light dinner.  She returned to her rooms immediately afterwards, however, and retired to bed earlier than was her habit, falling into a deep sleep nonetheless.

After breaking her fast with a light meal of fruit and bread in her suite at the King George, and bracing herself with several cups of coffee, Charlie met Robertson at his office somewhat before nine o’clock.  The two of them then left to make their way to the far side of Barsoom’s city-center to the old prison.

The gaol, Charlie recalled from her years of childhood lessons, was a structure surviving from an earlier time dating back to the British Empire’s first efforts to colonize the Red Planet and the decade of bitter rivalry and conflict among the various greater and lesser powers for dominance at the dawn of the space age.  Her twice-great grandfather, in fact, had fought at the Third Siege of Barsoom, one of the last major battles for Mars prior to the signing of the 1832 Treaty of Geneva which had established the system of territories and concessions that had defined relations among the political powers ever since.  Indeed, he had been the artillery colonel in charge of the city’s defenses and had written extensively of his experiences, both in that battle as well as others, in a series of journals still kept in the family library.

“I feel that I must caution you,” Robertson commented as the water-taxi in which they were riding carried them smoothly along one of the many connecting canals which crisscrossed the inner city.  “Do not expect any privacy during your visit.  It is my understanding that your mother is being held in the lower level of the gaol.  Given the seriousness of the charges against her, you will almost certainly be under observation the entire time.”

“I understand,” Charlie acquiesced.  “I will deal with any conditions the commander of the gaol sets.”  She had not expected otherwise, but it was useful to have her suppositions confirmed.  In any event, she thought, it would be important to get an honest assessment of the situation before she could develop her plans further.  A slight bump interrupted her thoughts and as the water-taxi sidled up to the edge of a short dock jutting into the canal, Charlie looked up at the prison which held her mother.

The gaol stood out, most certainly, contrasting with the visibly more modern structures around it, a remnant of that earlier time on which she had been reflecting only moments before.  A relic preserved amidst the growth and change of the surrounding city.  The structure itself had once been a bastion anchoring a corner of the old city wall, back in the days of the original settlement when the city had been far more compact.  Her great-great grandfather would have commanded the guns mounted along that perimeter and on the roof here.  Now, however, this structure had been repurposed, converted into a barracks and a prison for those prisoners awaiting trial.  People like her mother.

The city itself had continued to expand and develop in subsequent generations, gradually swallowing surrounding terrain and growing into the teeming metropolis it was today.  The heart of Barsoom, however, the old inner city, was in many ways defined by the original limits, even if the walls that had once formed the perimeter had long been dismantled.

The two passengers stepped from the narrow boat onto the dock and Charlie followed as Robertson led the way up a short flight of steps onto a broad walk that terminated some distance ahead at the arched entranceway to the Old Gaol.  Squat by modern standards, the building still rose a good three stories into the air, not counting the rooftop level, with thick walls and narrow windows.  The gateway, Charlie noted as they approached, was wide enough for five men to march abreast, but offered the sole means of ingress or egress.  The cellar and sub-cellar, she recalled, had been converted to prison cells and it was in the lower of these levels where her mother was apparently being held.

They were stopped by one of the sentries at the gate.  The solicitor handed over a folded document which the sentry reviewed and returned before waving them through.  Robertson seemed to know the way and Charlie followed the older man as they made their way along the perimeter of the interior parade ground where a group of soldiers was drilling, the clipped commands of the sergeant slicing through the air.  A short time later, Charlie found herself ushered through an antechamber and into the administrative office of the commanding officer.

As she and Robertson took the curtly proffered chairs, she quietly observed the other man as he seated himself on the far side of his wide desk.  “Lieutenant Colonel Marcus Longstreet,” he said by way of introduction.  “Commanding the garrison here.”  The man’s hard, grey eyes rested on her companion only briefly before regarding Charlie in silence for a long moment.

“There are rules, my lady,” he said levelly.  “Rules which apply to all, regardless of rank.”

Charlie nodded.  “I have been so informed, Colonel.”

“The prisoner is permitted only one visitor at any given time,” the colonel continued, as though Charlie had not spoken.  “The visit will not be private.  At least one guard will be present to observe all that is done or said.”  He paused, his gaze unwavering.  “Visitation by any person other than counsel is restricted to no more than thirty minutes’ time.  You may not exchange any item with nor give any item to the prisoner.  Any attempt to do so will result in the item or items in question being confiscated.  You may not touch the prisoner nor approach within arm’s reach.  Any violation of these protocols will result in the immediate termination of the visit, revocation of any future visitation privileges, and my considerable displeasure with your ladyship.”  Another pointed pause.  “Are these restrictions understood?”

Charlie nodded.  “They are.”

“Very well.”  The colonel gestured absently to a soldier who had been standing by the office door.  “Sergeant Mathers, escort Lady Botelier to her mother’s cell.”

Longstreet and Robertson stood as Charlie rose from her chair.  She gave a nod of parting to the two men and followed the barrel-chested sergeant down the hall, back towards that interior parade ground, then further along its perimeter to where the inner wall was broken by a heavy iron gate blocking a narrow stair leading downward.  A pair of sentries flanked that gate and as she and the sergeant approached, one of them stepped forward, unlocked the gate, and held it open.  After they had passed through and began to descend the stone steps, Charlie observed the sentry relock the gate and return to his post.

The stairs led down into the planet it seemed, their incline steep.  Electric bulbs bathed the stairwell in a harsh light, spaced along wire strung on pinions hammered into the stone wall.  The sergeant led on, past a first landing with a stout door guarded by another sentry, downward to the second level below, ending in another stout door and its own guard.  As had occurred above, the sentry opened the door at the sergeant’s wordless nod and Charlie followed the man into the lower cellar beyond.

A lone soldier rose from a chair at a small guard station just inside, a ledger sitting closed on top of a narrow desk.  The long passageway extended from the sub-cellar entrance, heavy doors alternating in a staggered fashion on either side.  The harsh lighting from the stairwell was continued here, with wring strung down the centerline of the ceiling branching to electric bulbs ensconced in small alcoves set above each door.

“Her ladyship is here to visit with the new prisoner,” the sergeant told the guard as the door to the stairwell was shut behind them.  “Her mother.”

The guard’s eyes flickered over to Charlie.  “This way, my lady.” 

As the guard led her down that hall, Charlie noted that each door bore a small window and a number stenciled on its exterior.  The sergeant followed slightly behind.  Having traversed a little more than half the length of the corridor, the guard stopped at a door bearing the label B207 in white stencil.  Producing a ring of keys, he selected one and inserted it into the lock.

“Madame,” he announced as the door swung open ponderously, “you have a visitor.”

The cell was plain and narrow, perhaps eight feet wide.  Unadorned brick walls reached some ten feet ahead, terminating in blank stone blocks.  A wooden bench, itself perhaps two feet wide, extended the width of the opposite wall, illuminated by a beam of light originating above the door.  It was, Charlie realized, the electric lamp set in its alcove, the back of which she saw now was a thick pane of glass.

The air was heavy, with a distinct earthy aroma, layered with something far more pungent.  It took Charlie a moment to place the smell of feces and urine.  A chamberpot set in the corner of the cell, just to one side of the door, revealed the source.

As she stepped into the small space, a figure unfolded itself and rose from the wooden bench at the far end.  Charlie frowned as she noted her mother’s disheveled appearance and the plain rough woolen prison uniform she wore.  Her feet were bare, though a pair of wooden clogs were arranged neatly beneath the bench,

“Charlotte,” Penelope greeted her daughter, a touch of surprise evident in her voice.

“Mother,” Charlie responded, holding her own tone even.  She continued into the cell, stopping a good two steps from her mother and standing off to one side so that the soldiers who remained just inside the doorway might clearly see the space that separated them.

“I appreciate your effort in coming here, my dear,” Penelope commented, “though I cannot say that I see what is to be gained by it.”

Charlie kept her expression neutral.  “It was necessary,” she replied, “in order that I might clarify a few things with you.”

