the dance of the red lady
by
david england


First story in a new sequence, The Twilight of Empires.

The great Baroness-spy encourages her daughter to follow in her footsteps...


Part I

Duties of an Heir


“Charlie?” the man’s voice called up from below. Silence.  He continued, his tone firmer now. “Look, I know you’re up there.  We need to talk.”  There was another pause, followed by the light creaking of wide floorboards, and then the voice spoke again, nearer.  “Can I come up?”

Charlotte Hope Conner sighed and closed the slim volume in which she had been reading.  It was a favorite of hers, a collection of essays written by one of the better-known-yet-unknown names of the rebellious political scene, the one who signed himself Meister Shattengartener.  The book itself had been published by one of those fly-by-night underground presses and had been something of a find of hers during the family’s most recent trip to the territorial capital in Barsoom.  Though the authorities expressed extreme displeasure with the ideas of that writer, as well as several others which she read regularly in the papers, no explicit action had been taken, as yet, to invoke outright censorship.

It had been pointless, she realized, to think that she might avoid the task she faced today, however much she desired to do so.  It oughtn’t be this hard, she thought to herself.  I’m eighteen years old; I’m an adult, more or less.  Can’t two adults have a reasonable conversation?  Resting the back of her head against the bales of hay stacked behind her, she drew her knees under her chin, the book now having found a place beside her on the floor of the barn loft amid a scattering of straw.

“Of course, Pa,” she replied to the open air.  “It’s not as though I can tell you or Mother ‘no’ or anything.”  Warm hazel eyes gazed into a distance somewhere beyond the rough-finished boards of the barn wall and she brushed stray strands of hair away from her face.  Dark auburn locks hung just to her shoulders, thick and full.  She wore a loose, buff blouse with lightly billowing sleeves and modestly-cut brown trousers which were tucked into low-topped boots of hardened leather.  Her complexion was soft without being pale, though her features had a determined quality about them, the strong angles of her face moderated by a definite femininity. 

The ladder vibrated slightly as it was climbed.  First one hand appeared, then a second, followed by her father’s head.  Deep brown eyes considered her thoughtfully as he climbed into the loft.  His sharp, youthful features were now rounded with middle age and his mop of dark cinnamon hair, as unruly as ever, revealed sparse strands of grey.

“You know perfectly well that I try to respect your privacy,” Elias Conner pointed out as he settled next to his daughter.  “Particularly as you’ve gotten older.”

“I know that, Pa,” Charlie replied, glancing at her father briefly before resuming her contemplation of the barn wall.  “It’s just…”  She struggled for a moment to find the right words and failed.  “Mother,” she said finally.

“You’ve been at your reading again, I see,” Elias commented, eyeing the book next to her.  “Still following the debates in the press among these shadowy figures and their pseudonymous letters?”

“Yes,” Charlie replied levelly.  “I like to know that somewhere, someone is trying to do something about the problems that plague the worlds.”  She paused pointedly.  “Unlike a certain member of the peerage I might mention.”

“Try to be a bit more understanding,” her father suggested.  “And consider the possibility that there is more to the situation than you are able to see.”

“I see plenty,” Charlie retorted.  “Slavery, Pa.  Let’s not mince words here.  We’re literally a quarter the way through the twentieth century and we’re seeing slavery again.”

“You’re talking about debt-bondage,” her father noted.

“Slavery by another name,” Charlie responded dismissively with a wave of her hand.  “Something about which Mother has done precious little.”

“The system of worlds is a far more complex place than you imagine,” Elias replied, his tone compassionate and considered.  “A mechanism of innumerable gears interlinking with one another.  It is a thing neither easily nor readily altered.”  He held a hand out in an open gesture.  “So you might give your mother some benefit of the doubt.  I realize that the two of you haven’t exactly seen eye-to-eye on a number of issues, particularly in these last few years, but she is still your mother.”  He gave his daughter a disarming, lopsided smile.  “And a baroness, you know.”

Charlie rolled her eyes even as she smirked involuntarily.  If there was a point on which she and her mother could agree, she thought to herself, it was in regard to their shared assessment of her father’s sense of humor.

“How could I ever be allowed to forget the fact that she is the Fifteenth Baroness Botelier,” Charlie observed drily.  “Or that I am destined to be the Sixteenth.”

“There are far worse burdens to bear,” her father reminded her with a gentle nudge.  “You’ve grown up with a fair amount of privilege, Charlie.  Don’t forget that.  There are many in these worlds who would love to have even a fraction of what you receive as a matter of course.”

Her face reddened.  “Yes, Pa,” she responded, somewhat chastened.  She knew of his childhood, of course, and the hardscrabble existence he’d had on the backstreets of the Venusian capital of Aphrodite before the fateful, soggy afternoon that had brought him into contact with a certain British peer.  “I didn’t mean to come off like a spoiled brat.  It’s just…”  She sighed again.  “Mother.”

“Oh, you don’t have to tell me,” Elias replied with a sly wink.  “But then again, I’m only married to the woman.  You, on the other hand, my dear daughter, have the great honor of being her heir.”

Charlie groaned.  “Don’t remind me.”

“Ah, but I must,” her father countered.  “Just as it is my duty to inform you that the Baroness Botelier is waiting on the veranda for her heir to join her for tea, just as said heir had promised she would.”

“Must I?”

“You must,” Elias prompted.  “And remember not to leave your books lying about.  Visitors to the estate might not see things quite the same as you do, you know.”

“Yes, Pa,” she acquiesced.

“Good,” her father replied and waved one hand casually toward the ladder.  “Now your mother is waiting.  Tally-ho, stiff upper lip, and all that whatnot.”

“I love you, Pa,” Charlie commented as she started down from the loft.  “But you can be a real ass sometimes.”

Elias nodded sagely.  “So your mother constantly tells me.”

 

###

 

Charlie stepped through the front door of the main house, having made her way across the open grounds from the secondary barn next to the stables wherein she had vainly sought her refuge.  The afternoon was clear, the sun just past its zenith in the light-orange Martian sky, and she relished the touch of the breeze as she walked to her fate.  Don’t be melodramatic, she chided herself.  It’s only tea.  She smiled wryly.  As if anything were “only” anything when it came to the interaction between her and her mother.

She closed the door behind her and moved through the foyer with a quiet grace, giving a silent nod of greeting to Sara Meade, the no-nonsense head-of-staff who sat at the writing desk in the front parlor.  It was a source of considerable scandal, Charlie knew, that her parents had a woman in that position, much less an attractive woman not half-way through her fourth standard decade, and the gossips of Martian society had generated a dizzying variety of salacious speculation, connecting Sara romantically by turn with first her father, and when that had failed to raise any reaction, with her mother.  More recently, furtive whispers and sly sideways glances in the corners of ballrooms and tea parlors had even mentioned the unmentionable “household of three.”

Charlie shook her head in derision at such obvious nonsense.  Anyone with a halfway-functioning brain and the sense God gave a Mercurian eiseidechse would be able to see that her parents had eyes only for one another--and in her opinion, eyes for one another to a somewhat embarrassing degree at times.  Besides, she knew that Sara had a certain understanding with Tzu Fan, the younger son of the estate’s chief midwife.

The headmistress gave a curt nod in reply and returned to her task of outlining the staff’s schedule for the upcoming week, the woman’s pen scratching across the notepad with brisk motions.  Charlie continued on, passing through the high-ceilinged commons and turning down one of several branching corridors.  She passed by the stout wooden door, presently closed, which led to her parents’ suite and walked the full length of the hall to the gate at its far end.  There she stopped.  Looking through the open design of the wrought-iron, Charlie silently considered the woman who sat at the tea-table at the far end of the enclosed veranda.

Penelope Hillcrest-Conner, Fifteenth Baroness Botelier.  Landed gentry.  Merchant ship-owner.  Adventuress, bringer of justice, wielder of vengeance, breaker of tradition, shatterer of decorum, and source of considerable consternation to all proper Martian society.  The great, unbending woman of iron will.

Her mother.

At first glance, one would not think her to have seen fifty-two standard years.  Her hair, pulled back in a severe bun at her nape, remained jet-black.  Her posture was flawless, even now as she sat for tea, spine ramrod straight and chin level as her emerald gaze contemplated the gardens beyond the veranda’s open double-doors off to Charlie’s left.  A closer examination, however, would spy the slight creases at the corners of eyes and mouth.  And lurking just beneath that barrier of sheer determination lay a subtle world-weariness, as from a long-shouldered burden.

