one who burns worlds
by
david england

[click here for a trigger warning]

Part I

Whispers

The dreams have always been.  They have always waited for me.

Spectral and fey, these dreams have been a part of me for as long as I can remember.  Like the shoals and reefs I’ve read of, scattered within the vast oceans of Earth and Venus, they would sit submerged beneath the surface of my awareness most of the time, but no less real and no less dangerous.  When I was very young, I was able to remember them to some degree upon waking, but as I grew older, the dreams withdrew into those borderlands of shadow and mystery which stood just beyond the edge of my conscious thoughts.  I didn’t talk about them, not with anyone.  Not even Pa.

These days, the vague whispers heard by my dream-self lurked in the liminal space beyond my grasp.  Brooding in that half-lit, half-shadowed realm between the waking world and the land of dream, those soft voices would mutter, barely below my hearing.  Whether the words were meant as a warning or a summoning, I could never say.  There came a time, however, when the powerful force which stood behind those dreams was no longer content to abide in the darkness, a time when that force pressed itself upon my awareness, when the direction of my life was fundamentally and irrevocably altered in a way I could never fully describe, not even to the one who was witness to a portion of the encounter. 

The circumstances leading to those events began innocuously enough.

I woke early in the morning, as I often did, in order to greet the newborn sun with a steaming cup of our family tea, the night-whispers having vanished once again like a vapor.  A gentle breeze, made fragrant by the eruption of flowers in our gardens, caressed my face as I sat quietly at the stone table on the back terrace.  The small sun sat low, just at the horizon, casting forth brilliant rays of dawn and painting the normally-orange Martian sky with the vivacious blues and vivid violets of sunrise.  I relished the peace of the moment.

“Good morning, Charlotte.” Mother’s voice sounded behind me.  I turned to see her stepping from the enclosed veranda onto the open terrace, her decorative morning robe cinched securely at her waist.  Slippered feet moved gracefully beneath the hem of the robe, topped by the silken pant legs of her pomegranate-red pajamas.

“Mother,” I greeted her with a nod, reflecting how our relationship had altered over these last months.  I was still her heir and protégé, but no longer the mere pupil I had once been, now somewhere on that spectrum between apprentice and journeyman.  She treated me as something closer to an equal, if not to that degree quite yet.  As a skilled master might treat a semi-seasoned tradesman, perhaps.  It was a gesture that I appreciated and I tried to return the reciprocal respect she was due in that relationship. 

I took a careful sip of my tea, mindful not to scald my tongue with the hot liquid.  She joined me at the table, seating herself with her customarily precise movements, and poured herself a cup as well.  The violently-violet liquid arced gracefully into the cup from the yellow-ochre teapot.  Her deep green gaze contemplated the horizon and we sat in companionable quiet for a time.  Then, without turning her head from the scenic display of the sky, she spoke.

“What are your plans for today?” she inquired without preamble, direct as always.

I shrugged.  The operations of the estate had been gradually opening to my purview.  Certainly, I’d made no effort to conceal my desire for greater involvement, though I had been forced to admit that the gap between abstract theory and practical application was far more significant than I’d anticipated.

“I thought I might check on the ginseng fields,” I replied, meeting her eyes as she looked over to me.  That crop was still a solid source of revenue for the estate and I wanted to get a first-hand look at how the fields were handling the drier weather we’d had that growing season.  The irrigation canals and reservoirs somewhat made up for the lack of rains, but required careful management nonetheless.  “Other than that, I’ve my studies yet.  And my exercise regimen, of course.”  I’d thought to head out early, as those fields were several hours’ ride from the estate house and I wanted to be back before mid-afternoon.

Mother shook her head.  “No, the ginseng can wait.  From the reports we’ve gotten thus far, the fields are faring reasonably well.  I’ll go by there tomorrow myself.”  She paused for a moment, then looked back toward the horizon where the sun was slowly creeping its way into the sky.  “I’d like you to stay by the house today, if you don’t mind.”

I frowned, but allowed the momentary flash of annoyance to pass.  Of late, Mother and I had gotten along more readily than not, though there were still issues of contention, including some differences of opinion regarding certain social realities.  The understanding within the family regarding my marital prospects aside, my name had evidently begun to circulate among some of the rising merchant houses, although whether this had been spurred by the recent celebration of my nineteenth birthday or by reports of my encounter with Prince Edward at the gala, I could not tell.  In any event, it was a lesson in learning to keep my witticisms in check, at least in public, as it had become apparent that piquant refusals were apt to be interpreted as invitations to pursue in some quarters. 

“Any particular reason?” I asked somewhat warily.  “Does this have anything to do with the letter you received last week?”  I paused pointedly.  “Or the guest room you had Amber prepare yesterday?”  In these last months, Mother had deflected no fewer than a dozen inquiries into my “availability,” some subtle, others far less so.  Not all of those deflections were acknowledged as such.  On two separate occasions, the families involved had simply refused to let the matter rest until I had met with their sons in some social setting or another.  Perhaps they thought I was certain to be enraptured by their progeny or their wealth.  Neither of which, of course, had occurred in either instance.  Mother was rather amused by the whole affair and Pa just shook his head, smiling in that lopsided way of his.  I, on the other hand, found it all far less charming.  I had enough issues in the relationship department to sort out for myself, thank you very much.

But regardless of their tenacity, no one had been able to maneuver themselves into a visit at our estate.  I fervently hoped that fact had not changed.  My tolerance for this kind of nonsense was beginning to run short. 

“Perhaps,” she replied with a small, mysterious smile. 

I admittedly rolled my eyes at that.  “Okay, Mother,” I said, not hiding my exasperation one bit.  “Keep your secrets if you must.”

She was still smirking as she sipped her tea.  Resigned, I glanced away.  I had long ago given up trying to pry information from her before she was willing to provide it.

“Have you heard from Pa at all?” I asked, shifting subjects in such an abrupt manner that I swore I heard Mother chuckle.  He had left some weeks before, ostensibly to supervise the shake-out voyage of one of our more recently retrofit vessels, but in reality he was overseeing a smuggling run somewhere in the Belt.  I hadn’t been told where--or who the client was, for that matter.  In many respects, I was still very much on the outside when it came to the details of the family’s more clandestine operations.  These were circumstances with which I was trying to be patient, though in that regard I was admittedly more successful on some occasions than others.

“No.”  Mother shook her head.  “Nor would I expect to.”  Her eyes found mine once more and she gave one of her small, knowing smiles.  “I understand your concern, Charlotte, but your father is a very capable man and an excellent pilot.  And he’s just as aware of recent events as you are.”

I grimaced into my tea as I took another sip to cover my discomfort.  She was right, of course.  Pa knew how to handle himself.  I couldn’t help but worry to some extent though, given the news of these last few months.

The initial incident had been a sensational story, exploding in the papers and over the airwaves of the worlds.  The Earl Montrose had been returning to his Venusian estates from Earth after having complied with a summons from His Majesty King George V.  As the earl’s vessel, an impressive aetheric yacht named The Heart of Eros, had approached the outer orbital lanes of Venus, it had been suddenly surrounded by a cloud of attacking ships.  Fortunately for the earl, the yacht’s captain was of a bolder persuasion and had responded to the crisis aggressively, ramming his way through the encircling swarm of small, single-pilot craft.  He’d then plunged the vessel into the Venusian atmosphere in a turbulent, emergency descent, escaping into the blanket of air where the aether-only pirate vessels could not venture.

The swarm of ships had then abruptly and mysteriously disappeared in the confused aftermath of the attack.  Despite a concerted effort by the Franco-Spanish navy, no trace of the pirates, their vessels, or anything which might have served as a base could be found.  It was as if the ships had been swallowed by the aether, leaving only unanswered questions and worried nobles in the wake.

A second such ambush had occurred in Mercurian space less than a month later.  This time, as before, the targeted nobleman’s vessel was able to escape, but only after sustaining considerable damage and being rescued by the timely intervention of a passing freighter.  As before, the swarming craft had vanished and the Imperial German navy, like its Franco-Spanish counterpart, had found no trace of the attacking ships.

“I realize that, Mother,” I replied, setting my teacup on the hewn-stone table.  “It’s just…”  I trailed off into a searching silence.  “I just worry.”

“He’ll be fine,” she assured me.  “Who these new players might be, in fact, is one thing of which he might hear word while out on this journey.”  Her brow furrowed momentarily before smoothing again.  “I will admit it to be a vexing question.  The situation among the worlds is but tenuously stable these days.”  She let out a long breath.  “But enough of that for now.  Your father should be home within the next few days, assuming the delivery has gone according to schedule.  We’ll see what, if anything, he has been able to discover.”

I nodded and stood.  “If I’m not going out to the ginseng fields, then I suppose I ought to get to my studies after breakfast.  And then my workout.”  I picked up my cup.  “I’ll most likely be in the exercise salon until luncheon if you have need of me.”

Mother’s gaze returned to the horizon, where the sun was now ascending into the tangerine Martian sky.  “Very good, Charlotte,” she said.  “We’ll talk again later.”

 

###

 

I made my way to the kitchens which, despite the early hour and our very modest staff, were already bustling.  The cook, Suzanne, was a true mistress of multi-tasking, capable of managing the preparation of multiple dishes with the kind of masterful orchestration one expects of a symphonic conductor.  I’ve watched her at work on that handful of occasions when our estate has hosted a more substantial gathering and I must admit it to be a sight to behold.  The heavy-set woman moved with an energy that belied her size and those dark eyes that surveyed the scope of her domains from beneath dark but graying hair missed nothing.  Ever.  I’ll put it this way: don’t try to swipe a sweet roll before dinner, no matter how hungry you think you are.  I tried that once when I was six.  Exactly once.

The level of activity surprised me somewhat, as it was early yet to be readying for luncheon and the family only occasionally had sit-down breakfasts.  Setting my teacup and saucer on a nearby countertop, I cast a curious glance over the preparations that were well underway.  The carcass of a quorl, a Martian breed of fowl something akin to the turkeys of Earth, but closer in size to large hog, sat naked on a massive pan, ready for stuffing and the many hours of slow roasting that would be required to bring it to savory perfection.  The ingredients for numerous other dishes, including at least two pies by my estimation, had been gathered and organized on the various tables.

“What’s all this, Suzie?” I asked, my curiosity more than evident in my tone.  “A bit much for luncheon, isn’t it?”

“Good morning, Miss Charlotte,” the stout cook replied, her hair pulled back into a practical bun.  She hardly paused from her relentless, methodical chopping of a thick, orange tuber on one of the cutting boards.  “Not luncheon, but supper.”  Large but dexterous hands deposited the impossibly-uniform sections into a bowl and selected the next victim.  “Ordered by her ladyship for this evenin’.”

“Ah,” I replied, trying to be less-than-obvious in my desire for scuttlebutt.  “An occasion for something?”

   Suzanne cast me a sharp look that made me feel like that six year-old hiding a sticky-bun under her shirt again.  “You knows as well as I do, Miss Charlotte, that her ladyship says only so much as she wishes to say.”  The blade of her knife proceeded to render the sacrificial tuber into even slices.

I gave a small sigh.  It had been worth the attempt, even though I’d known the outcome beforehand.  “Yes, Suzie,” I acquiesced.  “I ought to know that by now.”  I looked across the kitchen, over to the pair of sinks on the far side.  “Can you spare a few slices of melon for a girl’s breakfast?”

“Of course, Miss Charlotte,” came the reply amidst the rhythmic chopping.  “Justine?”  Suzanne’s assistant, more apprentice cook than scullery maid, was a shy wisp of a girl.  Only thirteen years standard, she had been taken under Suzanne’s dour but maternal wing a year ago after both her parents succumbed to the fever that had swept through the slums of the nearby city of Dorlaan, leaving her orphaned, and a family friend, Doctor Feldson, had brought her to the estate.  She’d taken to the cook’s trade quite naturally, it seemed.  In her braver moments, she’d even managed to murmur expressions of gratitude to Mother for the position.

Justine was barely able to look at me, her brown eyes darting nervously behind white-blonde hair that half-covered her slim face as she handed me the small bowl of melon slices she’d quickly prepared.  I gave a nod of thanks, but the quiet girl had already slipped away again, returning to her previous task of setting out containers of various seasonings without a word.  I decided to take my leave, as it was increasingly obvious that my presence in the kitchens was distracting the two of them from the important work of the day, and I didn’t want to intrude any longer than was necessary.

From there, I made my way down the back hall.  The crisp flavor of the melon burst brightly in my mouth and I made small noises of pleasure that would have been frowned upon by many a society matron as I walked.  By the time I reached my intended destination, I was cradling the empty bowl in one hand while greedily sucking the last remnants of melon juice from the fingers of the other.  Hardly the most flattering behavior for a future baroness, but I didn’t really care.  Melon was rather high on my list of favorite things.  Baroness-dom, not so much.

I slipped into the library, shutting the door quietly behind me.  Unnecessarily so, as I was the only person in the chamber, but the habit had been well-drilled into me over the years.  The bowl found a place atop a small side-table.  I’d have to find an opportunity to slip it back into the kitchens later, hopefully during a lull in the incessant activity, but it was just as likely that one of the staff would have collected it by the time I was able to circle back.  It was difficult to do things for oneself around here, though I did try.