“Oh?”  Her mother’s right eyebrow quirked upwards.

“Perhaps we might sit,” Charlie gestured at the bench, “that we may talk.  My time here is limited.”

“Very well.”

The two women seated themselves, angling their bodies inward toward one another but remaining a good five feet apart.  Charlie observed her mother’s dignity and poise even under these circumstances and resisted the urge to sit up just a bit straighter.  Instead, she turned her attention to the doorway of the cell.

“Sergeant,” she inquired, inflecting her voice just so.  “Might it be possible to remove the source of that odor and to bring a pitcher of cool water and brace of cups?”

The stoutly-built noncommissioned officer regarded her silently for a long moment, then gestured to the other soldier without taking his eyes off the two women.  “Simmons,” he said gruffly.  “See to her ladyship’s request.  I will remain here.”  He then pulled a watch from his pocket and glanced briefly at the time.  “You have twenty-five minutes remaining, my lady.”

Charlie did not respond, but turned back to her mother, who met her gaze evenly.

“You have certainly taken to your new position, Charlotte,” the older woman observed.  “It seems you have the bit firmly in your teeth.”

Charlie lifted her chin slightly.  “Despite what you may have thought of me, Mother,” she replied curtly, “I did pay attention to those tea-time lectures of yours on the veranda.”

Something glinted in Penelope’s eyes.  “Say what you have come to say, in that case,” she responded.  “And let us be done with it.”

“You have only yourself to blame for this,” Charlie stated flatly.  “You and Father.  I would give him a piece of my mind as well, if I knew where he was.”

“It is best if you do not, Charlotte,” Penelope countered.  “For obvious reasons.”

Charlie snorted derisively.  “And what of our family estate?  Our family heritage?”  She glared at her mother.  “Your own great grandfather fought for this empire, fought to defend the old walls of this very city at the Third Siege of Barsoom.  I’ve read his journals.  I know his stories.”

Penelope shook her head.  “You cannot possibly understand--”

“No, Mother,” Charlie cut the other woman off.  “It is you who do not understand.  You may think me a sap.  You may have abandoned the family honor.”  It was Charlie’s turn to shake her head.  “But your tunnel-vision, your obsession with these peasants is your weakness.  You fail to see the bigger picture.”  She paused.  A shadow flickered in the corner of Charlie’s vision and she realized that Simmons must have returned from his tasks.

“I see that picture quite well, Charlotte,” her mother replied evenly.  “I can only hope that you can understand that fact.”

Charlie stood abruptly.  “Never mind the water-service, Sergeant.  I am finished here.”  She moved toward the door, then halted.  “On second thought, if it would be permissible,” she said, as though the idea had just come to her, “leave the pitcher and a cup for my mother.  It is the least that I could have done for her.”  Without further comment, and without a glance behind her, she stepped past the soldiers, through the door, and began making her way back down the corridor.  She waited in silence at the stairwell door, her spine straight and her eyes looking somewhere beyond the stone walls of the sub-cellar, as the sergeant and Simmons resecured her mother’s cell and returned to the guardpost.  No one spoke as she and the sergeant reascended the stairs, passed through the iron gate, and returned to the colonel’s office.

Charlie declined to enter, but instead paused in the doorway as the two men rose from their seats.  She looked at Robertson.  “Sir, you may carry on as we discussed and conduct your visit, if you wish.  I will be returning to my family’s estate forthwith.”  She paused pointedly.  “I am quite finished with my mother for today.”

With that comment, she departed, making her way back along the parade ground perimeter to the gaol entrance.  Her expression was grim as she strode purposefully past the sentries and through the gateway.  That, she thought to herself as she began to descend the short flight of steps to the water-taxi bobbing at the end of the dock, went very well.  Very well indeed.

 

###

 

“Outrageous!”

Charlie turned her gaze away from the port window of the overnight ferry’s modest dining cabin and looked over to the man sitting at a nearby table.  The hour was early yet for dinner service, only mid-afternoon, and no other passengers were present, most contenting themselves with the view from the upper deck veranda as the vessel slid slowly along the broad Main Canal.  Seeking some solitude, but not wishing to bar herself in her compact stateroom for the entirety of the voyage, Charlie had taken advantage of the dining facilities during the pre-dinner hours as she pondered the implications of the final note Mr. Robertson had given to her prior to her departure.  A cup of tea--of a leaf of fair, if hardly exceptional quality--sat on the table before her, a half-eaten scone occupying a neighboring saucer.

“Absolutely outrageous,” the man repeated, still glaring at the open copy of the Barsoom Times held in his hands.  He was much older than Charlie, likely her mother’s generation or older, with iron-grey hair and a substantial but neatly-trimmed mustache.  He wore the kind of conservative business suit one might expect of a banker or an industrialist and Charlie felt certain that if she guessed his occupation to be one of those two categories, she’d not be too far afield.

Her curiosity had been piqued by his initial exclamation and the man’s repetition of that sentiment was enough to prod her from observation to action.

“Pardon me, sir,” she said politely.  “If I might be so bold as to inquire, what is it that offends you to such a degree?”

The man looked up from the paper, as if only now becoming fully aware of another person’s presence in the dining cabin.  His scowl was still firmly fixed in place and for a moment Charlie was concerned that she would be forced to confront her family’s sudden notoriety once again, but the man either didn’t recognize her, or else if he did, was far too disturbed by the material he had been reading in the paper to care.

He tapped the newspaper hard with a forefinger, the short stabbing motion expressing his agitation.  “These blasted fool editors,” he replied, “if you’ll pardon me.  Giving a platform to these dangerous radicals and their insidious rubbish.”  He folded the paper and tossed it onto his table with a disdainful harrumph.

“May I?” Charlie asked, holding out her hand.

“Be my guest.”  The man picked up the newspaper and handed it to her.  “I have half a mind to transfer my subscription to the Martian Examiner.”  With that final comment, he stood and, giving Charlie a polite nod, exited the cabin.

It took her no time at all to locate the article which had provoked the gentleman.  She was rather surprised herself that such material had been printed, though competition for readership was fierce and controversy was a time-honored tactic on the editorial battlefield.

The manifesto had been printed in a double column, the presumably original German on the left and an English translation on the right.  Centered above the two columns of text was an illustration--a painting, she presumed, rather than a photograph, as the young man stood in a dramatic pose clothed in gleaming armor and holding aloft a battle standard bearing a stylized sunburst.  His face was thin, though handsome in an understated but oddly powerful kind of way, his dark hair parted neatly on one side and his upper lip adorned by a short mustache.  What impressed Charlie the most, however, were the man’s dark eyes, which seemed to reach out of the paper and right into her.  The manifesto’s title followed just beneath the picture.

Unser Kampf, it read.  Our Struggle.

Her grasp of German was adequate, but she availed herself of the ready translation, glancing over to the original when a particularly resonant phrase appeared, as she was curious to understand what aspects were the work of the author or authors, and what was the product of the translator.  Charlie had to admit as she made her way through the text that the author had a flair for evocative imagery.

“Our struggle,” the manifesto began, ”is that of flesh and blood, of stout heart and iron will, against the authorities, the powers, and the principalities of these worlds.”

Clever, Charlie nodded to herself.  Well-wrought words, although she wondered what the Apostle would have thought of the allusion.  She continued through the brief but powerful text, her eyes flickering leftward periodically to capture the German phrasing.

“Eine helle und reinigende Flamme,” she murmured, the sounds rumbling in her throat like distant thunder.  “Wir tragen das feurige Schwert des Sonnenwortes.”

She could indeed understand the gentleman’s agitation, Charlie concluded as she finished reading.  The text of the manifesto, for all its flowery language and fantastical images, was a direct and unvarnished appeal to the workers of the worlds.  She had always hoped to promote a path of reformation.  The Solar Knights, on the other hand, sought the ecstasy of apocalypse.  She frowned.  Given the state of the worlds today and the stresses among the classes, there were far too many who might be willing to follow such a course.  Was such a path inevitable, she wondered.  Was a civilization such as this, deep into the twilight of its time, more likely than not to seek the glory of self-immolation over silently slipping into the shadows of history?