Daily exercise remained a religious observance of the baroness and the toned form of her musculature revealed itself to the more careful observer in precise, fluid movements.  When her parents sparred in the exercise salon, an event Charlie had witnessed on any number of occasions, her mother would take her father for two falls out of three.  (“Ah,” her father had replied when Charlie had brought that fact up during one of their day-long jornju rides over the sands, “but there’s also the sparring that you don’t see.  And I’ll have you know that your mother takes a tumble or two.”  He had then waggled his eyebrows in such an exaggerated manner that Charlie had nearly fallen out of her saddle with laughter.)  Charlie’s own training had been no less rigorous, a task taken on by her mother directly, and the young woman still remembered the bruising lessons that came from a drop of focus.  She held her own more readily these days, giving her mother a solid workout before eventually succumbing to the older woman’s superior skill.

It is only tea, she repeated to herself.  Only a conversation.  She smiled ruefully as she realized that she was stalling.  Charlie inhaled deeply, accepting the futility of further delay, and placed one hand on the latch.  Centering herself, she released the breath slowly.  She set her jaw, straightened her spine, and opened the gate.

“Good afternoon, Mother,” she called out as she crossed the enclosed veranda.  The windows to her right had likewise been thrown open, allowing a pleasant breeze to flow through the space.

“Charlotte,” Penelope turned her head and greeted her daughter with a perfunctory nod.  “Thank you for joining me this afternoon.”

“Of course,” Charlie replied diplomatically as she sat in the companion chair.  “I had promised, after all.”

Her mother gave her one of those annoying half-smiles.  “Your father found you, didn’t he?”

Charlie sighed inwardly and surrendered to the inevitable.  “Yes,” she admitted.

“Very good,” Penelope replied.  “It is far easier to have a constructive conversation when both parties are being forthright.”  She held up a small ceramic pot with a rich ochre coloring.  “Tea?”

“Thank you.”  Charlie watched as the vibrant, violet liquid streamed into her cup in a graceful arc.  The leaf was from their own estate, a hybrid developed from Venusian root-stock her mother had acquired nearly a quarter-century before.  The resulting tea had a mild peppery bite and a subtle aroma which reminded one of cinnamon and nutmeg.

Steam swirled lightly from the cup as Charlie took a careful sip.  She had to admit the tea was quite good.  Bracing herself, she looked squarely into her mother’s emerald eyes.

“You wished to talk?” she inquired.

“Can a mother and daughter not simply have afternoon tea?” Penelope asked casually, gesturing toward the garden beyond the open doors.  “Or enjoy a pleasant conversation by the garden?”

“Mothers and daughters might have tea and conversation,” Charlie countered, her own gaze level.  “The Baroness Botelier and her heir, on the other hand, have conferences.”

“Touché.”  A small smile acknowledged Charlie’s point.  “I had only wished to make the setting as agreeable as possible.”  Her mother set the teapot aside and considered Charlie carefully.  “Charlotte, I know that you and I disagree on some things--”

“Most things.”

“On some things,” Penelope repeated, her tone even.  “However, it is neither necessary nor helpful for us to be perpetually at war with one another.”

“I don’t see us as being at war, Mother,” Charlie replied.  “To my mind, the situation is more of a highly-armed stalemate.”  She took another sip of her tea.  “ With periodic negotiations of great intensity.”

“You have your father’s wit and your mother’s will.”  Penelope shook her head.  “That is a dangerous combination.  Your future partner, whoever that may turn out to be, is going to have quite a challenge.”

Alarm bells clanged in Charlie’s head.  She leaned in, her eyes hard, and brought her teacup down on its saucer more forcefully than she intended.  A small amount of the violet liquid sloshed onto the tablecloth.

“Is that what this is about?” she demanded, fighting to keep her temper under control.  “Is it time for me to be given to some noble stud for breeding?  Bartered away like a chip in family diplomacy?  Or auctioned off to the scion of one of the wealthy merchant houses?”  Her voice trembled as she glared at her mother.  “I’ll not have it.  I will not, I tell you!”

“Calm yourself, Charlotte,”  Penelope replied firmly.  “Is the thought of a life-mate so very unappealing?”

Charlie clenched her jaw.  “I have my reasons,” she muttered.

Her mother’s deep green eyes considered her quietly for a long moment.  “I am sure that you do.”  Another moment passed.  “However,” Penelope stated emphatically, “we will not shout at one another.  Can the two of us not have a civil conversation, at the very least?”

Charlie held her gaze firm.  “Yes,” she allowed.  “I suppose we can.”

“Thank you.”  Her mother took a sip of her tea, then set the cup down deliberately.  “No one has said anything about breeding you, Charlotte.  Consider the woman with whom you are speaking and the marital choice she has made.  Do I look like someone who would conform to the kind of mindset you are describing?”

Charlie felt the flare of anger subside somewhat.  “No,” she admitted.  “But I also know the financial pressures our estate is under, as many of the lesser peerage have been.  I’ve seen the deals which have been struck with the rising merchant houses, the alliances that have been made among the noble families.”  She gave her mother a cutting look.  “I’m not blind to what goes on in the worlds around me, you know.”

“Good,” Penelope nodded approvingly.  “I am quite pleased to know that you are aware of these things--even more so that you have sought that information out for yourself.  A baroness must keep her eyes and ears open.  It is important to have first-hand knowledge of things, and not rely solely on what others tell you.”

“I’ve had to seek out that information for myself,” Charlie argued.  “You haven’t been exactly forthcoming with assistance.”  She gestured with a sweep of her arm.  “All these years, I’ve been groomed as your heir, been told how incredibly important that was.  You’ve had my head stuffed with knowledge by every teacher you could find on every subject imaginable, not to mention several that most have never even heard of.”  She looked at her mother pointedly.  “All theory; no practice.  No engagement with anything that really goes on here at this estate or in the shipping fleet.  I watch what you do, I try to offer my opinions, and you brush me aside.”

A silent beat passed.  “Are you finished?” her mother’s expression was calm, even serene.

“I am not,” Charlie replied forcefully, the fire in her belly beginning to build now.  “I know the family stories.  I know what you’ve accomplished, what you’re capable of.  The undaunted adventuress who unravels interplanetary intrigues, who thwarts the plots of madmen.  The implacable bearer of vengeance who hunts down her father’s assassin and delivers justice by her own hand.”  She fought to keep herself under control.  “And then I watch the worlds around me: vast estates becoming even more vast as the powerful swallow the weak; tenants on those estates loaded with debts they never ought to have had to bear in the first place and selling themselves into serfdom out of desperation; the rise of large merchant houses forcing the independent ship-owners out of business.”

“And?”

Charlie’s eyes flashed.  “And I watch you do nothing.  When the authorities came last week and demanded access to the estate grounds, the house, and the villages, searching for escaped bond-servants, you acquiesced without a word.”

“The Deputy High Sheriff had a writ of the court authorizing the search,” her mother answered calmly.  “They were conducting a sweep of the entire area, not just our estate.  I had no grounds to refuse.  What would you have me do?  I’m a baroness, Charlotte, not a queen.”

Something,” Charlie pressed.  “Object. Speak out.  You’re a peer of the realm.  You have influence in society.”  She gestured agitatedly.  “File a protest in the House of Lords.  Lead rallies.  Do anything other than nothing at all.”

Penelope’s eyes narrowed.  “Very good, Charlotte.  You’ve got half of the equation.  Now let’s work on the other half.”  She lifted a small plate of bakery and held it out toward her daughter.  “Scone?”

Charlie swallowed a retort and clenched her jaw. “Thank you,” she replied evenly, taking one of the proffered biscuits.  She took a small bite, watching her mother warily.

“Strategy and tactics,” Penelope stated as the plate of scones found its way off to one side of the tea table.  “We’ll begin with the first of these.”  Her emerald gaze held Charlie more firmly now.  “What would you say is the most important strategic challenge a leader faces in a conflict?”

Charlie frowned at the non sequitur.  “What does that have to do with anything we’ve been talking about?”

“You just told me how I’ve stuffed your head with theory,” Penelope pointed out, pausing to take another sip of her tea.  “I’m asking you to apply some of that theory.  You’ve studied, among other things, history, philosophy, geography, and military science.  Let us say that you’re in charge.  You are the leader of the resistance and you find yourself confronted by an overwhelming force that opposes you.  What is your most significant strategic challenge in that conflict?”