My need for food sated for the time being--and my fingers most assuredly cleaned of melon juice--I looked about the well-stocked, single-story library.  Most prominent estates boasted more substantial dwellings and richly-decorated studies tended to be part and parcel of such structures: many stood at least two floors high, if not more, with graceful, spiraling iron staircases leading to the upper levels.  Our estate house, in contrast, was a low, sprawling affair, far more modest and functional in design, though still very much recognizable as a noble’s home.  Our Martian lands had been originally granted to my great-great-grandfather, the twelfth baron, for his service in the final Martian wars and specifically for his valor at the Third Siege of Barsoom, but the actual construction of the estate house had fallen to his son.  This turn of events likely saved subsequent generations some considerable grief, for the twelfth baron had been noted for his eccentricities, including a certain belief that he was the reincarnation of Xerxes the Great, and a rather embarrassing mausoleum in London had been one result of his strange imaginings.  I shuddered to think what the outcome might have been had he designed our estate here.  Nodding to myself, I considered the space around me.  Yes, my great-grandfather had been an eminently more practical man.

The library was robust, but not exceptionally large.  Shelves lined three walls, the fourth being taken up by an impressive window overlooking the gardens beyond.  An antique writing desk was set before that window, a decorative quill and inkwell set at one corner.  The only other furnishings were a short couch flanked by side-tables and a reading table with its quartet of chairs.  An area rug of rusted-brown partially covered the polished wood floor.  The morning sun shone clearly through the window and the entire chamber was lit with its soft, yellow light.

I had a long history with this room and rather mixed feelings regarding it, though admittedly those memories were tinted with a slightly different hue in light of the events of these past months.  But the emotional memories remained and I recalled the many, many hours spent here under the guidance of a string of tutors--or Mother--whose task it had been, it had seemed to me at the time, to stuff into my head every scrap of knowledge regarding every subject known to humanity.

As I was heir to a barony, practical and cultural matters were quite naturally a substantial part of that curriculum: agronomy, engineering, and finance, but also history, languages--have I mentioned how much I despise Latin?--and of course the arts.  Then there were matters military (the likes of Sun Tzu, Vauban, and Clausewitz) and political (from Aristotle to Rousseau to Mill).  Perhaps it was my fascination with the latter which had caused me to take up the habit of following the writers of today’s underground political scene with the fervor that I had.

It was not, however, only such mundane material which constituted my ongoing education.  My eyes settled briefly on the hefty tome of H.P. Blavatsky’s Ancient Doctrines, archived on a nearby shelf.  More esoteric subjects had been included as well and I recalled a story of Mother’s about how knowledge of certain cabalistic literature had once aided her in an important investigation when she was younger.  Truly, no stone was to be left unturned, and so my studies were, shall we say, rather eclectic.

Years of education.  Years of training.  All focused on a single goal: the preparation for that day when I would succeed my mother as bearer of the title and as owner of the family estate.  Mother was many, many things: adventuress, merchant ship-owner, landed gentry.  She bore shadowy aspects as well; along with Pa, she was a smuggler and an outlaw, and in her guise as Mother Esperanza, that Moses-figure among bond-servants, she was hunted by the police forces of the worlds. 

But at the forefront of that list, above all else, she was Baroness Botelier.

My gaze slid over to the wall-safe carefully shielded from view by a collection of equally carefully-worded Victorian erotica.  Mother kept a key to that safe around her neck and somewhere, I had been told, there was hidden a spare key for me in case anything should ever happen to her.  I had not been given full access as yet, but I knew that among the papers kept in that safe were plans on which I had only recently been briefed: Operation Market Garden, contingencies for the evacuation of the tenants of our estate to the collection of settlements of those freed bond-servants deep in the remote canyons of the southern highlands and far from the prying eyes of the authorities.  I’m not sure which unnerved me more: that fact that these plans existed in the first place or the fact that Mother felt that circumstances were such that they were among that set of things she felt I should know.

For so many of the preceding years, I had debated with her, argued with her, fought with her over what needed to be done to change the inhuman and inhumane systems of these worlds--the institution of debt-bondage being only the most prominent among several--which had grown like a cancer within the body of this civilization.  And now, having been shown something of how she and Pa themselves worked to make those needed changes, I had found my ideals humbled.  Considering the difficult compromises they’d had to make and the very real limitations within which they’d been forced to operate, the challenges with which we were confronted seemed overwhelming indeed.

There were no good options.  Either one worked in the shadows, quietly and on a small-enough scale to avoid the attention of the various authorities, or else one worked more openly, risking reprisal from the formidable forces of that very system and perhaps the conflagration of open rebellion and civil war.  My parents had opted for the first strategy.  There were those who considered the second approach to be worth its cost, who believed that a bright and purifying flame was the only way to eradicate the old system in order to build anew.  In that latter regard, I was not so sure.

I stood there in that moment, in the solemn silence of the library, and tried to envision myself in Mother’s place, moving among the peerage even as I sought to alter the foundation of that society; to see myself as the head of this estate, responsible for the lives and livelihoods of its tenants; to imagine Charlotte Hope Conner, Sixteenth Baroness Botelier.  It didn’t feel grand.  It didn’t feel glorious.

It felt like I was going to be sick.

I grimaced and shook my head.  Studies could wait.  I needed to go hit something, hard.  Over and over again.  I left the library as I had come and shut the door behind me just as quietly.

 

###

 

Heading to my suite to change, I quickly donned the light, cotton garments I usually wore for my exercise sessions, leaving the rest of my clothes behind.  Bare beneath the pants and jacket, both secured by ties, I still felt a certain thrill of freedom.  I knew that Mother exercised in the nude on occasion--yet another source of scandal on which the gossips feasted with great relish--and that Pa sometimes accompanied her.  (Beyond that, I can tell you, I did not care to know the details.)  I was not quite so daring, though I had recently performed a routine thusly in the privacy of my own chambers one evening, when I’d been certain that I would not be disturbed.  The sensation had not been displeasing, I had to admit.

The exercise salon was on the far side of the estate house from my rooms and I decided to cut through the dining chamber, guessing that the staff would still be focused on the kitchens.  My hunch proved correct and I slipped through that more formal portion of the main house without encountering anyone, finding myself at the door to the salon a short time later.

The salon itself was a good-sized space, partially partitioned into various exercise “rooms.”  The main floor contained the sparring mat, with racks mounted on the left-hand wall holding the various weapons sometimes included in training or bouts.  From the right-hand wall, two knee-walls jutted part-way into the space, segmenting the rest of the salon into smaller areas for specific exercises.  A large punching bag, suspended between the floor and ceiling by sturdy ropes, hung in the middle of the three alcoves.  A set of weights and bars stood at the ready in another.  The third and final space had a large vertical beam, twelve inches on a side, set in the center of the salon wall, its wooden surface dented and notched by repeated blows of fist and weapon.

I didn’t know if was the memories evoked by the library just then, Mother’s bemused secrecy from earlier that morning, or some lingering unease that the pending visit was in some way related to my marriage prospects, but I found myself sufficiently agitated that I skipped the preliminary breathing and stretching exercises--a lapse which would have brought a severe scolding from Mother had she been present.  But she wasn’t and I felt like expressing my autonomy that morning, so I moved to that last alcove, set myself before the beam, and launched into a series of hand strikes.  The hard, unyielding surface of the wood met the flat of my fist and the arched side of my hand with a satisfying thwack.

Don’t get me wrong.  I loved my mother and our relationship had grown in ways I hadn’t even imagined possible those few months ago.  But we were still rather like flint and steel: inevitably sparks flew, regardless of how lightly the two struck one another.  Pa played the role of outside observer with considerable skill and his comments helped to provide a third perspective that would otherwise have been lost in the myopia of debate, but he also made sure to stand clear when necessary.  It was all an intricate dance of wills.  Mother was stubborn. 

So was I.

Thwack.

She’d begun to allow me more access to our operations, though at her own pace and in her own time, of course.  Still the baroness.  Still the one in charge.

Thwack.

I had, admittedly, come to see how naive some of my earlier thinking had been.  I can’t deny that.  And Mother hadn’t rubbed my nose in it, exactly, so it’s not like I could be mad at her for that.  Our relationship had...improved, but remained a thing apart.  Complicated, as I’d told Pa.  Could she not just allow me to find my own way?  Why was it always on her terms, on her schedule?

Thwack.

And this visitor.  What the hell was that about?

Thwack, thwack.

I paused and stared silently at the heavy beam, a few of the indentations on its surface imperceptibly deeper for my efforts.  Mother would have chided me for my lack of focus, no doubt, but if my head wasn’t any clearer, my body felt better for the outburst.  Time to get to my exercises proper.  I moved to the main sparring mat and placed myself at its center, bringing my inner self into focus with the sequences of calming breaths I’d learned as a child.

Some time later, I had proceeded well into my routine when a tentative knocking sounded.  My heart was still pounding from the whirling pattern dance I’d been performing only moments before as I grabbed a small towel and mopped my face on my way to the door.  Opening it, I found Amber, our young chambermaid, standing in the hall.

“Yes, Amber?” I asked politely.  The girl was only fifteen years standard and still rather shy, but a good worker with an excellent eye for detail.  And since she was the member of our staff with whom I worked most intimately, Amber was also the one I’d selected for my own project of trying to break down the class barriers somewhat, to get her to see me as another young woman much like herself.  I’d not made much headway.

She looked briefly into my face before dropping her eyes.  “Her ladyship is wishin’ to see you, Miss Charlotte,” she said quietly.  “She asks that you come to the front parlor.”

“You can look at me when you speak, you know, Amber,” I reminded her gently.  “And it’s okay to just call me Charlotte.”

Her eyes got very big.  “Oh, I couldn’t be callin’ you that, Miss Charlotte,” she said emphatically.  “Wouldn’t be proper.”

I gave a small sigh and let the issue go.  I’ll just keep working on her, I told myself.  Perhaps eventually I’d make some progress.  “I don’t suppose Mother would allow me time for a shower?”  The expression on Amber’s face was telling.  “No, I guess not.”  I shook my head.  “Please tell her I’ll along momentarily.”

“Yes, Miss Charlotte.”  Amber curtsied and then scurried away.  I turned back into the salon and tried my best to make my appearance slightly less disheveled.  I’d told Mother where I’d be, I said to myself as I tossed the towel in the laundry basket.  So she could hardly be expecting me in any other state.

I closed the salon door behind me and began to head down the hallway, wondering what the issue might be that Mother would be wanting me to come right away.  Had our mystery guest arrived?  I rather hoped not: I’d prefer to have been more presentable, regardless of the tomfoolery that might be involved.

My bare feet made no sound on the red sandstone floor and the loose exercise garments felt good against my skin as I made my way toward the front parlor.  Workouts always brought my senses to a peak.  The cool stone caressed my soles and I took pleasure in the sensation.  The air moving in and out of my lungs tasted fresh and clean.  I could hear the murmur of conversation ahead.  And as I neared the parlor doorway, I caught a whiff of a scent, simultaneously strange and familiar.

“You wished to see me, Mother?” I said, stepping into the parlor.  And stopped dead in my tracks the instant I did so.

My mother was seated in the rightmost of a pair of armchairs flanking a low tea-table, the ensemble set against the large western window at an angle to the doorway where I stood.  She was in one of her usual day-dress outfits: a loose ochre shirt, buff trousers, and riding boots reaching over her calves.  The visitor sitting in the companion chair, with whom she had been conversing, had apparently arrived only a short time before, for while the baggage had most likely been sent along to the guest suite already, a light brown traveling jacket remained on, if unbuttoned.  A burnt orange shirt showed beneath, complemented nicely by form-fitting trousers the red-brown color of Martian soil and by stylish low-cut boots of dark leather.

Their conversation stilled as I entered.  The guest’s long waves of bright, flame-red hair were tossed casually over her shoulder as she turned her head and those impossibly ice-blue eyes looked deeply into mine.

“Hello there, Lotte,” Leone said with an impish smile.


Part II

Crisis

It was some little while later, as the three of us were enjoying a light luncheon on the veranda, that Mother made her suggestion.  Leone had gotten herself situated in the guest suite and I had taken the opportunity to clean up from my exercises.  My head had been absolutely spinning with questions, but I’d held my tongue.  Our meal-time conversation had dealt with nothing of substance, Mother and Leone trading tidbits of information regarding the latest scandals to strike among the wealthy and the titled while I listened on.  Hardly seemed the stuff worthy of discussion, but Mother never did anything without a reason, and as I’d had occasion to learn over the years, usually more than one. 

“Why don’t you give our guest a tour of the estate, Charlotte?” she offered nonchalantly as she set her teacup in its saucer.  “I have some rather tedious paperwork that will occupy my attention for some hours until dinner.”

I shot her a barbed look, but Leone was already responding to Mother’s offer.

“I’d love to see the grounds,” she said politely.  “If it wouldn’t be too much of a bother.”

I tried to ignore the tiny upward quirk at one corner of Mother’s mouth and turned to our guest.  “Of course not, Leone.  I’d be delighted.”

And so the two of us left Mother at the table on the veranda and stepped through the open doors, onto the terrace and into the gardens, heading along the winding pathway among the colorful, irregularly-shaped beds, and through the arched garden gateway onto the near-grounds of the family estate.