The waters of the canal beyond the port window, glinting in the setting Martian sun, did not answer her.  After a time, other passengers began to gather in the cabin.  Charlie stood, considered the other people engrossed in their lives and concerns, then quietly returned to her stateroom.

Hours later, she was still sitting in the armchair by the lone window of her compact but comfortable cabin, watching the neighboring canal traffic with an idle curiosity even as her thoughts wandered elsewhere.   An ambitious plan had already constructed itself in her mind, though she needed to verify a number of details once she returned to the estate the next day.

And then there was that other thing of which she’d only become aware during this trip to Barsoom.  Something which she could not quite bring herself to believe and yet whose stark reality she could not deny. The small Martian sun slowly sank into the horizon and the scene beyond the window began to grey into dusk.  Charlie shook her head sharply.  That was a matter for another day, and a bridge she’d cross when she damn well got to it.

As shadow began to settle in her cabin, she finally rose from the chair and prepared for bed.  Not a half-hour later, she slipped into a quiet and thankfully dreamless sleep.

 

###

 

“My lady!” Sara exclaimed as Charlie strode through the front door of the estate house shortly before noon the following day, having taken the day ferry down from Monmouth.  The head of staff was still rising from her seat at the writing desk in the front parlor as Charlie continued through the foyer and further into the house.

“Sara, find Leone if you would please and join me in the library,” Charlie directed without breaking her stride.

“Yes, my lady,” the other woman acknowledged and the young baroness replied with a wordless nod before disappearing down one of the branching hallways.

Charlie made her way directly to the aforementioned chamber.  As the library door clicked shut behind her, she spared only a brief moment to glance over the space before moving to the far wall, reaching into the neck of her blouse as she did so.  Lifting the key on its chain over her head, she set it aside on the shelf before her and then proceeded to remove the three center volumes from a set of Victorian erotica on the third shelf from the bottom of the endmost bookcase, revealing the stout metal door of a small wall-safe.  She reached up to retrieve the key and unlocked the door, opening it to expose the cavity within.  Several folders were stacked neatly to one side, a small bound journal and a narrow box occupying the other.  Charlie selected one of the folders, a blue one, and closed the safe again, returning the screening books to their original place.

She stood and placed the folder on the reading table that occupied the center of the library as she stepped over to another bookcase further along that back wall.  Reaching up to a series of leather-bound journals, she selected one near the beginning and leafed rapidly through the pages covered with elegant yet masculine script before replacing that volume and selecting the next.

She was still scanning through the pages of a third volume when the library door opened again to admit Leone and Sara, both of whom wore expressions of mingled concern of confusion.

“Lotte?” Leone said after a moment.

“Hmmm?” Charlie replied absently, still flipping through the pages of the journal.  Suddenly she stopped, a small cry of triumph escaping her lips.  She stared at the book in her hand for a moment longer, then looked up at the two women who still stood just inside the library entrance.

 “Excellent,” Charlie responded and waved her free hand at the reading table.  “Have a seat, the both of you.  We have much to discuss.”

Leone gave a brief nod and moved across the library, taking one of the proffered chairs.  Sara followed, but hesitated as she reached the table.  “My lady, I would prefer to stand--”

  “Cut the nonsense, Sara,” Charlie interrupted, pointing emphatically at one of the empty seats, “and sit your ass down.  Please.  I have no time for pointless class-deference bullshit just now.”

A shocked look flashed over the headmistress’ features but she nodded wordlessly and complied.  Charlie noted and pointedly ignored the smirk that played at the corners of Leone’s mouth.

“Thank you,” Charlie said, more gently, and took her own seat.  She looked from Leone to Sara and back again, then placed the journal she had been holding on top of the folder which lay on the table between them.  “I had an excellent conversation with Mother yesterday morning,” she stated without preamble.  “And it is time to put some things into motion.”

“What does your ladyship intend?” Sara asked.

Charlie frowned slightly.  “I suppose it would be asking too much for you to address me simply as ‘Charlotte’?”

Sara shook her head curtly.  “You are Baroness Botelier,” she replied, “whether you care for that fact or not.”

Charlie gave a small sigh.  “Very well,” she allowed.  “I’ll take what I can get.”

Leone cleared her throat, causing Charlie to look over at her companion.  “Lotte,” the young woman prodded gently, “what scheme do you have tucked up your sleeve exactly?”  A raised eyebrow.  “Something regarding your mother, I take it?”

“Yes,” Charlie replied, “though there are much broader implications as well.”  She took a deep breath, held it for a moment as she centered herself, then exhaled slowly.  “There is much to be done and little time in which to do it.  I judge us to have less than three weeks, if we are to pull this off.”

The two women said nothing.  Charlie continued.  “It has been made clear to me that you have been quite correct, Sara, in your assessment of the intentions of this government.”  She gave a small nod to the woman.  “Shortly before my return, I was informed that the Territorial Office of the Exchequer will be initiating a thorough and exacting audit of this estate’s tax records for the preceding ten years, the maximum allowed under the law.  They intend to seize this estate by whatever means possible.”  Her hazel eyes hardened.  “I intend to leave them nothing of value.”

She reached forward and slid the blue folder from beneath the journal.  “I am initiating Market Garden, effective immediately.”  Charlie held the folder out toward the headmistress.  “Sara, I am putting you in charge of that effort for the present.  The tenants must be evacuated to the southern settlements, whatever crops ready for harvest harvested, what possessions can be transported removed, and everything else laid waste.  Dams broken, reservoirs drained and destroyed, fields and buildings burned.  Nothing remains.”  She paused.  “Nothing.”

Sara’s mouth, which had sagged open as the young baroness had spoken, snapped shut with an audible click and she took the folder with a curt nod. “Yes, my lady.”

Charlie gave the woman an even look.  “It is a tall order, I realize.  I will cover the pertinent details before Leone and I depart so that you can get started.”

“Depart?” Leone asked.  “Where are we going?”

“Shangri La,” Charlie replied.  “I need you to fly me out to the southern settlements so that I can talk with Pa.  We will need a coordinated effort if my plan is to succeed.”

“And what plan might that be, my lady?” Sara inquired.

“Many months ago, my mother and I had tea on the veranda,” Charlie responded.  “And she spoke to me of strategy and tactics.  The vile Sheriff of Nottingham has placed her under arrest and the time has come for Robin Hood to act.”  Her lips formed a tight line.  “We are going to break Mother out of the Old Gaol before her trial begins, right from under the very noses of the guards.”


Part III

A Bright and Cleansing Flame

 

The two women stared at her, not quite open-mouthed.  A heartbeat passed.  Then Leone spoke up.

“Not to be dismissive, Lotte, but how exactly do you intend to manage that?”

Charlie tapped her forefinger on the handwritten journal which lay on the table.  “My great-great grandfather commanded the artillery defenses at the Third Siege of Barsoom,” she replied.  “And he wrote extensively of his experiences, in that conflict and others, in his journals.”  She gestured behind her briefly.  “He was a rather prolific writer, if somewhat odd in other ways.”

“And that answers my question how?”

“Even for an officer of His Majesty’s army, he was deeply interested in the art and science of war.  At the time of the Third Siege, the city of Barsoom was far more compact than it is today.  As a matter of fact, the Old Gaol where Mother is being held is a repurposed bastion which once anchored a corner of the fortress wall that once surrounded the city.”  Charlie looked from one woman to the other.  “And during that conflict, there were multiple efforts by the besieging Franco-Spanish forces to breach the fortress.  Sappers digging tunnels, targeting the foundations of the fortifications.  Countermines dug by the defenders to intercept those efforts.”  A tight, knowing smile. “All of which my great-great grandfather thoroughly documented and discussed in his memoirs.”