“Figuring out how to stop that force,” Charlie answered slowly. “Isn’t that the obvious problem to be solved?”

Her mother shook her head.  “The issue is not always about finding the solution to a problem.  Sometimes a solution doesn’t exist.”  She looked at Charlie, her gaze intense.  “The most significant challenge a leader faces--and the most difficult one, I would add--is understanding and accepting which battles can be won and which cannot.”

Charlie said nothing, holding her mother’s gaze for a long moment before allowing her own to slip past the woman across from her and to the estate grounds beyond the window.  Penelope sat quietly, allowing the point to sink in.

“You must understand, Charlotte,” her mother continued, breaking the silence, “that not all battles are winnable.  Knowing when to fight and when to concede is paramount to preserving one’s limited resources and deploying them in the most effective manner.”

Penelope set her teacup on its saucer and leaned back in her chair.  “Now, let us turn to the issue of tactics.  You’ve framed these issues in terms of morality, which I cannot fault.  However, it is also necessary that you not allow that framing to cloud your judgement.”  She made a conciliatory gesture toward Charlie.  “Here’s a suitable scenario for you: you are Robin Hood and the vile Sheriff of Nottingham has taken your friends and companions prisoner.  Tactically, what should your first task be?”

Charlie eyed her mother suspiciously.  “Rescuing my friends, of course.  Stopping the bad guy.  Restoring justice to the land.”

“Tactics,” her mother stressed.  “Immediate tasks.  Your first priority is to stay out of jail yourself.”  Another pause.  “You cannot mount an effective rescue of your friends if you are trapped in prison with them.”

“What is your point?” Charlie challenged.

“My point,” Penelope replied, “is that there are times when direct action is neither the most effective nor the wisest course.  It is necessary, always, to keep the broader context in mind, else one runs the risk of becoming ensnared in a certain myopia, possibly winning battles but potentially losing the war.”

“I can see that broader context, Mother,” Charlie insisted. “As I said before, I’m not blind to what is happening in the worlds around me.”

Her mother shook her head.  “There are far more things in heaven and earth, my dear Charlotte, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  The older woman’s face took on a solemn expression.  “Believe me, there are those of us who have made choices in this life which have had repercussions far beyond ourselves.  And we must bear the burden of those choices.”  She let out a long, slow breath.  “And despite all that you see around you, the evils of which I will not deny, you must understand that of the possible paths these worlds could have taken, this present course is far from the worst.”

“I don’t understand, Mother.”  Charlie’s frustration mingled now with confusion.  “What are you talking about?”

“I will explain later,” Penelope responded, her eyes resuming their intense focus.  She sat forward.  “It is now time to come to the purpose of this conference, as you so pointedly described it, which is to provide you more of that broader context.”  She eyed her daughter knowingly.  “To bring you into the fold, so to speak.  I had wanted to take a more gradual approach, but circumstances are such that my preferences are not going to be a viable option.”

“Have I mentioned that I am thoroughly confused at this point?”

Her mother ignored the remark.  “Her Grace the Duchess of Rougemont will be holding a gala at the King George in Barsoom in two weeks’ time.  It is to be a considerable affair, essentially taking over that hotel for several days.  You will be attending.”

“What does that--” Charlie began.

Penelope cut her off with a sharp gesture.  “You will be attending,” her mother repeated.  “Reservations have been made.  An allowance for travel and expenses will be allotted to you.  You will arrive the day prior to the gala and depart the day following.  Once you’ve recovered sufficiently from the extended evening, of course.”  Her mother’s gaze was firm.  “While you are at the gala, you will be approached by someone.  That someone will convey to you certain information.  You are to receive that information and then relay it to me upon your return home.”

Charlie stared at her mother, open-mouthed.

“You will know your contact by the code-word ‘raven’--that is all I am able to tell you in that regard.”  Penelope gave a mild shrug.  “Normally, this would have been handled through other channels, but as I am bringing you into the picture, there are other parties who wish to have an opportunity to meet you in an open setting so that they might take stock of your capabilities, among other things.  I trust you will not disappoint on that score.”

Charlie finally found her voice, if not her bearings.  “What does anything of this mean, Mother?  Who are these other parties?  What are you even talking about?”

Penelope gave her daughter an assessing look.  “Well, I suppose I ought to give you a bit more information, if only that you might be able to focus properly on the task at hand.”  She paused to take another drink of her tea.  “These other parties of whom I speak have in their possession a limited but nonetheless substantial stockpile of vulcanite crystals.  Crystals, I would point out, which are of a far superior quality in comparison with the dregs being mined and sold on the market today.  The message you will be receiving pertains to the delivery of a shipment of these crystals.  In exchange for periodic shipments like this one, I provide certain services for these other parties gratis.  Quid pro quo, you might say.  It is a very practical relationship.”

“Smugglers?”  Charlie didn’t quite shout, her astonishment expressing itself plainly.  “The noble Baroness Botelier, bearer of truth and justice, the great Iron Lady, consorting with smugglers?”

“Of course not,” Penelope replied, her expression showing a mild disappointment.  “You’ve sat here through this entire conversation; you’ve observed all that has been going on in these worlds around you, and yet you cannot see the desert for the dunes.”  She leaned toward Charlie.  “How do you think it is that our estate has survived the onslaught of those forces you’ve been describing?  How have our tenants remained free, if poor, while those of other, more powerful estates have been pressed into debt-bondage?  How has our small merchant operation retained its independence while others have been swallowed by the rising merchant houses?”  She sat back, her gaze steady.  “We are not consorting with smugglers, my dear Charlotte. We are smugglers.”

Part II

Raven

“I’m still trying to decide if I’m ever going to speak to you again,” Charlie told her father pointedly.  Elias leaned casually against one side of the doorway of the salon where Charlie had spent the previous two hours playing dressmaker’s dummy for the seamstress commissioned to make her gown for upcoming gala and who had only just now departed.  It said something of her mother’s efficiency, Charlie considered with reluctant admiration, that she had arranged the appointment for that very afternoon, following their tea, some days prior.

After measuring Charlie along every axis and circumference imaginable--multiple times, Charlie recalled sourly--the brisk tradeswoman had spent an interminable amount of time holding various swatches of cloth against Charlie’s cheek or arm, finally settling on a rich green which she insisted would complement Charlie’s hazel eyes.  A first, rough fitting would occur four days hence, with a second fitting to follow two days later.  This would allow sufficient time for a third fitting, final adjustments, and delivery of her gown prior to Charlie’s departure for Barsoom.

“I see that you and your mother have finally had The Talk,” her father replied with a slow shake of his head.  “Why don’t we go for a stroll and you can vent your spleen at me out in the serenity of nature.”

Charlie considered her father silently for a moment, her eyes narrowed, then gave a curt nod before brushing brusquely past him.  Without looking back to see if he was following, she moved down the hall, through the foyer, and out the front door.  There she waited, her eyes finding the low hills that lay to the north of the estate house as she sought to reorient her understanding of the worlds about her.

Elias joined her several minutes later, closing the front door behind him as he exited.  “If you are still that undecided,” he commented with a wry grin, “I can do the talking for a while.”  He glanced back toward the door.  “I certainly remember what it is like to stand for hours with a seamstress poking and prodding about.  Ask me about Mrs. Southwaite sometime.”  He gave a small shudder, then followed her gaze toward the line of hills.  “Excellent notion.  Let’s meander thataway.”

Charlie gave a silent nod of agreement and the two of them walked along a curving pathway that led toward the stables and barns, but turned off that path part way along its course and began moving across the estate grounds in a generally northward direction.  They walked quietly for a short time.

“Why?” Charlies asked, breaking her silence.

“Decided in my favor already?” her father quipped.  “I am incredibly relieved.  The future years were looking bleak indeed with the prospect of my sole offspring shunning me forevermore.”

“Pa…” Charlie warned.  “I’m being serious.  We’ve always been able to talk to one another.  Why haven’t you told me about any of this before?”