As soon as we were beyond the low wrought-iron gate and out of earshot, I turned to Leone, my expression stern.  “What are you doing here?” I demanded.

“Why, I’m happy to see you, too, Lotte,” Leone replied, her hands on her hips.  “If you must know, I’m running an errand for my father.  Does it put you terribly out of sorts if I tarry a while?”

“You know perfectly well what I’m asking,” I countered, jabbing at the air in front of her with my forefinger.  “You have no idea what I’ve been going through since the gala--”

“Actually,” Leone cut me off.  “I do have some notion of that, Lotte.  I’m probably more clued into the gossip-vine than you are, you know.”  Her eyes twinkled with humor.  “I have to say, your response to Prince Edward has certainly produced a bountiful harvest.”

I huffed in exasperation.  “And you’re not helping the situation any.  It’s bad enough that I’ve had to deal with these people who think I’m some heifer to be acquired so that their young bull might produce offspring with ennobled lineage.”  I gestured agitatedly.  “I don’t need you in the mix, confusing things.”

“Oh?”  Her eyebrows rose.  “I confuse things, do I?”  She shook her head slowly.  “And here I thought it would be nice for us to see one another again.”

“It’s not that…”  I broke off in confusion.  “Okay, fine.  I’ll admit that it’s nice to see you, Leone.”    I was still adjusting to her persistent proximity.  Our passing encounter those months before had been one thing.  This was...something else entirely.  “But why the secrecy?  Why would Mother have not simply told me you were coming?”

Leone waved one hand in a vague gesture.  “I’m sure I don’t know.  Perhaps you should ask her.  I was just asked to deliver a message.”  She cocked her head slightly to one side.  “I have to say I was expecting a slightly different reception, however.  It was almost as though you were displeased that I’m here.”

“Of course not,” I replied quickly.  Probably too quickly.  “It just caught me terribly off-guard, that’s all.”

Leone’s eyes sparkled mischievously.  “Do I still get the guided tour, in that case?”

My body relaxed and I gave a sheepish grin.  “Of course you do.  This way.”

We ambled in a wide arc around the side of the main house and made our way leisurely across open space of the immediate estate grounds.  A light breeze blew and the noontime sun shone brightly in the clear Martian sky.   

“Over there,” I gestured toward the ridge of the embankment, “is the local tributary canal that serves this region.”  As she had taken the day-ferry down from Monmouth only that morning, she’d already seen the lower segment of the canal.  “It continues well past our lands, along the edge of the Isidis Basin.”

“Are there many estates in this area?” Leone asked as she looked back in the direction I’d indicated.

“Not terribly many,” I responded.  “We’re pretty much at the southern edge of the settled northern lowlands of this region.  From here, the land climbs quickly into the southern highlands.”  I waved along the canal’s further path.  “The Syrtis Major and Hesperian Plateaus are that way.  This area isn’t exactly prime real estate, but my family’s done a fair job cultivating the land and the tenants have something to call their own, at least.”

“They have their own fields?”

 “No,” I shook my head.  “The lands and villages belong to the estate, but there are fields allocated to the villages for their use.  Aside from a small crop-share payment as rent, the tenants get to keep the fruits of their labor from those.”

“So they still own nothing,” Leone’s comment had a subtle edge to it.

“They own themselves,” I pointed out with a somewhat sharper tone than I’d intended.  “Which is far more than the bond-servants of other estates can say.”

Leone didn’t reply immediately and we walked along quietly for a bit.  A cloud hovered between us, but then dissipated after a few minutes.  Leone broke the silence.  “What’s that over there?” she asked, pointing.

I smiled.  “Those are the stables.”  I looked at her, my smile widening into a grin.  “Would you like to see?”

She grinned back.  “Definitely.”

We veered toward the stables.  Stepping through the open doorway, I took a deep breath, relishing the scent of fresh hay and fresher dung.  Our senior stablehand was at the near end of the building, bent over a workbench and polishing the leather of one of the saddles.  He looked up as we entered.

“Miss Charlotte,” he greeted me, setting his work aside.

“James,” I nodded in return and gestured to Leone.  “This is Leone Brownstone.  She’ll be visiting with us for a few days.  Leone,” I continued, “this is James Durham, our most senior stablehand.  You had the pleasure of experiencing his wife’s cooking at luncheon.”

Leone’s face lit up.  “Lunch was wonderful.”

“Thank you, Miss Leone,” James replied.  “I’ll be sure to pass the complement along.”

“It’s just ‘Leone’,” she responded with a dismissive wave.

James shook his head and gave a small smile.  “Not in my world, miss.  We do things proper ‘round these parts.”

I broke in, if for no other reason than to head off a futile debate over the value of social hierarchies.  “I was just thinking…”  My voice trailed off as a sudden inspiration seized my brain.  I turned to Leone.  “I was just thinking of asking if you’d care to go for a ride.”

Her surprise was evident, but she nodded in reply.  “I can’t say I have any experience with jornju, though.”

“Not a problem,” I assured her.  Turning back to the stablehand, I continued.  “James, would you please fetch us a light snack from the kitchens and let Mother know that Leone and I will be taking Marlo out for a ride?”

I could see James doing the math and a slow, sly grin spread across his face. “Of course, Miss Charlotte,” he replied.  “I’ll be seein’ to that right away.”

“What was that about?” Leone asked after he had left, her brow furrowing for a moment.

“Nothing,” I deflected her question as I moved over to one wall and hefted a double saddle from its storage rack onto a neighboring workbench.  “Nothing at all.”

I examined the saddle.  It was many years old but had been kept in good working condition.  As I could recall, it hadn’t seen regular use since I was very little, however had found service as a temporary replacement when one of our regular saddles had needed more significant repairs.  I took the opportunity to show Leone the various aspects of a jornju saddle, including the second seat this one boasted and the handholds for that second rider set along the sides and toward the rear.  Taking my time, I checked the stitching, the buckles, the general wear, but it all looked to be in good order.

I brought my eyes up to Leone’s.  “Come with me.  I’ll introduce you to Marlo.”

Leone gave a small, slightly nervous smile.  “Okay.”

I took her hand in mine and led her down the way, past the wide stalls.  There were five in all, but only three were occupied.  I stopped at the last of these and leaned on the railing, holding my open hand out. 

The massive mound of shaggy, rust-colored carpet lounging on a bed of fresh hay opened his wide, midnight-black eyes, considered us for a moment, and then ambled over on his six legs.  Standing five and a half feet tall at his shoulder, and twenty-seven feet from snout to tail, Marlo was an impressive young stallion by any standard.  He gave my hand a sniff, then butted it with his head.

I laughed and shook my finger at him.  “You, sir, are a spoiled little brat.”

Leone quirked her head at that and I explained.  “He wants a treat.  I’ll be right back.”  I trotted back to the work area and dug into a burlap sack hanging on one wall.  As I returned, Leone eyed the leafy thing in my hand.  “Cabbages?”

I nodded.  “He loves them.” I held the purple-and-green ball of leaves over the railing.  “Here you go, you big baby.”

A long, serpentine tongue unfurled itself, wrapped around the cabbage, and pulled the ball of leaves into his maw.  Marlo gave a snort of contentment as he chewed.

“Hold out your hand,” I tell Leone.  She hesitated for a moment, then tentatively extended her arm over the railing.  Marlo finished chewing, swallowed, and gave her fingers a curious sniff.  Then his tongue uncurled, wrapping itself loosely around her hand and wrist.  With an audible slurp, the tongue retracted again, leaving her hand coated in spittle.

I chuckled.  “He likes you.”

“Just so long as he doesn’t mistake me for a cabbage,” she rejoined, wiping her hand on a pant leg.

I smiled at that.  “Come on.  Let’s bring him out and get saddled up.”

It was then that James returned, a small satchel in his hand which he set placed on the workbench next to the double saddle before coming over to assist with Marlo.  A short time later we had the saddle properly strapped on and inspected.  The satchel went into one of the saddlebags and I cast a curious glance at James as he buckled the flap.  He just smiled.

“My Suzie fixed you up a right nice treat, Miss Charlotte,” he informed me.  “And her ladyship said to enjoy yourselves, but to be back for dinner.”

“Yes, Mother,” I muttered under my breath.

Not under my breath enough, apparently.  James’ grin broadened.  “I’ll just let her ladyship know that you understood.”  He turned to Leone.  “Now, Miss Leone, how’s about I help you into this here saddle?”

We brought the young stallion out into the stableyard and I climbed into the forward seat.  James gave Leone a boost and she settled into the second seat behind me.  I glanced down to see her hands firmly gripping the handholds by her hips, her knuckles not quite white.

“Have a wonderful ride, Miss Charlotte,” James said with a deft tip of his cap.  “You, too, Miss Leone.”

I grinned and called back to Leone.  “Hold on!”  And we were off.

I took Marlo out at a modest trot as we left the corral and climbed the low range of hills to the north of the estate house.  Leone swayed in the saddle behind me.  I felt that low-burning fire in my belly grow stronger.

“If you want,” I said to her over my shoulder, “you can hold onto me instead.”

Leone didn’t reply, but her arms snaked around my midriff and the weight of her body settled against my back.

That fire in my belly roared in response.  As we crested the hill and came down the far side, I gave Marlo his head.  The three of us raced onto the wide open sand. 

 

###

 

We sat on the ground at the edge of a small oasis in the shade of a large Martian palm.  Marlo was tethered loosely to its trunk and chewed contentedly on one of several lush bushes growing nearby.  The deep purple globes of palm-fruit hung overhead, unripe yet or else I’d have cracked one open for us.  The sweet-meat within that shell is well-worth the considerable effort it takes to break it open.

A light snack of cheeses, candied fruit, and jerked meat emerged from the satchel, along with picnic cloth, a bottle of wine, corkscrew, and pair of stoneware goblets.  I sighed with mild exasperation.

“I’m beginning to wonder if the entire staff doesn’t know about us,” I muttered, half to myself.

“There’s an ‘us’?” Leone inquired softy, her eyes glinting with that same mischievous light as earlier.

I said nothing, but weighted the picnic cloth with the small stones that were packed along with it and set out our snack.  After a bit of effort, the cork popped from the bottle and I filled each of our goblets.

“To us,” I said, raising my cup.  “Or whatever the hell this is.”

Leone grinned and clinked her goblet with mine.  “I’ll drink to that.”

A light breeze picked up a swirl of dust in the middle distance and the tiny whirlwind spun over the crest of a nearby dune.  The soft waves of Leone’s flame-red hair lifted and played in that same breeze.  I inhaled, then exhaled.  This was good.

“I took note of your gi earlier,” Leone observed, breaking the quiet that had fallen as we ate.  Something else danced in her eyes.  “I should mention that I’m also studied in hand-to-hand combat.”

Somehow, that topic seemed totally natural.  “Technically, it’s not a gi,” I replied, shaking my head.  “The styles I’ve been learning are in the tradition of Chinese martial arts.  A gi is the traditional Japanese uniform.  But I do find it comfortable.”  Quirking my head, curious, I looked over at her.  “What forms have you studied?”

“Oh, nothing so exotic as oriental martial arts, I assure you,” Leone responded with a casual wave of one hand.  “My training is in pankratos, ancient Greek wrestling.”

“Really?”  I replied, truly fascinated now.  “I have to confess to being unfamiliar with that style.”

Leone drained the rest of her goblet and examined me intently.  “Would you care for a demonstration?”  She gestured at the desert plain around us.  “Traditionally, tournaments were conducted on a level field of sand.  We seem to have plenty of that here.”

I considered the invitation.  “Let’s,” I nodded and the two of us stood.  Then a question popped belatedly into my head.  “What costume is traditionally used for pankratos?”

“These were ancient Greeks, Lotte,” Leone replied with a sly smile.  Her hands went to the buttons at the neck of her blouse.  “They wore nothing at all.”

Well, shit.  This was going to be interesting.

After a moment’s hesitation, I, too, began to undress.  I focused on my own actions, slipping off my low boots as I unbuttoned my blouse and the top of my trousers.  I was acutely aware of Leone doing the same in the corner of my vision.  Arranging my clothing in a neat pile off to one side, I finally stood and faced her, that light wind blowing gently over my bare skin in the warmth of the bright Martian afternoon.

She was beautiful.  Lithe was the best word I could summon to mind.  The bright, flaming hair cascading over her shoulders was matched by an unruly patch of fire at her crotch.  Her breasts were the perfect size for her build, petite mounds with bright pink tips.  Lean muscles showed under her pale, smooth skin, a taut strength impatiently waiting for the chance to be unleashed.  I felt myself grow warm, damp.  And it wasn’t sweat from the sun.

She gave me an assessing look, taking in my own very modest bosom, my full hips, my dark auburn hair, the low-burning ember between my legs.  “Very nice,” she said, her voice suddenly rich and vibrant.

“Likewise,” I replied, nodding appreciatively.

We stepped away from our clothes and the small picnic, facing one another over the sand, perhaps three paces apart.  I broadened my stance slightly, my feet shoulder-width, my knees flexed.  My arms were loose, held up just in front of my body, my hands open.  Leone crouched low, her stance wider than mine, her fingers curled as her arms swung lightly, the back of her knuckles just kissing the sand.  Her eyes burned bright.  “Two falls out of three?” she offered.