With a forgivable touch of flair, she flipped the journal open to the pages she had found a short time before.  Careful sketches covered the sheets, expounded by precise diagramming and notations.  “According to these memoirs, several counter-mines were dug from the lower levels of the corner of the original city fortress which has now become the Old Gaol.  More importantly, in the aftermath of the war--what with the 1832 Treaty of Geneva making further such conflict a remote possibility--the entrances of those tunnels were filled in and the tunnels themselves forgotten.  Long before anyone thought of using that building as a prison.”

Sara’s eyes widened. “My lady, are you saying…”

Charlie nodded.  “The tunnels are still there.  If we can locate an entrance to the tunnel complex elsewhere in the old city, we can dig through rubble used to fill in the cellar entrances and rescue Mother.  And with the delaying action I’ve requested of her solicitor and barrister, we just might have enough time.”

“That is an incredibly ballsy play, Lotte,” Leone observed with a grin.  “I like it.”

“It’s a wild-ass gamble, that’s what it is,” Charlie replied.  “But it’s the only way I can see for us to get Mother out of there.  If she goes to trial, she’ll be executed for treason--that much is without doubt.”

She looked over at Sara.  “We’ll be needing to manage our retreat as quietly as possible and in parallel with these efforts.  Timing will be critical.  The final destruction of the estate’s resources needs to occur more or less simultaneous with actual rescue so that no warning is afforded the opposition.”

The headmistress nodded in understanding.  “Yes, my lady.  I will see to it.”

“Thank you, Sara.”  Charlie placed a hand on the other woman’s.  Sara didn’t quite flinch in response to the unexpected familiarity.  “You have always been family to me.”  She held Sara’s eyes with her own for a moment longer, then withdrew her hand.  “There is one further item I’d like to square away before Leone and I leave for Shangri La.”

“My lady?” Sara inquired.

“As I mentioned, I estimate we have about three weeks to spring Mother.  I will need to be there, but I’m far too conspicuous.  What I need is an excuse to be in Barsoom around that time.  Are there any social functions going on around that time which would provide suitable cover?”

The headmistress’ brow furrowed in thought.  “There are no public functions, my lady.  A handful of private ones, but those would, of course, require an invitation.”

Charlie frowned.  “Given the scandal of Mother’s arrest, the odds are long indeed that I will find myself invited to anything.”

A light glinted in Sara’s eyes.  “You might not need one, my lady.  It just occurred to me that Count Ridgemoor’s ball in celebration of his daughter’s wedding will be held two and a half weeks from today.”

“How have I been invited to that?” Charlie asked, a bit perplexed.

“The Countess has no love for your mother, my lady, but she could not not invite her, either, as she was a peer nonetheless.  However,” Sara smiled grimly, “the Countess is adept at social snubbing and fulfilled her societal obligation in such a way as to ensure that your mother would not attend.”

Charlie’s eyebrows rose.  “And she accomplished that by…?”

“Inviting your mother.  And only your mother.”

“Ah,” Charlie nodded.  Her father, not being noble, would have been able to have been excluded without consequence.  And her mother would not have countenanced attending the event without him.  She allowed herself a moment of reluctant admiration of the Countess Ridgemoor.  “Very clever.”

“Perhaps too clever by half,” Sara countered.  “Your mother’s invitation was curt to the point of rudeness, and that is what may be of use to you.”

“How so?”

“The invitation was extended to ‘Baroness Botelier,’ my lady.”

Charlie looked at the headmistress and then to Leone, a knowing smile forming on her lips.  “Excellent,” she said.  “That is useful indeed.”

 

###

 

“You certainly have a flair for the dramatic, Charlie,” her father commented.  “The story of your kicking the Territorial Guard off the estate grounds has had the gossip-vine buzzing for days.”  His voice softened slightly.  “Your mother’s influence, no doubt.”

Charlie and Leone had departed the estate shortly after that conference in the study.  Leone’s continued discomfort as a solo rider had necessitated the use of the double-saddle from their first outing those months before.  Marlo hadn’t minded the extra passenger, however, and the journey over the sands to the secret crater and the Puck had been uneventful.  Leone had piloted them to Shangri La, following Charlie’s directions.

Elias’ expression took on a distant look.  “The last thing she’d said to me, Charlie,” he noted quietly, “before you interrupted us in the study was: ‘There are times in chess when the queen must be sacrificed.’”  His eyes found Charlie’s again.  “That’s what we were fighting about.”

Charlie placed a comforting hand on her father’s arm.  “We’re going to rescue her, Pa,” she said firmly.  “You’ll see.”

It had been quite late in the afternoon when she and Leone had arrived at Shangri La, that first and largest of the settlements deep in the canyons of the southern highlands.  The steep canyon walls gave the impression of sunset much earlier than when one was at ground level, the angling shadows introducing dusk that much sooner.  Elias had brought the two young women to the small dwelling he’d been inhabiting since his departure from the estate almost a week prior and as the three of them partook of a simple meal of soup and fresh bread, Charlie had given her father an outline of her plan.

A hopeful light had flared in his eyes.  “Yes,” he’d nodded after she had finished.  “That just might work.”

The remains of that meal cleared away, the three of them considered the task before them.

“There are two main challenges,” Charlie observed.  “Well, three, in a way.”  She held up a finger.  “One, we need to find someone familiar with the Old Quarter of Barsoom, someone who might know of or be able to locate an entrance to that network of abandoned sapper tunnels.”  A second finger joined the first.  “Two, we’ll need a diversion of some kind.  Something out in the city street and something significant enough to draw the attention of the gaol’s garrison away from the prison cells in the cellars.”

“And three?” Leone asked.

“Three,” Charlie replied, “we’ll need a good amount of luck.”

“Well, Lotte” Leone commented.  “I can’t do anything about finding you a guide or giving you luck, but I can definitely help with your second point.”  That mischievous glint in her eye that Charlie knew all too well flashed.  “Don’t worry about your diversion,” the other woman said.  “You’ll have it.”

“Okay.” Charlie gave a small smile.  “I’ll leave you to your mysterious ways.”  Then the smile faded a bit.  “But we still need to find someone to help with the tunnels.  I have great-great grandpa’s journal here, and some maps I’ve sketched on, but…”

Elias frowned in thought.  “We have fallen into a bit of that luck you were talking about, Charlie.”  She cocked her head slightly and he answered the unspoken question.  “There has been some discussion of late among the various settlements in these canyons about organizing a more formal system of government.  A number of casual gatherings have been taking place, including here in Shangri La, to hash out some possibilities on an informal basis.”

“And...?” Charlie asked.

“And,” he replied, “there is one such gathering going on right now at the village hall.”  He gestured vaguely toward the front entrance.  “As a consequence, there’s a decent chance that someone in attendance may have the knowledge you’re looking for, or else know someone who does.”

“How can we find out?” Charlie fought to keep her hopes from rising too quickly.

“I’ll send a note over the to the hall right now and make a general inquiry.”  Elias reached for pen and paper.  “And we’ll see what happens.”  He drafted a brief message in swift, efficient strokes, then folded the paper.  “Thomas!” he called out.

A young boy, perhaps twelve years standard, appeared in the doorway.  “Yes, sir?”

Elias held the note out.  “Run this over to the village hall, Tom, and wait for a response.”  Tom took the message and exited at a trot.  Turning back to Charlie, her father said simply, “Now, we’ll see what happens.”

“You have a servant?” Charlie asked.

Elias shook his head.  “Tom lives with his mother a few houses down and runs odd errands for me on occasion.  He happened to be at loose ends this evening, with his mother off on a visit to another settlement, so he was staying here with me.”

“Ah,” Charlie responded.

“Would either of you care for after-dinner tea?” Elias asked, sitting back in his chair.

Despite the circumstances, Charlie gave a short laugh.  At her father’s questioning look, she explained.  “It was just such an ordinary thing, what you just said.  I mean, here we are, plotting Mother’s escape from prison so that she won’t be tried and executed for treason, and you ask if we’d care for a spot of tea.”

“Your mother made quite the impression on a certain streetwise savage back in the day,” Elias quipped as he poured three cups of bright indigo tea.  “Obviously, his daughter has retained some of his former bad habits.”