“Not my place,” Elias replied with a sharp shake of his head.  “You have to understand, my dear daughter, how unusual my position is in this situation.  I am your father and I am your mother’s husband.  I am also her companion, her confidant, her chief advisor and her lover.  But she is the baroness and you are her heir.  I have no status in that dynamic.”  He looked over to Charlie as they walked.  “I have offered, and continue to offer, my thoughts and opinions on these matters, but ultimately these issues are between the two of you alone.  All of that said, I find myself glad that this initial discussion has finally occurred.  I was of the mind that you ought to have been brought into the mix of things earlier, but your mother wanted to make sure that you’d been provided the educational foundation necessary for the title and position you will one day inherit prior to you potentially becoming distracted by more operational concerns.”  He shrugged.  “As it is, events are forcing her hand, which is why you’ve been tossed into the deep end of the pool as you have.”

“What events?”

“I can’t give you all of the information you are wanting right now,” her father responded.  “Some is for your mother to tell you.  And some is for you to find out on your own.  It is important for you to assess some things for yourself and not rely on the opinions of others.” 

“So Mother has told me,” Charlie commented drily.

“She is an insightful woman, your mother,” Elias replied.  “She is also a very practical, willful, and hard-nosed woman whom I love deeply.”

“I love her, too, Pa,” Charlie said.  “It’s just that our relationship is…”  She trailed off.

“Tense?  Frustrating?  Thorny?”

“Complicated.”

Elias nodded.  “Yes, I can see how very true that is.”  His expression grew thoughtful.  “You know, Charlie, when your mother first told me that she was pregnant with you, she asked if I was hoping for a boy or a girl.”

“What did you tell her?” Charlie asked, curious.

“I told her ‘girl’,” her father replied.  “So that she might have an heir who was just like her.”

“I’m nothing at all like Mother,” Charlie responded forcefully.

“Ha!”  Elias barked a curt laugh, smiling at his daughter’s glare.  “You have no idea how alike the two of you are.”  He shook his head.  “No idea at all.”

Charlie didn’t speak for several minutes, the pair continuing their rambling walk toward the low hills.  “So what can you tell me?” she asked after a time.  “Do you and Mother actually run a smuggling operation?”

“More or less,” her father affirmed.

“For how long?”

“Years now,” Elias responded.  “Fifteen or so.  It was only a few jobs here and there at first.  We dove in more deeply after the Captain passed on from these worlds and we sold off the Remembrance.”

Charlie nodded to herself thoughtfully.  She had only dim memories of Captain James O’Rourke, a gruff-looking man with a hearty laugh whom she had mistaken for Father Christmas the first time she’d met him.  She had only been five when he had died peacefully in his sleep one night while visiting at the estate.

“Things had already begun to change then,” Elias explained, “though the changes were very subtle at first.  The more powerful families had begun to consolidate their power.  The larger merchant houses were doing the same.  It was the acceleration of the decline in vulcanite crystal quality which proved the true catalyst, as shipping costs were raised across the board and shipping times lengthened.  For any merchants attempting to compete on speed and distance, volume drove everything.  Your mother decided to take an alternative approach.”

Charlie found herself quite intrigued now.  “And what approach was that?”

“From the composition of our fleet,” her father countered, “you ought to be able to answer that yourself.”

“Well,” Charlie replied, “we certainly don’t have the kind of large cargo-carriers owned by the major merchant houses, I do know that much.  Our fleet is entirely comprised of smaller vessels.”

Elias nodded.  “She saw the immensity of the economic forces arrayed against our house and understood that we would be crushed in a direct confrontation.  So she chose not to compete in that same arena, instead carving out a specialty niche of small-load, short-run services.”

“Strategy and tactics,” Charlie said quietly.

“What was that?” her father asked.

“Nothing,” she replied.  “Just something Mother was trying to tell me earlier when we were at tea.  About knowing which battles are winnable and which are not”

Elias eyed his daughter carefully.  “You mother is an excellent strategist.”

“So this avoidance of battle,” Charlie observed, “is what has allowed us to survive where others in similar circumstances have not?”

“Partially,” her father affirmed.  “When we sold off the Remembrance, we opted to invest the proceeds in the maintenance of this fleet of many smaller vessels rather than fewer large ones.  By doing so, we were able to operate much more nimbly within the markets we’d identified and provide a somewhat superior value proposition to that of the major merchant houses.”  He cast another knowing look.  “But those numbers also helped in quietly building our other business, the one which has truly enabled us to survive.”

“Smuggling.”

“Or,” Elias replied, “as I like to call it, a specialized courier service for a select clientele.  Think about it, Charlie: all of those ships, all of those short routes, our vessels buzzing here and there.  Our legitimate shipping providing ample cover, allowing us to hide within those expense records the revenues from those other operations.  A signal buried within a fair amount of noise.”

“You agreed with that move?” she asked.

“I suggested it, in fact,” her father pointed out.  “I’m the one who proposed reconnecting with that certain group we’d encountered those years before.  Our first jobs were done for them.  And in the time since, we’ve cultivated a fairly solid relationship.”

“The group with the crystals,” Charlie observed.  “The people I’m supposed to be meeting.”

“Yes,” Elias agreed.

“Who are they?”

“Allies,” her father replied.  “Of a sort.”  He gave a small shrug.  “Like most things in the real world, practical action requires a fair amount of compromise.  We have certain common goals--both in the near term, as well as over the longer term--so our cooperation makes a considerable amount of sense.”

Elias fell silent.  “You’re not going to tell me anything else?,” Charlie asked directly.

“No,” her father responded.  “Your mother believes--and I agree with her on this, by the way--that it is best if you go into this meeting with as blank a slate a possible.  Form your own opinions and assessments from your own observations.  We don’t want your perceptions clouded by preconceived notions.”

“I’ve already formed some opinions on the matter, preconceived or not,” Charlie replied tartly.

Elias shrugged her comment off.  “To some extent, that cannot be helped.  You had to be given some prior information in order for you to complete the task you are being given and it is inevitable that you would form assessments from that information.  All that I’m suggesting is that you keep as open a mind as possible and observe events impartially as they unfold.”

Charlie looked at her father suspiciously.  “You’re smiling in that way of yours, Pa.  What else is there that you’re not telling me?”

“There is a great deal that I’m not telling you,” Elias replied.  His grin broadened.  “But what I’m thinking about is how very much I wish I were able to be going along with you, even if only to observe.”

“What do you mean?”

 “Knowing what I know, knowing you as I do, and knowing something of the others who are involved…”  He paused.  “Let us just say that I think your experience at the gala is going to be an interesting one.”

 

###

 

A week passed.  Charlie suffered through the sequence of fittings with as much grace as she was able to muster.  This was hardly the first gala she’d attended--she and her family were regulars at the Royal Christmas Ball held by the Viceroy every year--but this would be the first time she’d be attending such a significant social event on her own and, of course, the nature of the engagement necessitated a new gown, as her stock of such apparel was rather limited.  She much preferred, in emulation of her mother’s more functional day-dress about the estate, the vastly more practical loose-fitting trousers which were becoming somewhat more acceptable for women, at least of the lower social classes.

Then there had been the matter of her hair.  Jewelry wasn’t an issue--Charlie had a few pieces of her own, although her mother had insisted on providing from her own collection for Charlie’s use on this occasion--but she had never been overly fond of intricate hairstyles.  For the annual Christmas events, her mother had always done Charlie’s hair up in some manner more appropriate for the occasion than her usual loose, unfettered style.  This time, of course, there was going to be no one there to help her, so she and the young chambermaid, Amber, had spent several hours one afternoon coming up with a simple-yet-elegant styling which Charlie would be able to replicate on her own later.

She had to admit, Charlie thought as she observed her reflection in the standing mirror, that the gown suited her very well, balancing on that fine line between grace and daring.  It displayed a dramatic asymmetry, with a full-length sleeve for her right arm but cutting just over her left breast and under her left arm, leaving the entire left shoulder and arm bare.  The bodice was close-cut without being too form-fitting and flowed seamlessly into a similarly-asymmetrical skirt that slashed from just above her right knee downward to her left ankle.  In spite of her general preferences for less-impractical clothing, Charlie found that she rather liked it.