I nodded in agreement.  “What are the rules?” I asked, my husky tone layering in all kinds of intimations I could probably never say out loud.

“By custom,” she replied, her gaze never leaving mine, “eye-gouging and biting were forbidden.  We can toss in hair-pulling, I think.  I don’t bite.”  She gave a sultry half-smile.  “Much.”

My own smile turned feral and my eyes narrowed.  We began to circle each other warily.  Like a courtship.  Like a dance.

She feinted; I withdrew.  I feinted; she withdrew.  Our hands moved slowly, suggestively, waiting for an opening.  Then, in a flash, we closed, our bodies hurling themselves against each other.  We grappled for what seemed an eternal instant, each seeking advantage, neither giving ground.  Then her right hand slithered between my legs and I gave a yelp of surprise as I found myself hoisted ass-first into the air.  Lifting me above her left shoulder, she fell backward, flopping me unceremoniously onto the sand.

We both scrambled to our feet.  “First blood,” Leone said simply, her eyes saying so much more than that.

I nodded once, conceding the score, but pointed my finger at her.  “You,” I said, “are a naughty, naughty girl.”

She brought her right hand in front of her face and I saw her nostrils flare.  “I’m not the only one,” she replied, smirking.

A low growl rumbled in my throat and we began circling one another again.  She closed and I sidestepped her kick.  She pivoted, lightning-fast, and delivered a back-hand strike.  Instead of blocking, I caught her hand and spun with the momentum of her blow, levering her over my left hip.  She tumbled into the sand, rolling gracefully to her feet.

“Even now,” I grinned, showing my teeth.  She grinned back.

The third point took longer.  We dallied, enjoying the foreplay.  The tension built slowly as we feinted, parried, stepped in only to dance away again.  It was delicious and maddening.  Finally, we clenched, our limbs entwining themselves.  I felt my footing begin to slip as Leone pressed her advantage, but righted myself and twisted my torso to break her hold.  She hesitated, for only the briefest of moments, but long enough for me to sweep her feet and knock her on her ass.  I dropped on top of her, pinning her shoulders in the sand with my legs.

“Match-point, I believe,” I said, looking down at her as she gazed up from between my knees.

Her expression turned coy, and her gaze flickered to the dark auburn wedge hovering only inches above her face before locking with mine again.  “If these are your conditions for surrender, my lady,” she said with that same impish smile, “I promise to come most willingly.”

“Ha!” I barked a laugh and rolled off of her, still sitting in the warm sand.  “I’m not, you know.”

She rolled onto her side and sat up next to me, facing back the opposite way, leaning back on her hands.  “Not what?” she asked.

“A lady,” I replied.

She said nothing, looking down at my body then back up at me.  Her left eyebrow quirked up quizzically.

“Not like that,” I responded with an exasperated wave of one hand.  “You know very well what I mean.”  I gestured more broadly.  “A peer of the realm.  My mother.”

“You’re her heir,” Leone said simply.

“I’m just Charlie.  At least for the time being,”  I gave a small sigh.  “But yes, the endgame is not in doubt.  I will one day be Baroness Botelier and there is no avoiding that.”

“You make it sound like you have no choice,” Leone commented.

“I don’t.”

“You could refuse the inheritance,” Leone pointed out.  “Give up the title.”

“I can’t, actually.”  I shook my head.  “Aside from the fact that I’d be shirking my responsibility to the estate, I cannot, as a matter of fact, refuse the title.  It’s the law.”

“The law?” she said, puzzled.

“Exactly.”  Somehow, a conversation about the nuances of British peerage while sitting naked in the open sand with a beautiful woman seemed surprisingly not at all out of the ordinary at that particular moment.  I sat forward, gesturing with my hands as I explained.  “By law, the title goes to the next heir, in accordance with the original grant of the title.  Most follow the practice of primogeniture as traditionally understood, with the firstborn son inheriting.  Some, like my family’s title, follow the practice more broadly, with the firstborn child inheriting.  As I’m her only child, I’m it.” I leaned back on my hands again.  “Whether I like it or not.”

“And you can’t reject that inheritance?” Leone asked.  “Not at all?”

“No.”  I looked past her to the dunes beyond.  “I’m pretty well trapped.”  A momentary silence settled on us, then I gave a rueful chuckle.  “The irony is,” I said, still looking to that horizon, “there is an escape hatch, but it’s Mother’s, not mine.”

Leone was understandably perplexed by that remark.  “What do you mean?”

“There is a mechanism by which the holder of a title can pass that title on to his heir prior to his death, but it has certain limitations.”  My eyes met hers again.  “One of those peculiar episodes of history, you know.  Nearly three-quarters a century ago, it seems the Earl Winslow, who had gotten caught up in his studies of Daoism, wanted to retire to a hermitage for the rest of his days.”  I gave a wry grin.  “My family isn’t the only one among the peerage with its share of oddballs, it seems.”  Leone smiled and I continued.  “In any event, the situation caused quite the tumult, but after much debate and even more hand-wringing, Parliament eventually passed the Peerage Renunciation Act of 1853, which provided a legal basis for that action.” 

“And you can’t use that provision?”

“No, I can’t,” I replied.  “The Act was very specific about the permitting circumstances.  It requires that the peer renouncing his title have an heir-of-the-body to whom the title may be directly passed.  A child, in other words.”  I shrugged.  “And given my...inclinations, as Mother refers to the matter, it is unlikely I will have such an heir any time soon.  If ever.”

Leone shook her head.  “I had no idea it was quite so complicated.”  Then her brow furrowed.  “But if you’re not going to have a child, what happens to the title after you?”

“Oh, that.”  I shrugged off-handedly.  “The title will pass on as usual to my nearest relative.  There’s a second cousin or some such who stands to inherit.  But that won’t happen until my death.”  My eyes held those of the beautiful woman next to me.  “The peerage is as much a curse as it is a blessing.  Aside from death, or the Act I mentioned, the only other way a title can be taken from a peer is if he is arrested and convicted for treason.  Then the title is forfeit and all land grants seized by the Crown.  I’d as soon as not avoid that path.”  I paused for a long moment, then shook my head again.  “It’s crazy, you know?  All these years, I’d berated Mother for not doing anything to fight the evils of the system around us, only to discover that she and Pa are not just part of some loosely-organized underground resistance, but even some of its leaders.  And now I wonder if I can possibly measure up to the task of succeeding her.”

Leone shifted a bit closer, but looked past my shoulder to the Martian landscape behind me.  “In that, at least, I know what you mean.”  Her eyes found mine.  “Father is a literary and organizational genius.  Mama is a mechanical genius.  And they, too, are some of the leaders in this resistance, as you put it.  What am I?”  

We were close, far too close to one another.  “Perhaps Mother was right,” I said quietly.

“About what?”

“She said that you and I have a good amount in common.”  A moment passed and I smiled gently.  “I do suppose we ought to get dressed and return.”  I looked deep into those ice-blue oceans.  “Mother suggesting that I follow my inclinations is one thing.  Cavorting naked in the open sand is quite another.”

Leone’s eyes went half-lidded.  “Is that what we’re doing?”  She moved her face a fraction of an inch closer.  “Cavorting?”

“Honestly,” I replied in little more than a whisper, “I have no idea.”  She was too close now.  I grabbed twin fistfuls of fire and pulled her mouth to mine.  We tasted each other’s lips, once, twice, then dove deeply, devouring.  Her fingers flowed through my hair.  I held the back of her head.  We broke for air.

“Cavorting,” she said softly.

I sighed.  We pressed our foreheads together, our noses just touching.  “Another time, perhaps,” I commented, resigned .

She smiled and stood, offering a hand to help me to my feet.  I took it and her smile broadened into a grin.  “Oh, yes,” she replied.  “Another time indeed.”

She pulled me to my feet.  Stepping over to our respective piles of clothes, we began to dress, attempting--with some mixed success, I would add--to shake the loose sand from our garments.  Seeing one another’s antics, we broke into laughter.  “One of those things about living on Mars,” I quipped.  “The sand gets in all the cracks.”

Leone gave her blouse another shake and held the garment up, examining the fabric for any remaining grains.  “Well, then,” she replied with a sideways glance.  “We’ll just have to set up house somewhere less sandy in that case.”

I blushed a bit at that and shoved a flirtatious rejoinder aside.  There were many, many bridges to be crossed before I could entertain such thoughts.  I finished dressing and moved over to Marlo’s tether, unfastening it from the palm tree.  “Shall we?”

Leone nodded.  I mounted up, then turned in my saddle to give Leone a hand.  She managed on the second try, settling into the seat behind me.  Her weight leaned against my back again and her arms slid around my waist without invitation.  I grinned like a mad-woman, somewhat relieved that no one could see my unmuted response.

“There actually was something I’d like to ask,” Leone said to the back of my head as Marlo began trotting back toward the low hills hidden in the distance.

“And what might that be?” I replied lightly.  I could just now start to feel the flush receding from my face and I found myself quite thankful that it would take a little while for us to return so that I could regain my composure by then.

“Would you care to take a jaunt with me into orbit?”  Just a day-trip?”

“Really?” I half-turned in the saddle, glancing over my shoulder as much as I was able. Then it was my turn to smile slyly.  “Are you asking me on a date?”

I heard her laugh.  “Think of it as the prize you won for beating me.”

“Fair enough,” I nodded.  “But then what would your prize have been if you’d won instead?”

She loosened her grip on my waist for a moment and gave me a playful poke in the side.  “Why a date with you, of course!”

 

###

 

We informed Mother of our plans at dinner.  She didn’t reply right away, but cast a questioning glance toward Leone before nodding to me.  During the brief discussion that then ensued, I recalled assuring her that I’d be fine, though to be quite honest, my memories of the conversation were rather muddled, distracted as I was by the bright, shiny object of the next day.

Dinner itself was fabulous.  Suzanne had truly outdone herself, which was no mean feat, and I made comments to that effect.  Leone was visibly impressed by our cook’s culinary prowess and Mother assured our guest that her praise of the meal would be passed along.  But the rich food had other impacts as well, and following a second helping of delightful palm-fruit pie, Leon and I decided to call it a day.  Between the meal and the afternoon’s activities, we were fairly worn out--and that was not counting the fact that Leone had been traveling all that morning.  Mother, of course, was as alert as ever.

“I’ll see the two of you off in the morning,” she informed us.  “But I have more paperwork before retiring for the evening.”  Thinking back to my earlier conversation with Leone, I couldn’t help but grimace inwardly.  Such was my future as baroness.

The murmurs of my dreams seemed more insistent that night and I remembered feeling as though I were groping blindly about in a thick fog.  But the morning came quickly and the shadowed whispers faded.  My internal clock woke me at my usual time.  True to her word, Mother accompanied us to the estate’s dock where Leone and I boarded an early day-ferry to Monmouth.  Because of the hour, canal traffic was extremely light yet.  Leone and I were the ferry’s only passengers at the moment and we settled ourselves in seats at the bow of the craft as the pilot nudged the ferry away from the dock and into the water-lane.

It was when Leone began to talk about our “jaunt,” as she called it, that I realized that I’d missed a vital piece of information from the earlier conversations.

“You have your own ship?” I asked, surprised.

“Yes,” she replied, giving me a wink.  “It’s all part of my camouflage, actually.”

“How is strutting about with your own ship a disguise?”  I looked at her carefully.  “I’d think you’d want to be more subdued, rather than call attention to yourself.”

“I’m hiding in plain sight, Lotte,” Leone responded.  “I play the part of new-rich spoiled brat rather well, don’t you think?”

I blushed, remembering my opinion of her at our first encounter.  “True,” I allowed.  “But still, it seems rather a gamble.”

Leone shrugged.  “People see what they expect to see.  I can tell you that Mama is less than pleased with my choice of disguise, though Father finds it rather amusing in an ironic sort of way.”

I nodded at that.  “So your ship has a name, I presume.  Can I ask what it is?”

“Oh, you may most certainly ask.”  She smiled mischievously.  “My ship is called the Sapphic Joy.

It took me a moment to fully process that.  “Seriously?”

“As I said, my dear Lotte,” she replied, her grin broadening.  “I hide in plain sight.” 

I contemplated her answer along with the rippled surface of the canal as it glinted with the morning light.  We rode in silence for a time, enjoying the calm of the early hour and the gentle rhythm of the ferry as it made its way over the water.  Then Leone made an observation about the pending nuptials of Clarice, the elder daughter of the Count Ridgemoor, to the scion of one of the more prominent merchant families and we launched into another discussion regarding the economic straits of modern nobility.

By the time we’d arrived at the canal port at Monmouth, some hours had elapsed since our departure and we decided to take tea and brunch before heading to the aeroport where Leone’s dirigible was anchored.  There were several cafes in the immediate vicinity and we decided upon a rather rustic-looking establishment called The Rutting Boar.  The name of the pub must have a certain effect, I observed as we entered, for we were clearly the only female patrons of our social stratum present.  (Or rather, my social stratum and Leone’s adopted one.)  The atmosphere of the place was pleasant enough, however, and we opted for a booth by a window overlooking the canal.