Leone nodded as she accepted her cup.  “Of course, some of those bad habits are precisely what make her so endearing.”

“Quite so,” Elias agreed, handing the last cup to Charlie.

“I’d appreciate it,” Charlie responded huffily, “if the two of you would stop talking about me as though I weren’t sitting right here.”

Elias laughed.  Leone merely smirked as she sipped her tea.  The fire crackled on the hearth nearby.

“There is something else I wanted to ask you, Pa,” Charlie said after a moment.  “This manifesto of the Solar Knights I read of during my journey back from Barsoom--what do you make of it?”

Her father turned his head toward the hearth and stared into the fire, saying nothing for several minutes.  In the corner of her vision, Charlie observed Leone set her teacup on the table in front of her, eyeing Elias with a mild curiosity.

“I’ve read that report in the Times,” he replied slowly.  “I found it...disturbing.”

The tone of his response struck Charlie as odd, but it was Leone who spoke up first.

“How so?”  Charlie noted her companion’s furrowed brow.  “I read the Times’ report as well, before Lotte and I travelled here, and what I saw was more or less the standard posturing of a newly-formed workers’ party.”  She paused.  “Perhaps more flamboyant, but I attribute that to the personality of the leadership.”

Elias shook his head.  “I can understand why you would suppose that, Leone,” he replied.  “But there were things buried within that flamboyance which were nonetheless disturbing.”  He looked over to the young woman.  ‘Understand that I am as familiar, if not more familiar, with these groups as you are.  My own father was a leader in his workers’ guild on Venus and was slain in a police raid on the labor hall when I was a young lad.  And Penny--that is, Charlie’s mother--had me studying and observing reports of these groups during the years I served as her assistant.”

Charlie found herself nodding in silent agreement.  From her knowledge of her parent’s history, her father’s assertions made sense.  “In that case,” she interjected in turn, “what is it that bothers you in this particular case?”

“The Knights’ manifesto,” Elias replied, “is full of mythic imagery.  This is not unusual in itself--the two main avenues these reformist movements have taken are a logical materialism on the one hand and a mythological revitalizationism on the other.  The first idolizes the progress of the future; the second seeks a reimagined ideal of the past.”  He glanced Charlie to Leone and back again.  “Properly employed, either approach can be a powerful tool for social influence.”

“Okay,” Charlie allowed.  “But I’m still not seeing what the issue is with the Solar Knights.”

“In their mythic imagery,” her father said carefully, “are references to something I fear to be far more modern and far more menacing.  The manifesto alludes to ‘a bright and cleansing flame’ and the ‘fiery sword of the Solar Logos’.”

Charlie nodded again, recalling that language.  “Yes,” she responded.  “I remember that.”

“It just so happens, Charlie, that your mother and I encountered a device that fits that particular description all too well,” Elias commented.  “One which I thought destroyed nearly two decades ago.”  He looked back to the fire.  “I am afraid that these Solar Knights may have found the remnants of the Eye of Ra.”

It took Charlie a moment to place the reference.  “The weapon you and Mother talked about at breakfast that morning?”  Her brow furrowed.  “Your honeymoon?”

“Exactly.”  her father smiled tightly.  “I ought to have expected nothing less, given the adventures I’d had with your mother over the years.  We stumbled upon an old nemesis of hers--and whatever protest she might make to the contrary, that is precisely what he was--and a certain doomsday weapon he had been constructing, tucked away in one of Mercury’s Lagrangian nodes.”

“Which one?” Leone asked.  Catching Charlie’s questioning look, she explained.  “It’s an orbital mechanics thing.  In any two-body orbital system, in this case Mercury and Sol, there are five points which develop, kind of like eddies in a stream, that are stable or semi-stable swirls in the aether.”

“L3,” Elias replied.

“Sneaky,” Leone commented.  To Charlie: “The third of the five nodes lay along the orbit of the secondary body, but opposite it.  In other words, on the far side of Sol from Mercury.”  She looked to Elia.  “That would make an excellent hidey-hole.”

Charlie watched as her father nodded.  “It was truly an accident that we blundered across it.  The liner we’d taken had gotten caught in an uncharted aether current and thrown off course.”  He sat back in his chair.  “In any event, we managed to survive the attack, escape the madman’s clutches, foil his plans, sabotage the device, and flee the scene after sending the mechanism hurtling toward the sun.”  He paused.  “Or so we thought.  Now, I wonder if some remnant of the weapon didn’t fall into a tighter solar orbit, to be discovered later by yet another group of madmen.”

“If that is true, Pa,” Charlie asked, “what--”

A polite cough on the far side of the room interrupted her question and the three of them looked to the doorway where two men stood, along with Tom.

“Jerome!” Elias rose from his chair and moved to greet one of the men, his hand outstretched.  “It is excellent to see you.”

 “Elias,” the man replied.  “We got your note over at the village hall and I happened to know someone who fit the description.”  He looked to the women still sitting at the table and then back to Elias.  “Although I must admit myself to be intrigued by the request.”  He gestured to the second man.  “This is Michael Atherton, from the settlement of Themyscira.”

“Welcome, both of you,” Elias responded, shaking Michael’s hand.  He waved toward the table.  “Please join us.”  He looked to the young man.  “Thank you, Tom.”

The men approached the table and Elias continued.  “Jerome, Michael--this is Leone Brownstone, whose father you might remember.  And this,” he indicated Charlie, “is my daughter, Charlotte, Baroness Botelier.”

“Miss Brownstone,” Jerome responded for both men.  He gave a polite bow to Charlie.  “My lady.”

“Please,” Charlie replied with a wave of one hand, “there’s no need to stand on such formality.  Especially here, of all places.”

The men drew additional chairs to the table, Elias resuming his seat.  Jerome commented with a level look, “I do nothing more than give the respect that is due.”

Charlie quirked an eyebrow at her father, who shrugged.  “What can I say?  News travels fast.  You’ve made quite the impression already.”

Charlie looked to Michael, seeking to shift topics.  “Am I to understand, then, that you have some knowledge of Old Barsoom?”

Aye, my lady,” Michael nodded.  “That I do indeed.   More to the point, I have knowledge of certain smuggler’s tunnels beneath the old city, which I suspect is your ladyship’s topic of interest tonight.”

“Quite so,” she replied and reached into her satchel.  The others fell silent and leaned inward as she placed her ancestor’s journal and several maps on the table.  “As you can see, she began, pointing to the maps, “the tunnels my great-great grandfather charted…”

 

###

 

Charlie made the trek back over the sands alone that next afternoon, Leone having dropped her off at the crater before returning to Shangri La to work on her part of the operation.  As the dunes rose and fell around, the distance being swallowed by Marlo’s steady, six-limbed stride, she reviewed the tasks which lay ahead for her yet.  Things had been put into motion regarding the rescue of her mother, but it was necessary that she bring her focus back to Market Garden.  By the time of her departure for Barsoom and the Ridgemoor ball, it was vital that all the pieces be in place for the final moves.

The low hills that lay to the north of the estate slowly crept over the horizon, though it was another hour before she had crested them and saw the familiar buildings spread out below her.  A piece of her heart ached at what she knew must come. 

James emerged from the stables as she arrived, taking Marlo’s reins while she dismounted.

“How are things progressing?” she asked even before her feet touched the ground.

“As well as can be expected, my lady,” the senior stablehand replied.  “A great amount of flailin’ and confusion, but some method buried in that madness.”

Charlie smiled at the slightly misplaced quote, but nodded as she moved quickly toward the house.  “I’ll go see how Sara’s coming along then.”

“Yes, my lady,” James replied.  “And for what it’s worth...thank you for what you’re a-doin’.”

“You’re welcome, James,” Charlie nodded.  “It is what is best for all of us.”  She moved across the grounds quickly.  Sara was waiting for her in the foyer.

“My lady,” the other woman said respectfully.

“Sara,” Carlie acknowledged.  “Thank you for everything you’ve done while I’ve been away.  Perhaps we might repair to the study and you can brief me on the current state of affairs?”