She would be departing late the next morning.  As little as a decade ago, her father had observed while helping her pack for the journey, this trip would have consumed a bit more than a half-day’s time and would have consisted of a short ferry-ride along the local canal to the aeroport at Monmouth and from there by airship to Barsoom.  Instead, she would be travelling entirely by canal ferry for the next two days. It was the drastic reduction of quality in augmentative capability of the crystals being mined on Vulcan that had not only driven the consolidation of the merchant houses, but had also increased the costs of shipping and therefore the prices of all imported commodities.  As the energy-dense fuel which powered the internal combustion turbines of the airships was found only on Earth, and thus had to be exported to Venus and Mars for use there, air-travel on those planets had increasingly become limited to government functions and use by the exceedingly wealthy.  Their family, barony or no barony, did not fall into that latter category.

The first leg of her journey would essentially be identical to the one which she would have taken those many years ago, a day-ferry down the local canal to the junction port of Monmouth.  However, instead of connecting with the aeroport there, she would board the overnight ferry which would travel down the major tributary canal to its junction with the Grand Canal and from there on to the capital of Barsoom.  After she had disembarked, a cab would take her to the King George. 

Her departure felt odd.  The three of them stood at the end of the estate’s canal dock while the day-ferry’s crew loaded her luggage onto the craft.  Her father stood slightly aside, grinning in that lopsided manner of his as he wished her a safe journey.  “Enjoy yourself, too,” he added.  “All work and no play--”

Her mother shushed him and stepped toward Charlie, embracing her in a firm hug.  As Penelope pulled back, Charlie noted an uncharacteristic shimmer in her mother’s eyes.  “Remember to keep your eyes and ears open, Charlotte,” she said.  “We’ll be waiting here for you when you return.”  And with that parting, Charlie stepped onto the ferry and waved to her parents as the boat pulled away from the dock, slipping seamlessly into the traffic lanes of the canal.

The journey itself proved pleasant enough, though her mind churned endlessly the entire time and she found she had to focus in order to break free from the questions which circled in her brain.  Her very modest stateroom aboard the overnight ferry she caught at Monmouth was comfortable, if compact, and she tried to relax her mind by observing the passing scenery from the common veranda at the stern.  The vessel had docked for several hours at Jamesport, where the tributary canal joined the Grand Canal.  Passengers disembarked.  Freight was unloaded.  Other passengers came aboard and new freight was taken on.  She watched the activity with some passing interest, noting that she had been the only passenger continuing to Barsoom from Monmouth.

The ferry docked at the territorial capital just before noon the day prior to the gala.  There were any number of cabs waiting about the terminal, so securing the services of one to convey her and her luggage to the King George was a matter of little difficulty.  She made her way into the impressive hotel lobby, a small bag in hand, with a porter carrying her larger luggage following just behind.

As the clerk at the long front desk found her reservation information, she heard a young woman’s voice a short distance to her right.

“I cannot understand, Mother, how they can allow just anyone to stay here.”  A second voice giggled lightly before being shushed and the first voice continued.  “Is there no standard of decorum?”

“Now, Clarice,” an older woman’s voice replied.  “It is unseemly to comment on such things in public.  Propriety, my dear.  Don’t descend to that level.”

Charlotte’s face flushed as she realized that she was the subject of that conversation, no doubt due to the traveling clothes she’d selected.  A light tweed jacket, tan blouse, and loose buff trousers seemed far more practical than yet another dress.  She swallowed a retort, however, and moved away from the desk as the clerk handed her key, turning to her left as she did so in order to keep her back to the speakers. 

Reaching the refuge of her small suite on the fourth floor, and tipping the porter for his assistance, she decided to lay her gown out for the next day.  That task completed, she considered her options.  It was still some time before dinner and while she was fairly satisfied yet from the late brunch she’d taken on the overnight ferry before docking at Barsoom, a light tea seemed like a good idea.

The cafe across the way from the hotel appeared to be as good a selection as any and Charlie decided to take advantage of the dining terrace to enjoy the pleasant atmosphere of the early afternoon.  A cup of tea sat on the bistro table before her--good, but of notably inferior quality in comparison to her family’s leaf--and she had a copy of the Barsoom Times open to the letters section, which included the most recent offerings of both Meister Shattengartener and another of her favorites, one who called himself Ignis Deorum.

Movement nearby caused her to look up from her reading and she observed a trio of women brushing past her table with a decidedly disdainful air.  The Countess Ridgemoor, Charlie realized, placing the voices from the encounter in the lobby, and her two daughters, Clarice and Cassandra.  The countess pointedly ignored Charlie as the group swept past, but her daughters were less well-versed in the nuances of social snubbing.  Clarice, the elder of the pair at seventeen, allowed her eyes to slide sideways toward Charlie before regaining her poised indifference.  Cassandra, only fourteen years standard, looked directly at Charlie and simply smirked.  But then the group was past, their noses haughtily elevated as they were seated at a larger table further along the terrace.

It is a good thing we’re on Mars and not Venus, Charlie thought to herself ruefully, or the three of them would be in danger of drowning in the rain.

“I can’t believe you’re reading that rubbish.”

Charlie blinked as her attention snapped to the young woman who had just plopped herself into the other chair at her table.  She was young, Charlie’s age or perhaps a bit younger.  Waves of hair the color of bright flame spilled out from one side of the cloche-form hat that was the popular style these days and ice-blue eyes considered Charlie with a disconcerting frankness.  A pale complexion contrasted with the russet tones of her clothing and she was, Charlie considered after a moment, dressed as one with far more money than taste, an occurrence not uncommon among the upwardly-mobile.  The young woman’s casual poise and mannerisms contrasted with the focused air which seemed to hover about her.  For some reason, though she could not say why, Charlie felt an odd sensation in her belly. 

“Excuse me?” she replied, still rather taken aback by the blatant intrusion into her personal space.

“Those letters-to-the-editor you’re reading,” the young woman explained, gesturing blithely to the newspaper in Charlie’s hands.  “Bleeding-heart nonsense, all that.”

“Do we know one another?” Charlie inquired as politely as she could manage.

“I’m Leone,” the other woman replied, drawing out the second syllable as if she owned it.  “Leone Brownstone.  My father is a very important merchant, you know.”

Charlie did not know, as a matter of fact, but Leone’s statement did clarify the situation.  The rising fortunes of some of the merchant houses had produced a fair number of nouveau riche and this rather unwanted companion at her table fit the description of new-rich spoiled brat hand-in-glove.

She decided to make the best of the encounter, however, as creating a scene would serve little purpose.  Putting on a diplomatic face, Charlie nodded .  “It is very good to meet you, Leone.  I’m--”

“Oh, I know who you are, Lotte,” Leone cut her off with a dismissive wave of one hand.  “Everyone knows who your mother is, you know.”  The red-haired woman leaned toward Charlie, her eyes glinting mischievously.  “Absolutely raging that she married the help.  Is it really true that she and your father get it on with the housekeeper?”

  Charlie clenched her jaw and stuffed a flaring anger back down.  “My name,” she said evenly, “is Charlotte.”  She looked squarely into the other woman’s blue eyes.  “And my parents’ private affairs are no business of yours.  Nor that of any of the gossips, for that matter.”

“Don’t be mad, Lotte,” Leone responded as she settled back into her seat again.  “I wouldn’t think poorly of them if it were true, you know.  But what a raging idea.  Puts all the snooty-snobs into such a tizzy.”

A sudden burst of laughter erupted from another table and was quickly stifled.  Charlie glanced to her right.  Further down the terrace, the countess and her daughters had been joined by another mother-daughter pair.  The amusement must have had something to do with her or Leone, as both Clarice and Cassandra cast looks her way as they daintily covered smirks with gloved fingers.

Leone followed the line of Charlie’s gaze.  “Pay them no mind, Lotte,” the young woman admonished, her voice suddenly harsh.  “A fair bunch of hypocrites, the lot of them.”

“I’m sorry?”  Charlie turned back to the young woman, intrigued by the unexpected vehemence in her tone.  “What do you mean by that?”

Leone lowered her voice conspiratorially.  “Ridgemoor, from what I hear, is in hock up to his eyeballs and so his two daughters there are being put up on the auction block, as it were, for eligible sons of the monied merchant houses.  The good Countess Clairemont and her daughter,” Leone indicated the remaining two women at the other table with a slight nod, “are in no less of a bind, being in possession of breeding and bloodline, but precious little else.”  She sat up straight and gave a disdainful toss of her head.  “Old blood gone far too thin, if you ask me.”

Charlie smiled tightly.  “My family’s title goes back to the Battle of Bosworth Field,” she stated with careful emphasis.  “If old bloodlines are so contemptuous, then why are you sitting here talking with me?”