“You can’t possibly understand, Lotte,” Leone responded to a comment I’d just made regarding the impact of workers’ organizations.  She paused as our food arrived at our table, then continued after our waitress had departed.  “Your upbringing blinds you.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, not exactly disguising my consternation at the off-handedness of her dismissal.

“What it’s like out there, I mean,” she replied.  “What’s truly going on among the laboring masses out in the worlds.”

“I’m hardly ignorant of current affairs,” I countered almost-but-not-quite huffily.  “Rather aware of the underground political scene, thank you.”  I allowed a pointed pause.  “Including your writings, I would add.”

Leone gave her head a sharp shake.  “Reading isn’t seeing.  Assessing reports isn’t first-hand observation at the front lines.  You’ve been sheltered, Lotte.”  She held up a hand to forestall my protest.  “Through no fault of your own, I acknowledge.  Nevertheless, your direct experience in these matters is, shall we say, somewhat limited.”

I didn’t answer right away, taking a bite of my sandwich so that it wouldn’t seem that I was choosing not to answer right away.  I chewed slowly, in a careful quiet, looking at Leone.  She sipped her tea with a casual air, meeting my gaze steadily.  After a few more moments, I gave a slow nod.

“Alright,” I acknowledged.  “Granting that my experiences beyond the Martian social scene have been limited, tell me your thoughts.”  I glanced briefly around us to be sure, but no one was paying us any mind.  Leaning forward slightly, I said more quietly, “I know what Ignis Deorum says on the matter.  I’d like to know what Leone Brownstone thinks.”  

Her gaze held mine.  “Leone Brownstone doesn’t think all that differently, as a matter of fact,” she replied calmly.  “There is much that needs changing and little time within which that change must be accomplished.  The logical consequence of those two facts is rather straightforward, I’d suggest.”

I gave a curt shake of my head.  “There’s a whole host of issues you’re failing to consider,” I pointed out.  “What about--”

“What about,” Leone interrupted, placing her hand on mine, “we set aside politics for the time being and enjoy our date?”

My jaw clenched and I bit back a retort.  She turned her head just so and considered me again with those beautiful eyes of hers.  Despite the charge in my blood, I exhaled and allowed my body to relax a bit.  “You’re right, of course,” I acknowledged.  “Not exactly prime conversation for a first outing.”  I picked up the last bite of my sandwich and washed it down with a good swallow of tea.  “Let’s go see this ship of yours.” 

 The aerodrome not terribly far from the port, as the two operations are closely linked with one another, and a fifteen-minute walk brought us to the edge of the field.  Leone motioned for me to stay put for a moment and approached a clerk off to one side of the main ticket counter.  I watched her engage in a brief conversation with the man, who nodded in response to whatever she was saying, accepting some amount of money she handed over.

“What was that about?” I asked when she returned.

“I needed to pay an additional reservation fee to keep my stall open,” she replied.  “My original berthing contract was for continuous storage for four days.  Intermittency costs extra.”  She gave me a subtle wink.  “You’re worth it, though.” A humorous pause.  “I think.”

I shook my head.  “I might make you regret this date yet.”  Looking over the dirigibles of various sizes, anchored firmly in the various spaces, I swept my arm over the scene.  “So which of these fine craft is yours?”

Leone gestured to her left.  “Right over here.”

The Joy turned out to be a petite but nonetheless stylish vessel anchored off to one side of the field.  What she lacked in size was most definitely made up for in presentation.  Twin spheres comprising the dirigible’s gasbag were constructed of a sturdy but vividly-colored fabric, the hot pink globes being held within a contrasting violet mesh.  The body of the craft blended shades of lavender with rose-reds in a feathered color scheme.  The effect was, one could say, quite memorable.

“What do you think?” Leone inquired playfully as she led the way to her ship.

“She certainly makes an impression,” I admitted.  We reached the tethered craft and Leone unlocked the hatch with her key.  Several groundsmen were already approaching us, making ready to let the moorings loose when signaled.  I caught one groundsman looking Leone’s way briefly with narrowed eyes before making a comment to a companion.  That second man nodded curtly and broke away from the group.

Meanwhile Leone had pushed hatch open and waved me in.  “After you.”  Her eyes twinkled.  “My lady.” 

I elbowed her in the ribs as I stepped past.

 

###

 

The cabin was compact but comfortable-looking.  ‘Snug’ might have been a good way of describing it.  Intimate.  Immediately to the right were a pair of seats: from appearances, pilot and co-pilot stations.  A command console spanned the width of the forward wall, set below an equally-wide viewport that overlooked the snub nose of the undercarriage and the grounds before us.  As the Joy was designed for both atmospheric and aetheric operation, the more mechanical control wheel and throttle-stick shared space with the electronic switches and knobs which governed the aetheric engine and its Henry-Germain lens.  Behind those two chairs was the modest open space into which I had stepped as I entered the cabin.  Smaller viewports ran along the sidewalls, providing glimpses outside.  To the left was a bulkhead with a circular hatch at its center.  That firmly-secured portal was labelled “Engine” in stenciled block lettering.  A narrow foot-locker  sat in the far back corner.

“Go ahead and have a seat, Lotte,” Leone waved at the copilot’s chair as she turned from securing the main hatch.  “This shouldn’t take terribly long.”

I followed her suggestion, settling the in well-padded chair and watching the ground-crew begin to prepare the mooring lines for departure.  With a passing interest, I saw that the wandering crewman from earlier was heading toward what appeared to be the radio-telegraph office that sat not too distant from where the Joy had been parked.  Through the forward viewport, Leone exchanged a quick series of hand-signals with the crew-chief, who began barking orders to the other groundsmen.

She sat down and buckled in.  I followed suit a moment later, remembering the nature of my only other ride into space.  I hoped this one would be smoother.  The Joy began to shift, her nose swinging to starboard.  I cast a questioning glance at Leone.

“The crew is bringing us around, orienting us so that our bow is facing into the field,” she replied to my unspoken inquiry.  “Allows for proper spacing between incoming and out-going vessels.”

“Ah,” I said.  That made sense.

Leone turned to the sidewall viewport immediately to her left and gave another gesture to the groundsmen to our port.  I heard a shout and we began to rise as the mooring lines were released.  The ground fell away beneath us gracefully, with only silence accompanying us.  As we gained altitude, Leone toggled a switch and I felt the turbines roar to life.  The bow rose sharply as she angled the Joy for a steep ascent into the Martian sky.

“Hold on, Lotte,” she grinned, throttling the engines to maximum.

We powered upward, the vessel vibrating with the strength of the turbines as the rotating blades chopped through the air.  I held onto the grips by my seat, my knuckles not quite white.  In an effort to calm my racing heart, I tried to imagine Leone’s ship like a mechanical Marlo, with her in the saddle and the two of them racing across the landscape at full speed.  I remembered my outings: the wind in my hair, the sand spraying behind with each hexapedal stride of the muscled creature beneath me.  Yes, I thought to myself as my pulse began to return to normal again, this is rather like that.

Leone didn’t speak, but kept her attention on the viewport and console.  After a short time, she reached over with a deft motion and toggled two switches in rapid sequence.  The dying away of the turbines and the low hum that sounded just at the edge of my hearing told me all I needed to know.

“This is a two-person vessel,” I observed.  “Do you often bring others along?”

“Only special ones,” Leone replied.  “Since I’ve had her, the only people who’ve ridden with me are you and Heinrich.”

“Heinrich?” I responded, way too sharply.  “And who is Heinrich?”

My companion gave a subtle smile.  “Why, Lotte.  It almost sounds as though you might be jealous.”

“Am not.”  I coughed.  “I was just, uh, wondering.”

Leone gave me a light shove on the shoulder.  “It’s okay to be jealous, you know.”  She chuckled softly.  “Heinrich is a dear, sweet friend of Mama’s who helped me fix the Joy up when I first got her as a salvage.  Only fair that he should get to ride in her.”

“So not a rugged, muscled specimen of Nordic manhood kind of engineer?” I questioned with a raised eyebrow.

“Well,” she replied, pursing her lips.  “He *is* a specimen of German manhood, rugged in a way.  He’s also about eighty years standard and rather like a crusty grandpa.”  She laughed.  “Not exactly my type.”

“Good.”

“So possessive, Lotte.”

I shrugged. “Hey, I’m trying to figure this whole thing out myself.”

She nodded.  “That’s fair.”

We rose beyond the upper Martian atmosphere and Leone levelled us out, setting us in a mid-level orbit.  The Joy glided smoothly through the aether.  I gazed down at the rich, rusted sphere of Mars, awestruck by the planet’s sheer majesty.  The sun blazed against the dark fabric of aetheric space to our right and the brighter stars gleamed in the black like gemstones.  Almost as an afterthought, a small freighter floated in the distance, somewhat ahead and to the left, in a lower orbit and to our planet-side.

“Beautiful,” I whispered.

“I agree,” I heard Leone say quietly.  I turned to face her and blushed as I realized that she wasn’t talking about the vista beyond the viewport.

She unbuckled, floating free in her pilot’s chair.  I did the same and we drifted up and over the seats, hovering weightless in that open space amidships.  Her flaming hair billowed about her head like waves of fire.  Her eyes glittered like bright blue ice.

“Have you ever…” I stumbled over my words.  “You know--been with a woman?”

Her gaze was steady.  “No,” she answered.  “In this area, I have to say, I am all theory--”

“No practice,” I responded with a small smile.  “I know exactly what you mean.”

“You neither?”

“No,” I admitted.  “Although, if I’m honest, I have imagined it quite a bit lately.”

“Oh?”  She floated closer.  “Have these imaginings involved anyone in particular?”

I slid one hand onto her hip, the other moving to the small of her back.  “Perhaps,” I said softly.  Her hands cradled my face as I pulled her against me.  My breath deepened and I felt my pulse quicken.  Her eyes closed.  Our lips touched.

An alarm blared on the console.

“Fuuuuck,” I groaned in frustration as she peeled away.

Her eyes glinted with that mischievous light.  “Trying to,” she replied slyly.  Then her expression clouded as she looked down at the console.  Her head snapped up and she peered intently through the viewport as she clambered into her seat.

“What is it?” I asked, confused by the sudden change in demeanor.

“Buckle in, Lotte,” she said curtly as she did exactly that.  Her voice was tense.  “We’ve got company.”

I followed the line of her gaze and felt a chill run through my body.  In the middle distance, approaching us rapidly, was a swarm of small aethercraft.

I swore and scrambled into my seat as Leone brought the Joy about and pushed the engine to maximum acceleration.  I looked back through the side viewports as far aft as I could manage.  The lead craft of the swarm were gaining on us, despite our steadily increasing velocity.  More significantly, the swarm was coming at us from our planet-side, cutting us off from the safety of the Martian atmosphere.  We needed to break away from them before we could make a run for that blanket of air.  The pirates were learning, it seemed.

A projectile arced past my viewport.  Now they were shooting at us.

Leone began to weave and dodge, the pirates’ ships right on our tail.  Her expression was focused and beautiful, the ice-blue of her eyes glowing with a fabulous intensity as she piloted.  I held on to my chair as best I could.

“I need you to do something for me, Lotte,” she said quietly, her attention never leaving the controls.

“Yes?”

She reached to one side and pressed a button.  A portion of the console in front of me rotated upward, revealing a small viewport and a control-stick with a trigger.  “The Joy’s not built for combat exactly, but she’s got a few surprises.”  We dodged to port and then back to starboard.  “Not a lot up front, I’ll admit.”  She cast a glance at me, then at my seat.  “She’s got a hell of an ass, though.”

I rolled my eyes.  In the middle of a fire-fight.  With pirates.

“Ever fire a QF 4.7 Mark VIII?” she asked, attention on the console again.

“Artillery is a basic element of military science,” I responded with a wounded tone.  “Which my mother saw fit to drill into my head for years.”

“Fascinating,” Leone replied.  “But that doesn’t answer the question.”

“No,” I admitted with a shake of my head.  “All theory…”

“No practice,” she finished my sentence.

“The story of my life,” I muttered.

“Well, you’ve got a chance now,” she gave me a rapid glance.  “But be quick on the pick-up, if you would.  The Joy’s got a limited magazine.”

“On it,” I responded, leaning toward the small viewport and taking the control-stick in my hand.

“It’s  pneumatic auto-feed mechanism,” I heard her say as I focused on the small screen in front of me.  “The gun sight you’re looking through faces stern and employs a system of prisms and mirrors.  Just pull the trigger and the autofeed will reload.  You see the two lights at the bottom?”

“Yes,” I replied, moving the stick and getting a feel for the controls.

“When the red light’s on, the system’s reloading.  Green light comes on, you’re good to go.”

“Got it.”  I lined up the sight with one of the pirate ships riding our ass and pulled the trigger.  I missed.  “Shit.”

“Take your time, Lotte,” Leone said beside me.  I felt the Joy swerve again.  “Just not too much time.” 

I took out my next target.  And the one after that.  The atmosphere in the cabin crystalized into quiet intensity as each of us focused on her task: Leone keeping the pirates behind us and me blowing them up.  I hit more often than I missed.

But as valiant as they might have been, our efforts only forestalled the inevitable.  There were just too many of them.  The swarm inched steadily closer and I was eventually confronted with a blinking red light at the lower edge of my vision.  “I think I’m out,” I said glumly.

