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.
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.
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?
And this visitor. What the hell was that about?
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.
TO BE CONTINUED IN THE DECEMBER TALES TO ASTOUND