“Yes, my lady,” Sara replied,  gesturing toward the corridor.  “After you, of course.”

Charlie had to admit, the head-mistress had taken things well in hand this past week, and the gradual retreat to the southern canyons had progressed substantially.  She nodded as Sara had brought her up to date, asking a few clarifying questions here and there, but otherwise taking in the status report.  So far, at least, everything had been progressing about as well as she could have expected, given the need to conceal the nature of the activities on the estate from outside observers.  Being a more remote landhold helped, but she was also quite aware of the fact that the authorities were keeping an eye on her.

The next week went by swiftly, Charlie overseeing the careful packing of what household furnishing she’d deemed transportable--the bulk of the library falling into that category, of course--and visiting with the various tenant villages to monitor progress on those fronts as well.  Roughly two-thirds of the estate’s crops had been ready enough for harvest, the remainder would be burned in the final acts of destruction that would be timed to correspond with the rescue effort in Barsoom and after which the last of the estate’s population would withdraw to the highlands.

A reminder of the authorities’ surveillance arrived with the morning post eight days after her return from Shangri La.

Sara placed the letter next to Charlie’s teacup as the latter sat on the terrace, enjoying a rare moment of solitude before another busy day.  Charlie took the envelope in hand, then examined it a bit more closely as something caught her notice.  She looked up at the headmistress.

“It arrived in that state, my lady,” the other woman replied knowingly.

“Thank you, Sara,” Charlie said.  “We’ll talk again later.”

As Sara departed, Charlie turned her attention back to the letter, the seal of which had been obviously broken, though in a manner which attempted to disguise that fact.  It did not surprise Charlie in the least that her mail was being read, particularly a missive from Barsoom such as this one.

She opened the envelope and removed the single-page, typewritten letter.  The message itself was terse and demanding.

Lady Botelier, it began, we regret to inform you that this firm will be unable to extend your present loan any further, as we have come to the end of our present efforts.  The veritable wall has been reached and we must demand payment in full by your ladyship no later than ten days from the above date.  Failure to meet these terms by six o’clock on the evening of the final day will unfortunately result in the loss of your substantial collateral, as provided in the loan agreement.  With all respect, etc., etc. 

The date of the business form was given as two days prior and the signature that of Jerome Michaels, Esq.

Charlie set the letter on the stone table and glanced to the tangerine sky where the sun was well along its morning climb toward noon.  For a brief moment, she thought she saw a slight flaring at one edge of the small solar disc, but the impression was gone almost before it had registered.  She shook her head.  The message was clear enough.  And the date set for the rendezvous corresponded with Ridgmoor’s ball which she’d be crashing as an unwelcome, though technically-invited guest.  She had less than a week to get everything in place here before that final trip to Barsoom.

 

###

 

Six days later, Charlie followed the porter up the broad, winding staircase to her second-floor suite.  That placement, no doubt orchestrated by the Countess, was another pointed snub, though rather ironically suiting her purposes quite well.  The young man labored more with the bulk of her luggage than with its weight, but he appeared well-practiced in such things and she provided an ample tip for his service when he delivered her to her rooms.

As the door clicked shut, she considered the pieces of luggage neatly stacked on the entranceway floor and smiled tightly.  Aside from her gown and necessary toiletries, the bags were practically empty.  The only other items she’d brought were the outfit she’d need for the evening’s operation and a few pieces of rather unlady-like equipment.  Everything else was for show.  The gown and luggage would remain behind, abandoned along with the other trappings of this soon-to-be-former life.

And the fact that she’d be wearing the same gown tonight as she did at the gala those months before would be a social faux pas of considerable magnitude.  However, she thought to herself as she began to unpack, tonight was a night for statements.

And she planned on making several before the night was done.

Charlie considered one last visit to the cafe across the street, but opted for tea service in her room instead, accompanied by a light meal.  She wasn’t particularly hungry, but neither would she be eating anytime soon--it was going to be a long night.

As the afternoon faded, Charlie rose and dressed carefully, as though girding for war.  That task completed, she moved to the door and left her suite, making her way down the hall toward the sweeping staircase and the battlefield which lay below.

She moved about the grand ballroom unhurriedly, slowly threading a path through the throng of other guests.  Her efforts were aided by a subtle force that seemed to nudge people away, creating a small but definitive bubble around her person.  Being a social pariah, she considered wryly, had certain practical advantages.

The grand and rather ostentatious clock struck the hour, deep, resonant tones slowly counting to five.  Charlie considered that she had put in a sufficient appearance for the evening.  There was time yet, but she would be needing to get back to her suite in order to prepare and make it to the designated meet-point by six.  Slip away, change, then out--

“You have some gall showing your face here,” a feminine but quite unfriendly voice cut into her thoughts.  “Considering that you weren’t even invited.”

Charlie turned.  The young woman was resplendent in a shimmering gown of silvers and whites, accented tastefully with pearl.  Bright green eyes like spring grass flashed angrily and her rich, ruby lips formed a tight line.

“Cassandra,” Charlie greeted the woman with a graceful inclination of her head.  “I’d like to offer my congratulations on your recent nuptials.  Your family’s finances seem to have improved considerably as a result of that transaction.”

Cassandra’s eyes narrowed.  “Bitch,” she hissed under her breath.  “You of all people should talk, having to recycle that hideous monstrosity you’re wearing.”

“Come now,” Charlie smiled tightly.  “You’re forgetting your manners.  And to one of your social betters, no less.”

“Better?”  The tone was mocking.  “My father is a count.”

“You’re the daughter of a count, yes,” Charlie agreed.  “However, I happen to be a baroness.”

Cassandra’s laugh was sharp and unpleasant.  “Baroness?  That was nothing but street-thief sleight-of-hand to keep the Crown away from your estate just a bit longer.”  Those lips curled into a half-smirk, half-snarl.  “Your mother’s going to hang for treason, your pathetic title abolished, and your family reviled for the nest of traitors it is.”

Charlie’s smile froze.  “Have a pleasant life, Cassandra.  I do hope it is everything--”  She cut off as a sudden murmuring flowed through the crowd, rolling over it like a wave.

“What is going on?” Cassandra asked no one in particular.

“Dear God,” another guest rushed over to them, the woman’s eyes wide.  “Vulcan,” she said breathlessly.  “It’s gone!”

“Don’t be stupid, Maureen,” Cassandra retorted.  “A planet can’t go anywhere.”

“It’s gone, I’m telling you,” Maureen countered.  “The news just reached the Martian outlets.  That flash by the sun a few days ago…”

“What about it?” Charlie interjected.

“It was the Solar Knights,” Maureen explained.  “Their secret weapon had been located in one Vulcan’s Langrangian nodes and the navies of the Great Powers were closing in.  So the Knights activated it and fired on Vulcan.”  She paused, took a quick breath.  “Both exploded!”

“What do you mean, ‘both’?” Cassandra pressed.

“The weapon and the planet,” Maureen replied.  “Vulcan has been destroyed!”

A bright and cleansing flame…  The words floated in Charlie’s awareness.  She glanced at the other two women, but neither was paying her any attention.  Quietly, she slipped away, out of the ballroom, and swiftly mounted the stairs to her suite.

 

###

 

Charlie moved silently through the half-shadowed streets of Barsoom, having surreptitiously exited the King George by means of a servant’s door opening to a back alleyway.  Her mind was fully on her task, but she couldn’t help but notice the strangeness which hung in the air, charged with something she could only describe as fear, fear laced with anger.

She covered the blocks of the Old Quarter quickly, slowing only as she turned the final street corner before her destination.  A sudden shift in that strange atmosphere made itself felt then and she was aware of a low and distant rumbling, an angry thunder.  Refocusing, she made her way along the remaining half-block and stepped into the side alley running along the building whose address had been given in that letter she’d received over a week before.

A rear door loomed out of the shadow partway down the alley.  She knocked in a rapid sequence: three sharp raps, a pause, followed by two more raps.  A moment later, the door opened slightly, then wider.  Charlie stepped inside and the door was closed again.