“Understood,” Leone replied.

I’d managed to do some damage, at least, and the swarm of pirate vessels slowly beginning to envelope us was much thinner than it had been originally.  I supposed that would count for something in the end.

Our ship lurched violently sideways and I was thrown against my restraints.  Leone swore vociferously.

“What was that?” I asked, still clutching the now-useless gun controls.

“They’ve taken out the gas-bag, Lotte,” she replied, her voice low and tense.  “Put a gaping hole in the dirigible.”

My eyes went wide as the circumstances of our predicament sank in.  The pirates were manning aether-only craft, which could not operate within the confines of an atmosphere.  Only a dirigible vessel, like the Joy had that ability.  By destroying our vessel’s gas-bag, the pirates had effectively trapped us in orbit.

“Do you trust me, Lotte?”

I blinked at her.  Her eyes blazed that intense ice-blue.  “What?” I stammered, yanked out of my thoughts.

“We have a chance, but it’s a crazy one.  So I need to know: do you trust me?”

“Yes,” I answered instinctively, before I have a chance to think.  “I trust you, Leone.”

“Good.”  She turned back to the control console.  I was pressed into my seat as the Joy executed a tight, corkscrewing loop.  In an instant, I saw her intent: having destroyed our vessel’s gasbag, the pirates had redeployed in order to close some of the holes my shooting had opened in their ranks and in doing so had left the planet-side more open.  Leone had brought our ship completely about, heading straight into the swarm, and plunged us through a gap in the “bottom” of the formation.  The red surface of Mars filled the forward viewport.  I realized after another moment that it still getting closer.

“What…?”

“You said you trusted me,” she responded, not taking her eyes off the viewport.  “So trust me.”

The thin upper atmosphere began to whistle past the cabin.  A moment later, I heard the hum of the aether engine sputter as it started to choke on the thickening air.  Then the hum died.  Our broken vessel plunged in an uncontrolled free-fall toward the planet below.


Part III

Flame

 

We fell. 

That low whistling of the atmosphere grew steadily louder, slowly but relentlessly building in strength until it had become a deep roar only partly muffled by the walls of the cabin.  Beyond the glass of the forward viewport, the stark blood-red of the planet raced toward us.

Leone said nothing.  I held onto the grips beside my seat, the straps of the restraint belts wrapping me in an unyielding embrace.  As we plummeted further into the atmosphere, the Joy began to tumble as the damaged gasbag caught in the turbulent flow of air past the vessel.  Leone frowned in concentration, fighting with the controls, flexing the rudder and ailerons in order to stabilize the dying vessel’s orientation.  With a wordless grunt, she flicked a switch and the turbines roared back to life.  One part of my brain understood: she was attempting to use the thrust from the Joy’s engines to give her more control over the dying ship’s orientation.  The other part of my brain knew all too clearly that we were going to die.

After a desperate struggle, Leone succeeded in stabilizing us.  The Martian landscape continued to close in on us, but she had managed to bring the Joy’s nose up slightly from vertical so that we were plunging toward the Red Planet’s surface at a small angle.

“Hold on, Lotte,” she said with a grim kind of calm, breaking the quiet that had fallen between us but never once taking her eyes off the forward viewport.  “This is likely to be a bit rough.”

I tightened my grip.  She popped open a cover on the console and stabbed her finger at the button beneath it.

A rapid series of explosions sounded just above our heads, throwing the cabin laterally and hurling me once more against my restraints.  If we lived through this, I thought to myself, I’m going to be well bruised.  Scant seconds later, there was another, more muffled explosion, this time from in front of us. For a brief moment, the scene through the viewport was obscured by waves of unfurling fabric.  Then the nose of the cabin snapped upward and another set of bruises was born.

I let out a low groan, echoing the protest of my body as we were whiplashed, and I wondered if this was what the far end of a whip felt like.  But the cracking of that whip lasted only a moment and then the cabin was swaying back and forth in a slow arcing rhythm.  It took a few moments for me to realize that we were now looking up into the Martian sky and the underside of a large dome of cloth.

“A parachute?”  My voice sounded odd in my ears, tinny, and I wondered if the cabin had lost pressure.  It took me three attempts, but I managed to equalize my ears.  Ignoring the ache in my shoulders, I twisted my head as it rested in the cradle of my seat, turning to look at Leone.

“Yes,” she replied, rotating her face towards me.  “Something of a last-ditch emergency effort, to be sure.”  A tight smile.  “The situation called for it, I thought.”

No argument from me.  “Those first explosions?” I asked.

“The charges broke the cabin away from the rest of the dirigible, throwing us free,” Leone replied.  “One of Heinrich’s more ingenious designs.  Helps to ensure clearance for the ‘chute to deploy.”  She grew silent.  “Comes at a steep cost, however.  I’m afraid there’s little left of the Joy at this point.”

“I’m sorry about your ship,” I said softly.  “But you did manage to save us.”

“Don’t go thanking me quite yet,” she responded with a curt shake of her head. “We still have to make it through the landing.”  She tilted her head forward to look at one of the indicators on the control panel.  “Brace yourself.”  And snapped her head back into the cradle of the seat.

A moment later, we hit.

Painful was an understatement.  Even with the parachute slowing our descent, we were travelling at a good clip at impact.  A sickening crunch reverberated through the cabin and I felt my body thrown first one way and then another, each time a fresh set of bruises being promised full flower later.  If we survived.  The world tumbled about us as the cabin rolled and jolted and skidded over the rock.  After what seemed an eternity of chaos, but was likely only a few minutes, everything stilled and we came to a rest.

My chest heaved and I realized that the pressure I felt was the weight of my body against my restraint belts.  We were upside down and hanging in our seats.  Instinctively, I fumbled for the latch and hit the release.  Probably not the brightest thing to do, considering.  The buckle opened and I immediately fell out of my seat, colliding with the cabin ceiling that was now a floor with an inelegant thud.

“That was graceful,” I muttered to myself as I sat up, gingerly rubbing my shoulder.  I looked to where Leone hung from her restraints, still secured in her seat.

“We’re alive, least,” she commented dryly, hitting her release in turn.  Unlike a certain someone else, she dropped to the ceiling-floor with the nimbleness of a dancer.  “Can’t give myself much credit for style in the landing, though.”

“I’ll take ‘alive’ over style any day of the week,” I replied with a half-shrug, standing to face her.

She nodded.  “Very good point.”  Turning to the upside-down command console, Leone examined the equipment.  “I figured as much,” she said after a few minutes, turning back to me.  “The radio-telegraph is pretty-well smashed.  Wasn’t a long-distance rig anyway, but still…”

“Would’ve been an option to have tried,” I agreed.  “But I’ll take what we can get.”

Leone nodded, half-turning to reach up into the space that had been beneath her pilot’s chair, but was now a kind of shelf above it.  She withdrew a sturdy canvas bag and settled the shoulder strap across her chest before looking me in the eye.  “We’ve got some emergency supplies here that can last us for a short while.”  She shrugged.  “I’d have said let’s inspect the damage to the ship, but I can’t see there being much point to that.”

“We should try to figure out where we are though,” I suggested.  “And then if there might be help nearby.”  I waved toward the hatch.  “Can we get this open?”

Leone was already stepping past me.  “The main controls are busted, like I said, but there’s a manual release here for emergencies.”  She felt along the sidewall to the right of the hatch, opened a panel, and slid a safety catch aside before pulling down on the lever nestled in the narrow cavity.  There was a quiet click and the hatch cracked open.

From the position of the sun, beginning its descent in the west, the day was fairly far along.  A glance at my wristwatch showed only two o’clock in the afternoon, which suggested that we’d landed somewhere well to the east of our locale, though at an unknown latitude.  A survey of the surrounding terrain answered that question definitively.

“Well, Leone,” I said, gesturing to the rugged landscape stretching before us with a sweep of my arm.  “I think it is safe to say that we’re on our own here.”  A strong gust of wind sent a swirl of sand curling up into the sky and set the fragmented remains of the Joy rocking gently.  “We’ve landed somewhere in the southern highlands, that much is clear.” 

Leone considered our predicament with an impressive calm.  “That gives us a starting point, at least.”  She turned to me.  “You’re the native Martian, Lotte.  What do you say?”

I looked to the sun once more and then again to my wristwatch.  “North and west,” I replied.  “Based on the sun, we’re east of the estate and given the terrain, we’re obviously south of it.”  I considered the flat expanse around us that was broken by ridges to the north and what looked to be jagged badlands to the south.  “Depending on how far south we are, I’m guessing that we’re somewhere on the Hesperian Plateau.”  I looked at Leone.  “That’s the good news.”

“The good news?”

I nodded.  “That would mean we’re not stranded in the middle of the southern lowlands, but more to the edge.”  I gestured vaguely northwest.  “Civilization be thataway.”

“Okay,” Leone said.  “And what’s the bad news?”

I turned and pointed southeast at a horizon that was far darker than it ought to have been, given where the sun sat in the sky.  “We’re out in the open and I don’t like the looks of that.”

Leone peered in the direction I’d indicated.  “What is it?”

“Unless I’m very much mistaken,” I said carefully, “that is a large sandstorm moving in this direction.”  I took Leone by the arm and pulled her with me as I began walking.  “We need to get to shelter.”

“The Joy…”

“No,” I cut her off.  “What’s left of the ship is going to get eaten by the sand.  We need to get to rock.”  I pointed in the direction we were moving.  “That ridge to the north there.  If we’re lucky, we can make that before the sandstorm reaches us and find a cave of some kind.”

Leone took that in.  “Got it.”  Motivated, we set a solid pace over the sand-scoured terrain of the plateau.

 

###

 

It was some time later that I realized the sun’s rays were dwindling far too rapidly.  We’d made serious headway toward our goal, but the ridge was still uncomfortably distant.  I glanced at my wristwatch and made a mental adjustment based on my estimate of our eastwardly shift.  Not good.  It shouldn’t be this dark yet.

I glanced back over my shoulder at the danger that was steadily marching toward us from the south.  Martian sandstorms were legendary, dealing death and destruction to anything and anyone caught within their swirling winds and biting sands.  This one looked to be a healthy specimen of the species, a fact that did not bode well for us.

The rusted-orange clouds had advanced well over the horizon, even as we’d moved north, reaching up into the sky and embracing the breadth of the horizon from east to west.  It was a monster and we were not going to be able to avoid its wrath.  Our only hope lay in reaching shelter before it reached us.

I looked at my watch again and muttered an oath under my breath.

“What?” Leone asked beside me.  We were moving at a good clip and our breathing was heavier, though not labored yet.

I shook my head.  “I’m not sure we’re going to make it.”  Peering forward, I did  a quick calculation.  “The storm is closing on us faster than we are on the ridge.”  I reached out to her.  “Let me take a turn with the satchel; you’ve been carrying it for a while.”  She handed it over and I settled the strap across my chest.  “But we need to hoof it.”  Then I broke into a trot, Leone following suit a half-second later. 

We jogged over the terrain, our footing much more sure in the thinner layer of sand which typically covered the southern plateaus than in the deeper beds of sand of the northern lowlands.  I said a prayer of thanks for small favors.  If those winds caught us, though, the blowing sand would strip the flesh from our bones, leaving our scoured and gleaming skeletons to greet the Martian sun in the aftermath.  I was not going to let that happen.

The air began to rasp audibly in our lungs.  We’d sacrificed energy-conservation for speed, but the ridge was just too damn far away.  Another glance over my shoulder confirmed my fear.  The red-orange edge of the storm was closing.  I could feel the change in the air around us as the leading zone of the storm front reached us.  The pressure dropped and a low roar could be heard far too close behind.

Shit.

We weren’t going to make the ridge.  In desperation, I scanned the landscape around us for anything, anything at all that could possibly provide shelter.  Nothing.  Just the low rock of the plateau, rising into that mocking ridge, so close yet so far away.

Then I saw it.  There, to our right, a cut in the terrain with a shadowed edge.  I’d been looking for rising rock, but, with luck, a gulley just might be enough.

“There!” I shouted to Leone over the rising roar of the storm as it barreled down upon us.  “Run!”

We sprinted toward the depression and whatever shelter it might offer.  The storm was right behind us now, closing even faster as we altered course and ran laterally across its path to our goal.  Without even so much as glance downward, I jumped into the cut in the rocky ground, Leone right behind me.

And lifted my face into the coming wind to tell it to go to hell.

A cave.  Against all odds, we’d struck upon a cave opening in this narrow fissure.  I pulled Leone in behind me, deciding that I’d thank the powers that ran the universe for our good fortune once we were settled.  The edge of the storm passed over us, roaring in brutal fury as we crawled into the rocky shelter we’d been so graciously provided.

Only a few yards into the rock, the passageway opened, widening to the left and right by a fair margin and upwards just enough that we could stand, the stone ceiling only scant inches above our heads.  The air deepened into darkness as the storm cut off any light from the opening behind us.

“There’s a torch in the bag,” Leone said, the howl of the wind buffered somewhat by the sheltering rock.  I unfastened the flap covering the satchel and felt around inside until my hand closed upon the familiar cylindrical form of an electric torch.  A moment later, the bright bean cut through the shadow.