“My dear Lotte,” her unwelcome companion replied coyly.  “Your family is completely different.  The stories are absolutely raging, I tell you.  An ancestor who thought he was Xerxes the Great reborn?  A grandfather assassinated by an American spy?  Oh, and your mother. Just the stories about your mother alone…  Why, when I heard you were to be attending the ball, I decided that I just simply had to meet you.”

“I’m afraid,” Charlie responded levelly, “you’ll find that I am nothing at all like my mother.”

“That would be such a shame,” Leone said, glancing down at a slim wristwatch.  “Oh, dear.  I’m afraid that I must be getting along or else Father will be sending his henchmen out to hunt me down.  Must protect the family jewels, you know.”  She stood and smiled down at Charlie, who fought to keep a surging annoyance from showing.  “Until tomorrow then.  Do look for me at the ball.”  With that final remark, and much to Charlie’s relief, the young woman swished away as quickly as she’d come.

 

###

 

Charlie rose late the following morning.  After breaking her fast with a decent brunch taken in her suite and rejuvenating herself with several cups of rich coffee, she proceeded to prepare for the long day ahead of her.  With a certain deliberate care, she took her time, all too aware of the fact that she was the sole representative of the family at this event.  And of her mother.

The revelations of the past two weeks had most definitely shifted her perspective of that woman who had birthed her, but shifted to what, she could not say.  Certainly, an edge had been taken off the image Charlie had constructed over the years.  And the realization that her parents had been operating a clandestine smuggling operation for well over a decade had up-ended her understanding of things.

And now she was here, on a covert operation of her own.  Like the plot of some cheap pulp thriller.

She checked herself in the vanity mirror one more time, examining the hairstyle she and Amber had settled on.  It looked reasonably akin to what it was supposed to, Charlie decided, and she stood, stepping over to the standing mirror in the corner of the bedroom.  Nodding to herself, she gathered her shawl, draped it over her arms appropriately, and left the small suite.

The gala had taken over the entire second floor of the King George, with its impressive main ballroom, orchestra loft, and multitude of adjoining side chambers.  She descended the sweeping spiral staircase, gracefully entering into the flow of others beginning to make their way to the event.

The string quartet--a cello, two violas, and a violin--had already begun playing for atmosphere, though the dances were not to begin for some hours yet.  Charlie descended the short flight of steps from the wide hallway into the ballroom suite, moved to one side as she reached the ballroom floor, and cast her eyes about to assess her surroundings.

Eyes and ears open, her mother had said.  Raven.

But who could this Raven be, she wondered.  Charlie frowned, then remembered where she was and smoothed her features into a mask of mild amusement.

One of the gentry?  Another member of the nobility, like her mother, secretly operating in the shadows?  She thought it unlikely.  Although, given her mother, possible.

One of the merchant houses, perhaps?  Certainly, they would have the means to acquire the crystals her parents had mentioned.  But then why would a merchant house aid a smuggling operation?  No, she shook her head ever so slightly, that made even less sense than her first idea.

Some other organization, then.  An underground organization, quite likely illegal.  She nodded now.  That made much more sense.  But why a meeting place like this?  Her mother had said the gala had been the choice of the others involved.  Why?  And how would they choose to make themselves known to her?

A member of the hotel staff passed by, a carefully-balanced tray laden with drinks seeming to float on the man’s hand.  Charlie’s eyes narrowed as a notion seized her brain.  The servants.  Of course, she thought.  An event of this size would be teeming with servants, from the hotel staff to the personal servants the upper nobles might have brought along.  All of them ghost-like presences among the wealthy and the powerful socializing this evening.  It would be a simple trick, she realized, for one more servant to slip into the gathering, deliver a clandestine message, and slip away again.

Someone will approach you, her mother had said, which suggested that her counterpart knew her appearance.  She merely had to give her contact sufficient opportunity.  Charlie’s lips formed a thin line.  This was starting to make a bit more sense.

The ballroom was filling up now, so Charlie made her way to one of the less crowded side-chambers, thinking this would make her more accessible.  Keeping her expression appropriately light, she kept an eye out as casually as she could for any servants in her vicinity, but none seemed particularly interested in her or headed in her direction.  Okay, she thought to herself, I can wait.

Some time passed.  Charlie moved about the sequence of side chambers casually, finally ending up next to one of the open balconies overlooking the dusk-enshrouded streetscape below.  A murmur rippled through the crowd, echoing from the ballroom, and the music stilled.  Three rhythmic strikes of something heavy hitting the marble floor sounded and a strong, firm voice, the speaker not visible from Charlie’s position, called out from what she estimated to be the main entrance.

“His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales!”

More murmuring.  Through the open doorways, Charlie could now see a lean figure in the distinctive uniform of the Royal Navy making his way through the crowd, the other guests bowing and curtsying as he passed.  The tall prince gestured toward the musicians in the loft and the ensemble struck up again.

“I didn’t realize Prince Edward was to be attending the gala,” a woman behind her commented quietly.

“Of course,” the woman’s male companion replied.  “His Majesty the King feels it necessary to show the flag, as it were, in the wake of these incidents.  Redgrove, particularly.”

“Ghastly business, that,” the woman responded, shuddering.

Charlie grimaced involuntarily.  Some months ago, the Earl Redgrove and his entire family had been slaughtered by a mob of the bond-servants.  By all accounts, the earl was a notably unscrupulous liege-lord who exploited his bond-tenants ruthlessly.  Moreover, he had exhibited a particular regard for the young daughters of his tenant families and had them brought to his chambers for “special duties” with regularity.  The revolt had been brutally suppressed by the Territorial Guard, the public trials and executions of the ringleaders filling the news for weeks thereafter.

“Hanging was too good for the lot of them, I say,” the man continued.  “Better to have made an example by drawing and quartering.”  He gave a disdainful grunt.  “But regardless, the prince is here to show that the King’s Peace will be preserved.”

Peace for whom, Charlie thought sourly.  Certainly not for the peasant-girls the earl had been raping.

There you are.”  An unfortunately-familiar voice cut through the hum of conversation to reach Charlie’s ears.  She looked sharply to her left and saw Leone making her way through the clusters of people.  Well, shit.

“My dear Lotte,” the young woman greeted Charlie lightly as she neared.  Her gown was diaphanous and billowy, an off-white sleeveless affair with russet undertones that somehow complemented rather than detracted from her pale skin.  The long flame-red hair Charlie had spied at their previous encounter was piled atop her head, except for a single ringlet which hung just in front of each ear.  It was, Charlie thought, an elegant-looking ensemble.  “I’ve been looking for you absolutely everywhere.  Did you see the prince?  Absolutely raging, isn’t it?”

The odd sensation in Charlie’s belly returned with a vengeance.  There was something about the fire and ice in the other woman, she decided.  Something more than Leone’s hair and eyes.  Charlie frowned inwardly as she sought to pinpoint the source and found that she could not.

“Good evening, Leone,” she replied, allowing her tone to convey her lack of enthusiasm.

“Don’t be like that, Lotte,” her erstwhile companion responded playfully.  She touched the curling strand of flame-red hair in front of her right ear.  “We are rather like birds of a feather, you and I.”  Those eyes considered Charlie slyly, seductively.  “And as the old saying goes: corvus oculum corvi non eruit.”  A raven does not pick out the eye of another raven.

Charlie’s eyes flew open wide in that moment of comprehension before she recovered and replaced her shock with that mask of mild bemusement.  Affecting a nonchalance which belied the rapid beating of her heart, she inquired casually.  “Corvus inter cygni?”  A raven among swans?

Leone laughed.  “You’re a quick study, Lotte.  I’ll give you that much.”  She tilted her head slightly.  “One is thought to be more elegant, but which is the more intelligent of the two?”  An inviting fire flashed in those oceans of ice-blue.  “Personally, I find that intelligence has its own beauty.”

“I cannot say that I disagree,” Charlie replied.

A babble of conversation sounded in her awareness, growing louder as someone approached from her left.  A man’s voice was saying “...I don’t give a damn, Chesterton.  I want to talk with them and I’m going to do that.”

Charlie turned to face the two men who had stopped just at the edge of the bubble of space around her and Leone, and dropped immediately into a curtsy.

“Your Royal Highness,” she said, noting out of the corner of her eye Leone’s mirroring movement.