“This way, my lady,” Michael Atherton motioned with a small electric torch.  “We must move quickly.”

She followed as he led the way along a narrow corridor, then down wooden steps that became stone after the first landing.  A trapdoor in the floor of the cellar yawned open, the top of a ladder just visible.  At a nod from Michael, Charlie climbed down.

At the bottom, she found a tunnel leading away in two directions.  As Michael joined her, he pointed the light.  “That leads to a ravine outside the city where Leone is waiting with our ride to Shangri La.”  The beam flipped directions.  “You mother is this way.”

They moved through the shadow.  Long minutes stretched in silence, no sound heard but their boots on the tunnel floor, Charlie’s heart thudding in her chest.  The tunnel narrowed a short distance in and Charlie could see where rubble and debris had been recently cleared away.  A final bend in the passageway brought them up short, where a pair of men waited in a small pool of light before a stone wall.

Elias looked back over his shoulder as they approached, then turned.  “Charlie,” he greeted her, before shifting his attention to Michael.  “Jerome and I have some of the mortar chipped away from round several blocks.  Are we ready to go?”

Michael nodded.  “The people are in the streets.  The garrison has been deployed to attempt to deal with the situation.”

Charlie’s eyebrows rose.  “Riots?”

Michael nodded again.  “Leone had arranged for some strong demonstrations, but it seems that things have taken on a will of their own.”  He paused.  “The news of a short while ago seems to have hit hard.”

“So it’s true then,” Charlie said.  “Vulcan is gone.”

“It is,” her father said.  “And with it the last vestiges of these worlds we have known.  However,” he continued as he hefted a large hammer, “I believe it is time that I fetch my wife.”

He stepped over to the wall and rapped on one block about chest height.  Charlie recognized the code of shorts and longs after only a moment.  B...A...C...K.  Elias waited a moment longer, then swung the hammer with all his might.

The stone cracked, but did not move.  A second blow, however, sent the block into the void beyond, crashing onto a floor on the other side.  A light shone through, which Charlie realized came from the alcove above her mother’s cell. 

“Elias?” Penelope’s voice called out.

“I’m here, love,” he replied.  “One moment.”  A quick series of blows widened the hole a bit more and he set the hammer down.  Charlie’s breath caught as her mother appeared in the opening.  Elias and Jerome pulled her through.  She stood, dusted herself off, then threw herself into her husband’s arms.

Charlie stepped forward.  “Mother,” she said.  “It is…”  She paused.  “It is good to see you.”

Penelope smiled.  “I told you, Charlotte.  You are more than equal to the task.”

“I don’t mean to interrupt the family reunion here,” Jerome cut in, “but we need to be leaving.”

The group quickly gathered their tools and began to retreat back the way Michael and Charlie had come, Michael in the lead, followed by Jerome, Penelope, Elias, and Charlie.  A sudden sound behind her caused Charlie to whirl around.

The door to her mother’s cell had been opened and a guard was rushing towards the opening, his rifle raised.  “Escape!” he shouted as he came to the hole in the wall and brought his weapon to bear.

Charlie’s hand flew past her hip, bringing her own pistol in line with her target even as she heard the others reacting behind her.  Both weapons fired.

The guard fell back, Charlie’s bullet catching him in the throat.  She felt a spray of rock chips as the man’s discharge ricocheted off the tunnel wall beside her and a sharp cry behind.  She turned to see her father laying on the floor, clutching his right thigh.

“Pa!” she shouted.  Penelope was already at her husband’s side, ripping a strip from her prison uniform and securing a bandage over the wound.

Jerome bent over to lift Elias upright.  “We need to move!” he said fiercely.  “Now!”  Charlie took her father’s other arm.  She and Jerome managed to maneuver her father down the tunnel, half dragging him through the narrow portions, and carrying him between them once the tunnel widened again.

The group moved rapidly once they were past the ladder, following the tunnel away from the city.  After what seemed to Charlie forever, they emerged into a rocky ravine, the shadows of the night covering them.  The Puck sat at anchor a short distance away.

“What happened?” Leone asked as they got to the hatchway.

“Pa got shot as we were leaving,” Charlie explained hurriedly.  “I took care of the guard, but we need to get him to a healer quickly.”

“On it.”  The hatch was sealed and everyone took their places in the back, Charlie finding her place next to Leone.  The engines surged to life and the airship dove upwards into the Martian night sky.

“I’m okay,” Elias called out, his voice weak but carrying the impression of his sideways grin.  “It’s merely a flesh wound.”

“You be quiet,” his wife ordered.  “And wait until we get you to Gertie.”

“It sounds like he’s going to be alright,” Charlie commented.  “But I’ll feel better once we’re out of here.”

The Puck rose quickly, then settled into a level course.  After several tense minutes Leone visibly relaxed.  “I think we’re clear,” she said.

Charlie regarded the other woman silently.  “We actually did it,” she said after a moment.

“Yes, Lotte,” Leone replied.  “You did.”

“With help from you and a lot of others.”

“True,” Leone acknowledged.  “But it was your idea.  Your crazy-ass plan.”  She glanced at Charlie and then back to the viewport before her.  “You’re one hell of a leader, Lotte.”  A sharp nod.  “You did good.” 

 

###

 

Charlie looked about the quiet interior of the simple dwelling and let out a contented sigh.  The modest one-room cabin felt more homey than the old family estate-house ever had.  And, in this place where she and Leone had set up house at the far edge of the main settlement in the canyons of the southern highlands, she felt that she might have a chance to be just Charlie, might be able to live a quiet life in the company of the woman she loved.

Her secret nagged at her conscience, though it wouldn’t be a secret terribly much longer.  She frowned to herself, contemplating how she might break the news, but her features smoothed over again.  The right moment would make itself known, she decided.

Charlie placed her steaming cup of tea on the low table between the two sitting chairs that sat before the unlit fireplace at one end of the cabin.  A large, curtained bed, its drapes tied open for the day, occupied the other end.  A kitchen counter, simple dining set, and a writing desk with an accompanying bookcase completed their household furnishings.  Charlie’s gaze lingered on the open spot on the floor she’d mentally chosen for the one more piece of furniture that would be needed, but then shook her head sharply to clear it.  Enough of that for now, she chided herself.  Time to get back to work.

She stood carefully, one hand brushing absently against her belly as she made her way back to the kitchen counter and the various collections of vegetables she’d cleaned and arranged prior to her tea break.  There was a sink, but not running water.  Instead, a spouted water-canister, periodically refilled from a nearby canyon stream, sat on a stand at one corner of the sink, the drain for which ran to a narrow, gravel-filled trench sloping away from the cabin.  A primitive set-up, to be sure, but it served their needs more than adequately.

Charlie’s eyes narrowed as she considered the implements of battle she’d set out and the groupings of sacrificial victims which awaited her attention.  “This soup isn’t going to make itself,” she commented to the empty cabin.  With one hand, she clasped a large knife as the other reached for one of several bright orange tubers that required chopping.  A determined focus settled on her expression as she commenced.

One of the consequences of a simple life as ‘just Charlie’ was that she had to manage most of her affairs for herself, though to be honest, this was not a consequence she truly minded.  She’d been trained as the heir to a barony, not as a cook or housekeeper, however.  The grim determination with which she’d thrown herself into the effort of learning these necessary skills had produced semi-respectable results, if uneven at first.  She was getting better though, and today’s project was a vegetable soup.  She’d wanted to master at least a few new recipes at least by the time Leone returned, if only to surprise her partner.

Leone had been gone for five days now, attending a political assembly of the various villages scattered within this system of canyons.  Rather than holding the gathering at Shangri La, the delegates had opted for a more central location and so Leone had made the half-day trek to the village of Eldorado in order to attend.  Charlie had declined the offer to accompany her.  Whatever the political future of these settlements was to be, she decided, it would be best if the people charted their own course for themselves without any influence from her.

She laid the knife down on the counter and cast a critical eye at her handiwork.  A small mound of irregular and uneven bits of tuber laughed at her frowning face.  Suzie had always made it look so easy.  Well, she thought to herself as she reached for the knife again, there’s no way but through.