“Much better,” I nodded, playing the light around the rock walls.  There wasn’t a whole lot to see, really.  The rock was bare, broken in places, but otherwise unremarkable.  The floor of the cavern seemed serviceable enough and fairly free of debris.  The passageway continued, though, deeper in.

“What do you think?” I asked, turning to Leone.

“How long do you think the storm will last?”

“A good while.  A few days, even, given the span of storm front I saw.”  I shrugged.  “We’re likely stuck here for a bit.”

“But alive,” she noted.

“But alive,” I agreed.  Directing the beam of the torch further into the cavern, I considered our options.  “We might want to move a little deeper in, just to make sure.”

“Makes sense to me,” Leone replied.  “Find a good spot and settle ourselves.”

We made our way, moving slowing in the shadows even with the aid of the torch.  I could still hear the low roar of the storm, but it had receded into the background as we moved deeper into the cavern.  The air felt cool, and to my native Martian senses, surprisingly moist.

“I think there’s water here,” I said.

“Good,” Leone commented beside me.  “The canteen in the supplies wasn’t going to last us very long.  Finding water would be a very helpful thing if we’re going to be caught here for any length of time.”

We’d gone some distance further, following the turns of the tunnel, when I stopped short.

“What is it?” Leone asked, looking around.

“I’m going to try something,” I replied.  “Just bear with me for a moment.”  I clicked the torch off and the cavern plunged into darkness.

Except it didn’t.

As my eyes adjusted, I saw that my senses hadn’t been deceiving me after all.  A dim glow permeated the air and when I looked carefully, I could see thin veins of light in the rock of the walls, the floor, the ceiling.  The two of us gazed about in wonder.

“What do you think this is?” Leone asked, her voice slightly hushed with the awe we were both feeling.

“I remember Pa telling me about something like this,” I replied after a moment.  “When he and Mother were on one of their adventures.”  I reached out to touch the cavern wall.  “‘Living rock,’ he called it.  I always thought it was one of his embellishments.”

“We can conserve the power in the torch, at the very least,” Leone said.  “But this is just amazing.”

I nodded.  Given that the storm above us was likely to last for some days, we needed to conserve everything we could.  “The light seems a bit brighter ahead,” I observed, pointing.  “Perhaps a bit further?”

The light did increase slightly as we moved along, the thin veins expanding and weaving together into intricate patterns in the rock.  Soon, the cavern was filled with a low, dusk-like illumination.

“Can we stop here?” Leone asked, indicating a shallow alcove in the left-hand wall just ahead.  “I don’t know about you, but I’m beat.”

 “Sure.”  I slipped the satchel from my shoulder and we sat on the cavern floor, our backs against the wall of the alcove.  A blanket, the canteen, and two bars of rations were pulled from the canvas bag.  I passed the canteen to Leone, who took a solid swig before handing it back to me.

“We’ll get some rest,” she said, “and then look for that water in the morning.”  She gave a wry smile.  “Or whatever time of day it might be when we wake up.”

I smiled back.  “I have to admit,” I commented as I unwrapped my bar, “this has got to be the most memorable first date ever.”

“Ass.”  Leone gave me a shove.  “You’re lucky I like you.”

Chewing, I waggled my eyebrows.  She snorted and bit into her own meal.

We finished our dinner without further comment.  Leone snuggled against my side and we drew the blanket over us.  I slipped my arm around her waist and she made small noises as sleep was already taking her into its embrace.  I lasted some minutes longer, staring into the design of the living stone around us before my eyes slid slowly shut.    

 

###

 

I would speak with you, the dream-whisper echoed around me as I stood within the swirling mist, which unlike my previous recollections was tinged with the color of rust.  Immobile and mute, I could not answer.  The voice said nothing more.  I felt, but could not see, a brooding gaze upon me.

My eyes fluttered open, a momentary disorientation ensuing as I struggled to collect the fading fragments of the dream.  Where the hell was I?  Seconds later, the memory of the events of the previous day washed over me in a flood. 

Leone groaned softly, readjusting her position against my side as she settled back into sleep.  Our joint body heat, coupled with the emergency blanket, had managed to ward off the worst of the chill from the cool air and rock of the cavern.  Fully awake now, I listened carefully.  In the distance, that demon of a sandstorm still raged.

Well, I thought, that’s one day gone.  How many before we’re able to emerge from this hidey-hole and resume our search for help?  The still air of the cavern did not answer me.

My eyes fell on the canvas satchel of supplies we’d brought from the wreckage of the Joy.  How many days’ rations did we have left?  I reached over, carefully so as to not disturb the sleeping woman beside me, and dragged the bag closer.  With my free hand--my other arm still around Leone--I opened the flap and counted out the nutritious but unappetizing food-bars: ten left, or five per person.  Two, perhaps three days’ worth if we stretched things out.  But we still needed to find water.

Leone stirred again, waking this time.  She sat up, stretching groggily.  Her neck cracked.  I put the bars back into the satchel, save two.  “Good morning, sunshine,” I said, handing her one.  “Breakfast is served.”

“Damn pirates,” she grunted sleepily.  “Stupid Teutonic bastards broke m’ship.”

I chuckled at first, then stopped suddenly as I took in what I’d heard.  “What did you just say?”

“What?’ Leone asked, shaking her head to clear it of any remaining webs.  She opened her ration bar and gave it a sour look.

“The group that attacked us,” I pointed out.  “You called them something.”

“Did I?” she replied, taking a bite.

“Teutonic bastards,” I repeated her words.  “You know who those people were,” I said, looking at Leone levelly in the dim light of the cavern.

She nodded slowly, contemplating her less-than-appealing breakfast.  “Yes, I’m afraid I do.” 

I waited for a beat.  Nothing.  “Well?” I pressed.  “Would you mind sharing?”

She took a deep breath, then exhaled, perhaps anticipating my reaction.  “They are, it would seem, a radical break-away group from the old worker’s coalition Father once belonged to.  A part of the German contingent.  A year ago, this group attempted to take over the German Workers delegation.  A coup, of sorts.  From what I hear, things got quite ugly at the end and there was more than one riot and any number of deaths.  In the end, however, this group and its leader, a young Austrian painter, were expelled.  Excommunicated, more or less.”

“But did not go quietly into the good night, it appears,” I commented dryly.

“No,” she agreed, “they did not.”  She fell silent.  The quiet between us said much.  “They call themselves ‘The Solar Order of Knights Teutonic.’  Father had only recently been able to verify their existence and their role in the recent Venusian incident.”  She looked into my eyes.  “That is why I was sent to your estate, actually.  To inform your mother of this.”

Even as my response unfolded, I could see what I was doing.  But I didn’t care.  Perhaps it was the sense of once again playing second-fiddle and being treated as though I were a neophyte know-nothing.  To be fair, I was something of a neophyte know-nothing.  That didn’t make it feel any less insulting.

“And you didn’t see that worth mentioning to me?” My tone was sharp, I knew, but I was damn tired of the you’re-too-inexperienced routine.  “Am I somehow that unworthy of consideration?”

Leone frowned.  “I was given an explicit mission, which was to convey that information to your mother.  If she felt it worth communicating to you, I’m sure that would be her decision and not mine.”

“So you’re just following orders, is that it?” I rejoined, that other, angry fire within me starting to build.  “That’s your defense?”

Leone’s eyes went half-lidded and her tone dropped into a deadly calm.  “I was unaware that I was having to defend myself against anything,” she said very carefully.

I leaned forward, looking at her hard.  “You and Mother,” I accused.  “Treating me like I’m some kind of novice.”

“You are a novice,” she replied levelly.  “I’ve been involved in these operations since I was twelve.  You were brought in, what, a few months ago?”  Her blue eyes were ice.  “Deal with it.”

“I’m not stupid!” I retorted.

“I never said you were,” she responded.  “But you are inexperienced.  And inexperience gets people killed.”

“Really?”  Sarcasm dripped from my words.  “You’re going there?”  I crossed my arms.  “And whose bright idea of a disguise nearly got the two of us killed just recently?  You don’t think we weren’t a conspicuous target because you flaunt yourself about?”

“Fuck you,” Leone shot back.  “Fuck you and your noble ass.”  She glared at me.  “At least I’m working for a purpose, not just raking in wealth I never earned and living on the backs of poor peasants.”

“Our tenants are free,” I stressed, my own voice low now.  “More than any of the other estates can say.”

“They’re still poor and they’re still your tenants,” she countered.  “The fact that you flog your slaves less often doesn’t make you any less a slave-owner.”

I got to my feet with a determined air. “You arrogant, self-important bitch,” I hurled my words at her. “I’ve never sought anything but the best interests of our people.  If and when I ever take over the estate, there are lots of things I plan on doing.  I’m trying to make the world a better place.  You just want to burn the whole thing down.”

“The point being that you will still inherit an estate.  And your tenants.”  She sat back against the rock wall of the alcove, her face absolutely expressionless.  “Sometimes burning everything down is the best option: clear away the refuse and begin again.”

“Regardless of who or what is destroyed in the process?”

 “I believe there is a saying about omelets and eggs that applies here.”

“You...ugh.”  I threw my hands up in the air.  “I give up.”  I turned.

“Where do you think you’re going?” she said to my back.  “There’s a storm raging outside, in case you forgot.”

“I don’t know,” I replied.  “But away from you.”  And I walked deeper into the cave.

I just needed some space.  To think, to breathe, to get myself together.  Mother had often commented to me that my temper too often got the best of me.  She was right, of course...as she usually was.  Didn’t make me feel any better.

I suppose if I hadn’t been so upset at that particular moment, I’d have noticed the peculiar formation of the tunnel floor right in front of me.

My body lurched forward as my foot broke through the thin crust of deposits which had covered the channel of the underground river.  I plunged into the icy flow, which carried me only a short distance before cascading into a vast open cavern.  My body tumbled as I fell through the spray in the dimly-lit air and into the churning pool below.

Well, one part of my brain observed with cool detachment, I’d found the water at least.

Seconds later, my breath was torn from my lungs as I hit the surface, the sharp cold cutting right through me.  My momentum took me deep, but I flailed and fought my way to the surface again, the larger current having already begun to carry me along in its grip.  I thought I heard my name called, somewhere far above me in the distance, but I couldn’t be sure.  Then I went under once more as an undercurrent grabbed hold.  Spinning in the submerged eddy, my head struck something hard and everything went black.

 

###

 

I floated in an ocean of dark.  Unseen currents of something not water washed against, past, and over me.  My body felt strange and different, as though it were blurred at the edges and the delineation of where I ended and that outside of me began was somehow far less defined. 

I tried to open my eyes and found that I couldn’t.  Or rather, I found that I had no eyes to open, no muscles to obey that command.  I could see varying shades of the darkness, though, and discerned some texture to that which enveloped me.

Am I dead? I asked myself.

That depends, a voice not-in-my-head replied, entirely upon you.

What do you mean? I asked, somehow not at all surprised that I was having a conversation under these circumstances.

We will discuss that shortly, the voice replied.  For the moment, look.

I found that I could focus my attention in a manner that was different from looking with physical eyes and with a bit of concentration, an image coalesced before me.  I was looking down upon a scene and that scene sent an odd sensation through my being or whatever I was at that moment.

There was a massively large cavern, softly lit by the glowing veins of rock.  A vast river flowed gently and an upthrust of cavern floor formed a small island in the midst of that river.  My body lay sprawled on its back, my eyes, blank and unseeing, staring upwards toward the cavern ceiling hidden deep within the shadows.  Leone knelt at my body’s side, her arms wrapped around it, her own body shaking with sobs of grief. 

This other human cares deeply for you.

 Yes, I replied.

A beat passed.  Yet the two of you were angry with one another just a short while ago.  The voice paused, as though confirming something.  I can still taste the lingering heat from your argument.

I love her, I said.  And she loves me.

Humans are inconstant creatures.

Yes, I agreed, we are.  I considered the scene again and turned my attention back to the voice: Why am I still here if I am dead?

The voice didn’t reply immediately.  I watched as Leone carefully brushed the strands of wet hair from my face.  Your subtle bodies have been severed from your material form, that is true.  I have held those bodies here, in proximity to your physical remains, in order to give you a choice.  The scene faded below me, leaving only the swirling blackness.

Why? I asked.

I desire a task to be accomplished, the voice replied.  And you may be a suitable vehicle for that to be done.

What task?

That is not for you to know.  The curt response swept my question aside.  It is sufficient that you would agree to be bound to the material world once more.

I sensed that choice before me now.  Another form of existence lay just over a threshold, a bliss and a being unfettered by material wants and needs, at least for a period of time.  Without the bounds and strictures of material existence.  A place without pain, without fear.

Without Leone.  Resolution firmed in my awareness.

Send me back, I said.  Send me back to my body.

Nothing, for a moment.  I cannot.

But you said--

The voice cut me off.  I cannot send you back to your body, the voice continued.  I have created the possibility that you might return by holding your subtle bodies nearby and allowing you to make the attempt.  But that is all.  There was a pause.  Reach out for your old form.

What do you mean? I asked.

Reach out with your awareness, the voice directed.  Try to feel your material self.

I did as I was told.  There was nothing.  Only the black void that swirled around me.

I can’t, I replied after a time.  I can’t feel anything.

That is because the connection to your material form has been severed.  You cannot return along that pathway.  Another pause.  But another possibility exists.  Because of the link you have with this other human.