Prince Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David of the House Saxe-Coburg and Gotha cut a truly dashing figure in his black naval uniform, the epaulettes on his shoulders bearing the crown, twin stars and foul anchor denoting the rank of commodore.   Charlie could see how his reported popularity among the ladies might be deserved.  His blue eyes were lively, his features well-formed and handsome.  Still single, the heir to the British throne had a rather notorious reputation as a playboy, Charlie recalled, much to the disapproval of his father, His Majesty George V.

“Ladies,” the prince nodded pleasantly, his smile easy.

“Sir,” the prince’s companion prodded.  Like Prince Edward, the second man also wore a naval uniform, though while his epaulettes similarly bore the crown and foul anchor, they lacked the two stars.  Visibly older than the prince’s thirty-one years, his expression seemed permanently set in a frown and Charlie wondered if the man had ever had occasion to smile in his life.

The prince didn’t quite roll his eyes.  “Very well, if you insist.”  He addressed Charlie and Leone.  “Ladies, please pardon Commander Chesterton here.  He has been assigned as my handler this evening to ensure that I don’t offend the bounds of propriety.”

Chesterton cleared his throat and looked at Charlie. She could sense the man flipping through mental files to locate her dossier.  “Sir, please allow me to present The Honourable Charlotte Conner, daughter and heir of Baroness Botelier.”

Prince Edward’s eyebrows rose and his eyes twinkled mischievously.  “Heir, you say?  Fascinating.”

Chesterton turned to Leone and paused, frowning.

“Leone Brownstone, your Royal Highness,” Leone offered politely.  “A mere merchant’s daughter.”

Charlie saw Chesterton’s frown deepen.  She reached out and placed a hand on Leone’s arm.  “My good friend.”

“Excellent!” the prince’s smile broadened.  “Now we have all been properly introduced to one another.  If I may intrude upon your conversation for a few moments this evening, ladies, I am on a most pressing mission.”  He leaned in conspiratorially.  “I have been ordered, most firmly, by His Majesty to find myself a wife.  And so I am conducting interviews of eligible ladies of the Empire for the position of princess and future queen.”  He grinned devilishly.  “What say you?”

Charlie gave a light smile, mimicking the prince’s casual air.  “I am most flattered, sir.  I must, however, decline with regrets.  I feel that my mother would not approve.”

Chesterton scowled.  A look of astonishment washed over the prince’s face.  Then he began laughing and clapped his dour companion on the back.  “By God, Chesterton!  Did you hear that?  Her mother wouldn’t approve!”  He chuckled again.  “Thank you, Miss Conner, for brightening my evening.  I will not impose on your good graces any longer.”  He gave Charlie a wink and turned away, still shaking his head.  “Her mother wouldn’t approve…”  Chesterton cast one more frowning glance at the two women before following the prince as he made his way toward another knot of nobles.

“I must not tarry long,” Leone said softly, “else dear Father will worry so.”  She looked Charlie directly in eyes now.  “Please convey my best wishes to your charming mother and tell her that the red lady awaits Saint Edmund’s Day by the rock on the far side of fear.”

“I will do that,” Charlie nodded.

“Excellent,” Leone replied.  She smiled again and took Charlie’s hands into her own.  “I have rather enjoyed our encounter here, Lotte.”  She leaned in close, her lips by Charlie’s ear.  “I do hope that we can dance again soon.”

Then she turned away, melting into the sea of gowns and tuxedos, disappearing from Charlie’s sight.

 

###

 

“You did well, Charlotte,” her mother said approvingly.  “Very well indeed.”

The three of them--Charlie, Elias, and Penelope--were seated on the garden terrace in the back of the main house around a stone table hewn from the ochre sandstone native to the estate.  The remains of their light luncheon had been removed and a beverage of choice sat on the table before each of them: a cup of the family tea for Charlie; a light, refreshing ale for her father; and a rich, full-bodied stout for her mother.

Her return trip from Barsoom had been largely uneventful, the anticipation of the gala now replaced by curiosity of what was to follow and a perplexity regarding the odd message she was to convey.  Not to mention that other thing. 

“Could you tell me what the message means, at least?”  Charlie looked at her mother.  “I’ve been puzzling over it for two days now.”

“Repeat it again for me,” Penelope replied.  “And we’ll see if we can’t help you decipher it properly.”

“Leone said, ‘Tell your mother that the red lady awaits Saint Edmund’s Day by the rock on the far side of fear.’  I have no idea what that means.”

“Step back from the words a bit,” her father suggested.  “And look at each part.  Can you extract nothing at all?”

“Well,” Charlie replied slowly, “Saint Edmund’s Day is the twentieth of November, so I’m assuming that’s the date of the rendezvous.”  She shook her head.  “But for the rest of it, no.”

“The rock on the far side of fear,” Elias explained, “refers to Roche Crater, which is located on the space-side of the moon Phobos.”

“Okay,” Charlie acquiesced with an embarrassed shrug.  “I ought to have figured out that last part, at least.”  She glanced to her mother.  “What about the red lady thing?”

“The name of the ship,” Penelope replied, her tone suddenly curt.

“Leone has her own ship?” Charlie asked, astonished.  “She can’t be any older than I am.”

“She’s a year younger than you, in fact,” Elias said, his eyes sliding toward his wife.  “The ship is actually named for her mother.”

Charlie looked back and forth between her parents, her puzzlement growing.  “Am I missing something here?”

“No,” her mother replied flatly.

Elias cleared his throat.  “The relationship between Sibyl and your mother is...complex.”  He winked at Charlie.  “But you wouldn’t have any experience with that, of course.”

Penelope arched one eyebrow, looked at her husband, and said nothing.

“So…” her father continued, his expression suddenly sly and puckish.  “Speaking of complex relationships, what was your impression of your counterpart?”

Alarm bells rang once more in Charlie’s head, but they were more distant now.  Her eyes widened, however, at the question.  “Um...interesting?  Fascinated annoyance?  Unsettlingly intrigued?”  She looked hard at her father, her eyes narrowing in sudden suspicion.  “Why do you ask?”

Elias grinned.  “Oh, no reason at all.”

Charlie saw her mother shake her head.  “What your father is trying to say, in his usual sideways manner,” Penelope explained, “is that you should pursue your own inclinations in regard to these matters, irrespective of the opinions of society.”  She took a sip from her pint and set the glass back down with a definite deliberateness.  “It was of a different nature, but your father and I fought against our own attraction in no small part because of those opinions and we would like to see you spared that unnecessary struggle.”

“Although, for the record,” Charlie’s father observed, “I would point out that one of us was struggling for a bit longer than the other.  Walking in on your bath rather kicked off the process for me.”

“Elias…” Penelope gave a sigh of exasperation.

He looked over to Charlie, his eyes glinting.  “Imagine, dear daughter, if you would: a poor lad, freshly-plucked from the harsh streets of Aphrodite, stumbling into the bath to behold the beauty of this baroness in all her naked glory.”  He grinned.  “Struck me completely speechless, it did.”  He winked at his wife.  “Still does, come to think of it.”

“Stop,” Penelope swatted her husband’s arm in annoyance, though Charlie couldn’t help but notice one corner of her mother’s mouth curved upward ever so slightly.  “We need to be serious here.”

“I am always serious, my radiant love,” Elias responded.  Both Charlie and her mother rolled their eyes.

“Back to business,” her mother said firmly, looking back to her daughter.  “Now, Charlotte, I do realize that you’ve only just returned, but you need to pack for another trip.  An overnight bag should be sufficient.  Practical clothing, however.”  She gave a small smile.  “No gowns necessary.”

Charlie nodded, surprisingly at ease with the prospect.  “Is this outing to be a family affair?” she asked, looking to her father.

“No,” he shook his head. “Purely a baronial one.”  He leaned back in his chair, placing his hands behind his head as he did so.  “Someone has to be the responsible member of the family and mind the shop while you noble-types gallivant nobly about doing noble deeds.”  That sly look returned.  “Besides, it is high time you and your mother spent some quality time together.”

 

Part III

The Revelations of Charlotte

 

“Where are we going?” Charlie inquired of Penelope the next morning.  Following a solid breakfast--and, to her mind, an unnecessarily effulgent farewell by her father--she and her mother strode across the estate grounds toward the stables.  As they entered the structure, she noted that a pair of the six-legged jornju had been already outfitted for a cross-country trek.