There was a sudden noise behind her as the cabin door opened and Charlie spun around with a start.

“Leone!” she exclaimed.  “You’re back!  I thought the assembly would have gone on for several more days yet.”

The other woman regarded her with those ice-blue eyes Charlie could never get enough of and shook her head, long strands of flame-red hair swaying gently.  “They made their decision, my arguments aside.  So here I am.”

Charlie waved at the partially-chopped vegetables behind her.  “I wanted to surprise you with some new dishes,” she explained.  “But if you can wait a bit longer, I can get this soup going--”  She cut off, realizing that her companion had not moved from the doorway.  “Aren’t you coming in?”

“Just dropping off my things.”  A travel-bag fell to the floor just to one side of the open door.  “And collecting you.  We need to head over to your parents.”

“What…?”  Charlie began.

Leone held up a hand.  “Trust me, Lotte.  You’ll find out soon enough.”  A tight, wry smile formed on her lips.  “I somehow managed to get appointed the assembly’s courier and so I need to go coury.”

Still frowning in confusion, Charlie set the knife back down on the counter and followed Leone outside, shutting the cabin door behind them as the left.

Her parents had settled themselves closer to the center of Shangri La, in a somewhat larger residence but one still far, far simpler than the old estate house.  She and Leone moved along a narrow footpath that gradually grew into a wider, well-trod walkway as other footpaths flowed together and joined like tributaries of a river.  They passed other pedestrians along the way, singly and in small groups.  Some gave nods of greeting which Charlie returned.

It took some time at a walking pace, but they eventually reached the village square, which Charlie had always noted with some amusement more resembled an ill-formed egg than anything else.  Without pausing, the pair turned down a broad path leading to the right.  At the third residence, they turned up the walk and stopped before the door.  Charlie started to raise her hand to knock when Leone simply pushed the door open and stepped inside.

“A message,” she announced, “from the constitutional assembly!”

The short entrance hall bore a trio of low, open doorways, one to each side and a third straight ahead.  Timber lintels supported the weight of stone and wide roof beams.  Elias appeared in the leftward opening, a book in one hand.  His other hand gripped the head of a cane.

“Pa!” Charlie admonished.  “What are you doing walking around?”  She glared at her father, hazel eyes hard.  “You’re supposed to be keeping off that leg so that it can heal properly.  You know what Gertie said.”

“I merely arose to fetch a bit of light reading, O Overprotective Daughter of Mine,” Elias responded with an exaggeratingly wounded tone.  “I will, however, now go and plant my ass back in my chair, if that would make you feel better.”  He gave Charlie a wink and Leone a nod.  “Come on in, the both of you.  We’re just having tea by the fire.”

“Thank you, Elias,” Leone replied.  Charlie merely grunted, but followed behind her companion as Elias hobbled across the entrance hall and through the mirroring doorway.  A warm space welcomed them, a good-sized fire blazing on the hearth at the far end of the room.  A pair of armchairs were set to one side, flanking a low side table, with a short couch opposite.  Her mother sat in one of the armchairs, reading a letter.  Penelope looked up as the three entered.

“Good afternoon, Charlotte,” she greeted her daughter.  “Leone.”

“Penelope,” Leone responded with a nod of her own.  She and Charlie seated themselves on the couch as Elias made his way to the second armchair, gingerly lowering himself before propping his leg on the cushioned stool in front of him.

“You said something about a message?” Penelope inquired, looking at Leone.

“Yes,” the young woman replied, reaching into the small leather satchel which was still slung across her body.  Removing an envelope, she handed it to Penelope.  “The constitutional assembly has concluded its business.  I was tasked with delivering this to you.”

“Hmmm,” Penelope commented wordlessly, taking the missive in hand and breaking the seal with a practiced motion.  The other letter lay on her lap, forgotten for the moment as she unfolded the assembly’s message and began to read.  Charlie watched as her mother’s emerald eyes scanned the lines of script rapidly.

Quite suddenly, Penelope stopped reading and looked up sharply.  “You cannot have been a supporter of this,” she said to Leone.

Leone shook her head.  “I was one of its more vocal critics, as a matter of fact,” she replied.  “And I cast my ballot in opposition when the proposal came to the floor for a final vote.  However, its supporters managed to garner the two-thirds majority that the assembly had set as a requirement for passage.”  A resigned shrug of the shoulders.  “The will of the people.”

“I see,” Penelope responded.  Her gaze shifted over to Charlie.  “Well, Charlotte,” she said as she handed the letter to Elias, “I have good news and bad news for you.” 

“Okay?” Charlie replied, a look of confusion clouding her features.  She considered her mother warily.  “Can you explain please?”  In the corner of her vision, she saw her father’s jaw drop open as he read.

“I received this news from the outside world earlier today,” Penelope commented, lifting the first letter from her lap.  “It would seem that you have been tried and convicted of treason in absentia, our family title ended, and our estate lands seized by the Crown.”  She gave Charlie a slight nod.  “So you are officially no longer Baroness Botelier.”

“Thank God,” Charlie responded.

“However,” her mother countered, raising a hand indicatively, “there is this other matter here.”  A gesture indicated the letter in her father’s hands.  Something about the familiar lopsided grin now covering her father’s face made Charlie feel less than easy.  “It appears that the delegates of the assembly have chosen to create a parliamentary form of government--”

“Good,” Charlie interrupted, wondering why Leone would have argued against such a thing.  “These people ought to rule themselves.”

“--within the context of a constitutional monarchy,” Penelope completed her sentence.  “The assembly feels, apparently, that the symbolism of a central ruler is sufficiently important that such a figure is needed.”

Okay, Charlie thought to herself, now she could understand Leone’s opposition.  “But why are they writing to y--”  She cut herself short, her own eyes going wide.  “They didn’t.”

Her mother nodded.  “I have been asked to serve in that capacity and to form a ruling house.”  One eyebrow rose.

Charlie felt her heart plummet as the implications sank in.  “But that would mean…”  She trailed off.

“That you are back in the hot-seat,” Penelope responded with a small smile.  “Crown Princess Charlotte.”

“Damn it,” Charlie swore.  “Damn it all to hell.  Can’t a girl catch a break?”

“Remember what I once said about leadership being a duty and an obligation, my dear.”

“Yes, Mother,” Charlie muttered.  A noise to her left made her turn and she glared at Leone.  “What the hell are you smiling about?”

“Come on now, Lotte,” Leone laughed lightly.  “You have to admit, the whole thing is rather ironic.”

Charlie’s eyes narrowed, then she felt the tension spill from her body as she gave a reluctant smile.  “I suppose you’re right,” she allowed.  “It is funny.  Sort of.”  A slow, shake of her head.  “There goes being ‘just Charlie’.”

“Don’t worry, love,” Leone responded, putting a comforting arm around Charlie’s shoulders.  “I’ll only call you Your Royal Highness when I’m really, really annoyed with you.”

“Oh, jeez,” Charlie rolled her eyes.  “Thanks a lot.”

A polite clearing of the throat brought her attention back to her mother.  “Under these circumstances,” Penelope said, “I’m afraid there is something that we are going to have to discuss.”   She gave a small nod to the two young women on the couch.  “Understand that I--that we--fully support your relationship.  However, without putting too fine a point on it, if this family is to provide the stability of a ruling lineage then there remains the very important issue of succession.”

Well then, Charlie thought.  If that’s not a sign, I don’t know what is.  She let out a long breath, straightened her back, and braced her shoulders.  “Interesting that you should bring that subject up, Mother,” she said, keeping her voice calm.  “As I have some news of my own.”

“Lotte?”  Leone’s eyebrows rose.

“I believe I now understand the nature of that task I accepted when Leone and I were trapped in those caverns,”  Charlie announced.  For all the scripts she had devised, all the various ways she had considered the wording, her mind went fabulously and gloriously blank.  She looked from her partner to her father to her mother.

“I’m pregnant,” she stated simply.