Leone?

Yes, the voice responds.  She remains grounded in her material form.  Alive, as you would say.  But her emotional form is yet connected to your emotional form, one of the subtle bodies of which you remain.  That connection may prove to be a bridge by which you may reconnect to the material world.

How?

Reach out once more, the voice said.  But this time reach out to her.

Again, I did as I was directed.  Unlike my previous attempt, I could sense something, like a flame burning in a distant window, far away and feeble, but very much there.  I moved toward that light, that flame.

Good.  Keep going.

I reached out further.  The flame grew stronger.  No longer a small candle, it became a vibrant fire.  I could feel it drawing me closer.

Now, the voice said.  Look nearby.  Find your old form.  Else your will merge with the other flame and lose yourself within her.  That path will end only in madness for you both.

I looked.  Or rather, I felt around.  I was falling closer and closer to Leone’s fire.  The desire to merge with her was becoming stronger, even overwhelming.  As I fell inward, I groped about, desperate.

And there it was.  An empty vessel.

I summoned all the strength I could to divert my path, seeking to pour myself into that empty shell.  I crashed against the side of the vessel, reached upward for its lip, crested over it. 

I felt myself falling, falling....

...into form, into substance....

...into myself.

I coughed.  Water sputtered from my mouth and I coughed again, my lungs burning for air.  My back spasmed and arched.  Another cough spewed more water from my chest and I inhaled greedily.  The dank, wet air of the cavern tasted sweet and delicious.

“Lotte!” I heard a strangled cry from just above me.

I gulped another breath and opened my eyes.  Leone leaned close, her face inches from mine, her eyes wide in disbelief and reddened by her crying.  The fire in my lungs faded and I became aware of another fire burning, lower, in my belly.  It, too had crescendoed and was now dwindling, though still present.  And I felt something else as well, something off to the side of that belly-fire, like a glowing ember carefully harbored and banked for another day.

Her hands cupped my face.  “My God, Lotte,” she sobbed.  “I thought you were dead!”

I had been, I thought to myself.  But I forced my lips into as much of a smile as I could.  “Couldn’t leave,” my voice rasped.  “You need watching.”  I inhaled the wet air again and tried to sit up.  My body rebelled and I flopped back again.  “Help me up,” I said.  “Please.”

“Are you sure…?”  Her voice was hesitant, but I felt her hand slide under my back and when I made a second attempt, she helped guide me to a sitting position on the island of rock.  The dark waters of the underground river flowed past, their current deep and unseen.

She cradled me against her body and I reached my arms around hers.  We sat there in the quiet, in the soft glow of the living rock of the cavern, and simply held one another.

“I could feel you,” she said in little more than a whisper.  “I was so sure you were dead.  Your eyes were blank; you weren’t breathing.”  She paused.  “And then all of a sudden, it was like my body caught fire.”

I reached my hand up and brushed her own wet fire-locks behind one ear.  “All that matters,” I said, “is that we’re both here.”  Our lips touched and I lost myself for a moment in the taste of her mouth, the salt of her tears still on her face.  We broke and rested our foreheads together.

Then the air in the cavern changed.  Leone’s eyes widened and she whispered to me in a low voice: “Something is here with us.”

I looked into her beautiful, impossibly ice-blue eyes and replied as calmly as I could.  “I know.”

My strength was slowly returning and I found myself able to shift my position on the rock.  I turned and looked into the darkness surrounding us.  “Who are you?” I asked in as strong a voice I could manage.

At first, only silence answered me.  Then the air shifted once more.

Your more esoteric sciences, the voice replied, would call me the spirit of this orb.  You already know me by many names.

I could not tell if I was hearing the voice within my head or with my ears.  But the expression on Leone’s face told me that I was not the only audience to these words.

I am that I am.  Elohim Gibbor.  Khamael.  The One Who Burns Worlds.

There was a swirling in the dark air above the water before us, a coalescing of currents into something else.  Into being.

But this form may be familiar to you.

The air swirled and solidified.  A tall, human-like form emerged, its skin red.  Greaves covered its shins, a tunic and breastplate on its torso.  A spear was held in one hand and a shield in the other.  A helm rested on its head, pushed back that its hard face, curiously androgynous, was visible.  An owl perched on one shoulder and a vulture on the other.  A pair of dogs, lean and hungry for the hunt, prowled about its feet.

A task, the voice reminded me.

“Yes,” I replied.

You have consented and so it shall be.  The voice paused, then spoke again.

 

In union twain emerge,

One yet two yet one again.

From path shall path diverge,

Watery soil, fiery wind.

With road shall road converge,

Lock and key, of gods and men.

 

“I don’t understand,” I called out, my voice stronger now.  “What does that mean?”

That is not for you to know.  But understand: a fire must sweep the worlds, a cleansing fire to burn away the old.  Watch and be wary.  The time is at hand.

“A fire?” I heard Leone whisper.

Indeed, that flame has already been lit.  But it is time for you to return to your kind.

“How?” I asked.

Do not concern yourself with such things, the voice responded with what I could only describe as a dark humor.  Sleep.

I felt Leone’s body go limp as a blanket of darkness descended.

 

###

 

The midday sunlight woke us.  I looked around, blinking furiously as my eyes adjusted after having been in the dim light of the caverns for so long.  High canyon walls stretched far above.  The narrow finger of a canyon ended in sheer rock to our right.  To our left, a narrow, winding trail led between the sheer surfaces of rock.

Leone still lay draped over me.  She stirred, waking just as I attempted to sit up again.  “Where are we?” she mumbled, lifting herself off me.

I surveyed our surroundings.  “Near help, I would guess,” I offered.  “Though don’t ask me how we got here.”  I fell silent, then reached up to place a hand against Leone’s cheek.  A heartbeat passed.  She gave a low sigh, closing her eyes and pressing her hand on top of mine.  “How was it you were with me when I...woke?” I asked quietly.  “How did you get into that river?”

She didn’t answer right away.  Her eyes opened after a moment and she looked into mine.  “I dove in after you, of course.”

I could say nothing, but leaned in and kissed her gently.  We sat there in the space of that moment, taking in the beauty of this thing between us.  Then Leone got to her feet, extending a hand to help me up.  “I’m sorry we fought,” she said softly.

“Me, too,” I replied as I stood, my legs still weak.  “It looks like we’ve got relationship issues to work through already.”  I gave a wan smile.  “Must be the real thing.”

Leone shook her head in quiet resignation.  “I do believe I love you, Lotte, but I’m not altogether sure that we won’t kill one another.”  She considered the dead-end canyon and gestured the other direction.  “Well, I guess we’re going this way.”

I nodded.  “So it would seem.”  It felt good to have our banter back.

The canyon was so narrow that we had to proceed single-file.  Leone couldn’t support me, but I was able to brace myself against the canyon walls and we made slow but steady progress.  Eventually, the winding path opened up again and we were able to walk side-by-side, with Leone helping me as before.  It was some time later, after a couple of breaks to rest, that we found ourselves at the junction of an even wider canyon, its length stretching off into both directions.

“Which way?” Leone asked.

I shook my head, as unsure as she was, but just then a young boy walked around the bend to our right, stopping short the instant he saw us.

“Hello there,” I greeted him, giving the most reassuring smile I could manage.  “We’re lost.  Could you help us?”

His eyes went wide and he bolted back out of sight without a word.

“Well,” Leone observed with a wry look.  “It would appear that there are people in that direction.”

“I agree.”  Leone helped me to my feet and we began slowly making our way down along the path, following the direction the boy had taken.  Rounding the bend, we were greeted by only more canyon, though I thought I caught the distant sound of conversation, just at the very edge of my hearing.

We were approaching the next bend in the canyon when the boy returned, a young woman in his wake.  The four of us halted where we were and looked at one another for a long moment.

“You are lost?” the young woman said in careful English.  “Pablo said there were women who were lost in the canyon.”

I nodded.  “We are trying to find our way back home, yes.”

The woman’s eyes narrowed at me.  “I know you,” she said.  “You are the daughter of Mother Esperanza, no?”

I glanced quickly to Leone and then back to the young woman.  “How do you know Mother Esperanza?” I asked.

“She rescued me.  And Pablo here,” she replied.  “And my parents.  I saw you with her when my parents were brought to the settlement.  You are her daughter, yes?”

“Yes,” I responded, more certain of our ground now.  “I am Charlotte Conner, daughter of the one you know as Mother Esperanza.”

Her face broke into a wide grin.  “I am glad!”  She moved toward us, her arms open wide.  “We’d had word that you had been lost.”  She looked to Leone.  “This is your friend?”

I looked to Leone and nodded.  “My very special friend.”  Leone looked away, a surprising color rising to her cheeks.

“My name is Yvette,” the young woman said.  “I am pleased to meet both of you.”  She took each of our hands in turn.  “But we must get you back to the village.  And then get word to your mother that you are safe.”  She turned to the little boy, who’d watched the entire episode without saying a word.  “Pablo,” she directed firmly, “run back to the village and tell Carlos that Mother Esperanza’s daughter and her friend have been found in good health.”  I snorted lightly at that last bit, reflecting on my return-from-death experience.  “Tell him to bring help.  And hurry.  We’ll meet you along the way back.”

Pablo nodded jerkily and scurried off.  “He’s a good boy,” Yvette commented as her eyes followed him as he disappeared around a corner.  “Shy.”  Her gaze returned to us.  “But he’ll summon help, don’t you worry.”  She moved to the other side of me, mirroring Leone, and slid her arm around my waist.  “Let’s get you back to the village.”

The village was not terribly distant--a good thing given our state--but Leone and I would have taken forever to find it on our own.  Yvette led us through the twists and branchings of the canyon with an unspoken confidence and it was only a short while later that the rock walls opened into the wider canyon containing the village.

There was much fussing over us and we were herded unceremoniously to a hut where we were put to bed.  Food arrived a short while later, after the local healer, a village-woman named Gertrude, had looked us over.  The older woman had a deep knowledge of herbs, it seemed, as well as perhaps something else.

“Rest now,” she commanded us.  “Word has been sent.  You need food and sleep.”  Neither Leone nor I were in any position to argue with her.  We drank the cups of tea she prepared for each of us, Leone’s a brilliant yellow with an aroma of citrus, while my tea was a somber red and smelled of cloves.  And as I sipped, I noticed Gertrude looking at me with an odd expression.

Somehow, we had arrived in the village three full days after the incident in orbit.  As we lay there, I went over my memories of events.  At least a whole day seemed to be missing and for the life of me, I could not account for its loss.  Perhaps it was nothing, only the fuzziness of my recollections.  Perhaps.

Leone was up and about later that day, but Gertrude kept a strict eye on both of us.  I was allowed up for briefer periods, but otherwise remained in bed.  Leone often sat with me in a chair set in the aisle between our beds and we talked for hours on end.  My body appreciated the rest, even if my stubbornness rebelled at the restrictions.

On the morning of the second day after our arrival in the village, my parents came as Leone sat in her chair.  I had never seen Mother so emotional as in the moment she saw the two of us.  That is, her eyes glistened brightly and her face twitched as she fought to keep herself under control.  She sat quietly on the far side of my bed.  Pa had no such issues with deportment and his tears flowed freely as he wrapped his arms around me. 

“Sir,” Gertrude admonished him.  “She needs a-healin’ yet.”

Pa acquiesced, chastened, and gave me a relieved grin before he turned to Leone.  “It is good indeed to see the two of you alive and well.”

Leone nodded.  “I must say that it is good to be alive and well.”

“Things have gotten rather lively during your absence,” Mother told us.  “I’ve communicated with your father,” she said to my companion.  “You will be staying with us for a while, it appears.” 

I looked from Mother to Pa.  “What do you mean?  What’s going on?”

Pa’s expression became grim.  “About the time the two of you were ambushed, there was another attack: this one on Prince Edward’s vessel as he was en route to Earth from Mars,” he explained carefully.  “The British government has accused the German Empire of supporting the group involved and has demanded immediate access to suspected Mercurian strongholds.  The Germans, of course, have refused this.”

“But those first attacks occurred in Venusian and Mercurian space!” I replied, astonished.  “The Germans and the Franco-Spanish are allies.”

Pa shook his head.  “But the objects of these assaults have all been British nobles.  The prime minister has made the argument that the first attacks were a false-flag, so to speak, trying to obscure the nature of the operations.”  He glanced between us.  “And that the German and Franco-Spanish navies have been intentionally lax in its pursuit of the culprits.”

“Did the prince survive?” Leone asked.

Pa nodded.  “Fortunately, yes.  The Triumphant had been completely destroyed in a swarming double-envelopment, but the prince was able to make it to his evacuation pod.  He also had the presence of mind to not activate the pod’s beacon until the pirate swarms had dispersed, concealing his craft among the debris.  As a consequence, he was only found much later, after events had already been set in motion.”

My blood chilled.  “What events?”

“The prime minister has declared that if the German government refuses to accede to British demands, ‘severe consequences’--his exact phrase--would result.  The Franco-Spanish Empire has invoked certain clauses of its treaty with the Germans, as have the United States theirs with the British.  The Russians are scrambling to stay out of the middle.”  Pa scowled.  “The worlds, Charlie, stand at the brink of war!”