“Once we’re out on the sands,” her mother deflected.  “Thank you, James,” she said, turning her attention to the stablehand.  “Charlotte and I can handle things from here.”

“Yes, my lady,” the man replied with a deferential tip of his cap.  “I’ll be seein’ how Mister Conner be doin’ then.”

“James,” Penelope called out as the stablehand turned to leave.

“Yes, my lady?”

“Do try to keep him out of trouble while I’m gone, if you would please.”

James smiled broadly.  “I’ll do my best, my lady.”  He then gestured, extending his forefinger indicatively.  “But I canno’ make your ladyship any promises.”

Charlie hid a smirk as her mother sighed with an exaggerated weariness.  “I understand, James.  It is a Heraklean task, I do realize.  Just do what you can to minimize the damage.”

“Of course, my lady,” James replied with a shallow bow this time, leaving the two women with their rust-colored mounts.  Her mother’s long-time favorite, Myra, nuzzled her mistress playfully.  Charlie would be riding one of Myra’s offspring, a spirited young stallion named Marlo.

After looking over the fittings and saddlebags once more, Charlie followed her mother’s lead as Penelope walked Myra out of the stables and into the open stable-yard.  The two women then swung themselves into their saddles and nudged the beasts forward, through the gate and onto the open terrain.

They rode in silence for a time.  It was only after the two riders had crested the range of low hills which lay to the north of the estate house and had turned their mounts to the northeast, away from the tenant villages and their fields, that her mother spoke again.

“Give me your perspective, Charlotte,” Penelope said, her eyes carefully forward.  “How do you see things, the state of society among these worlds?”

“The state of society is shit,” Charlie responded emphatically.  “The poor are oppressed while the wealthy cling to power with an ever-tighter and more brutal grip.”  She eyed her mother purposefully.  “Something needs to be done before things really fall apart.”

Penelope nodded.  “Tell me more.  Who needs to do what?”

“Well,” Charlie considered the question.  “I’d say there are three categories of people today: those who support the system as it is and work to preserve that system, those who fight against the system, and those who do neither--either because they cannot fight or because they choose not to do so, even if they know better.”  She glanced over at her mother purposefully.  “We need more of that second group.”

“And into which of those categories would you place me or your father?”

 Charlie cast another sideways glance at her mother.  “Until two weeks ago,” she replied, “I’d have said the third group, without question.”

“And now?”

“Now,” Charlie admitted. “Now, I’m not so sure.”

Her mother nodded once more.  “So, tell me of these other two groups you’ve identified.  What of them?”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m asking you about your views, Charlotte,” Penelope replied.  “You’ve accused me of being dismissive, of brushing your opinions aside.  Tell me how you see things.”

Charlie’s brow furrowed as she took in this new aspect of her mother.  “Well,” she said slowly, “the system is inhumane and wrong.  The practice of debt-bondage which has proliferated through many of the worlds is little more than slavery by another name.”

“I do not disagree,” her mother responded.  “Go on.”

“If the system is wrong,” Charlie continued, “then it necessarily follows that the system ought to be changed.  Or at least resisted.”

“Again, I do not disagree.”

“But you aren’t doing anything about it,” Charlie replied, exasperated.  “You tell me that you agree with what I’m saying--or, at least, that you don’t disagree--yet you, who have status and standing within that very system, say and do nothing to oppose it.”

Penelope gestured with one hand, swaying with the rhythm of her mount.  “I remind you, Charlotte, of our discussion previously regarding strategy and tactics.  Now,” her gaze scanned the horizon as the pair of riders crested a low rise of dunes, “tell me about this second group you mentioned, the one of which you would have me be a member.”

“They actually do something,” Charlie said simply.  “Or at least, say something.”

“Who?”

“Leo Populi, for one,” Charlie replied, citing the most prominent of the authors she followed.  “He’s been writing and agitating in support of the laboring classes even before this plague of debt-bondage took hold, even longer than I’ve been alive.”  She paused.  “Then there’s Meister Shattengartener, who debates with him and takes a different tack, but who still opposes this system we have today.  And more recently, there’s this new one, Ignis Deorum, who seems to want to smash the whole thing and start over.”  Charlie frowned.  “I can’t say I agree with that.”

“Why not?” her mother inquired.

“Seems a bit extreme, for one,” Charlie answered.  “I fear that the cost of such violence would be too high.”  She looked over to her mother, her gaze firm.  “But even so, at least he too is resisting in his own way, speaking out.”

Penelope did not comment right away, her eyes still forward.  After a moment, she spoke again.  “So you see writing these letters, these essays, these pamphlets as action?  I would have thought you would prefer something more tangible.”

“I would,” Charlie replied.  “And I do.”  Her lips compressed into a thin line.  “I would like to see more accomplished and there are those out there acting in a more tangible way.”

“Oh?”

“Mother Esperanza, for example.”  Charlie’s eyes turned back to the dunes before them.  “She’s been helping bond-servants escape from their masters’ estates for years now.  Officials of the empires have been trying to find her for some time.”  She paused again.  “Except the Russians, I gather.  But the Russian Empire hasn’t embraced debt-bondage to the same extent as the other powers, which might explain why.”

“As I understand it,” her mother commented, “this person is called Mère d’Esperanza.  But yes, the Viceroy’s administration has expended great efforts to catch those runaway bond-servants and those who aid them.”

“Yet you assisted them,” Charlie retorted, her eyes hard.  “You tell me you disapprove of the system.  You admit the system is evil.”  She glared accusingly.  “But when the authorities came to the estate, you gave them access.”

“We spoke of this already, Charlotte,” Penelope replied calmly.  “The Deputy High Sheriff had a writ of the court.  I had no grounds for refusal.”

“That it’s wrong?”  Charlie challenged.  “That it’s evil?”

“A good commander must choose her battles wisely, Charlotte,” Penelope warned.  “Had I refused the Deputy the access he demanded, it would have gained nothing, as I pointed out.  I’d have been arrested for interfering in the authorized duties of His Majesty’s police forces, the Deputy would have been able to conduct his search anyway, and unwanted attention would have been drawn upon our estate.”  She cast a level glance at her daughter.  “That kind of attention is the last thing we want to have.”

Charlie frowned at the coherence of her mother’s logic.  “I suppose you’re right.”  She gave a sigh.  “As much as I hate to admit it.”

“Good,” her mother replied.  “You’re learning.”

“But what is the point of it all?”  Charlie countered with some exasperation.  “What good is it to survive if we can’t do anything?”

Penelope didn’t respond and they rode for a while longer in silence, a light Martian wind whisking dust past them.  Charlie held her tongue until she just couldn’t any longer.  “Where are we going?” she asked finally.

“There,” her mother replied, pointing to a ridge of stone rising from the dunes in the distance.

 

###

 

The ridge grew larger as they approached, revealing itself to be the rim of a small crater, though one apparently deep enough to have thrust this ring of stone toward the Martian sky.  Penelope kept her silence as she angled toward one section of the crater rim where several chunks of rock had tumbled down from higher on the ridge.  Charlie hid her surprise as her mother dismounted, gestured for her to do the same, and then proceeded to lead her mount on foot directly at the wall of boulders.  Charlie didn’t see the footpath until they were practically on top of it and blinked as she realized that it snaked through a narrow opening between the tumbled-down rocks.  Following her mother’s lead, she found herself facing a dark opening in the side of the ridge.  The sun hung low in the dusty-orange sky as they stepped into the gathering shadows of the cavern.

Charlie had begun to wonder how they would be able to navigate the darkness without lanterns or torches, but just as the light from the entrance behind them faded, a bend in the passageway revealed light from another opening ahead.  Some minutes later, the two women and their jornju stepped into the late-afternoon sun once again.

“Where are we?”  Charlie asked as she looked around.  It was obvious from the ring of stone surrounding them that they were within the crater, surprisingly level ground forming its floor.  To her right stood a low building which, from the attached corral, she guessed housed stables.  To her left was the strangest sight Charlie had ever witnessed.

What could only be the undercarriage of a small airship rested on the sand, looking odd and amputated without a gasbag.  Fat cabling snaked over the sand in wide, loose curves, connecting the undercarriage to an even odder-looking structure shaped very much like a traditional prism.  This structure, whatever it was, was not too much smaller than the partial airship and as Charlie followed her mother across the crater floor toward the stables, she noted that the sunward face of the prism-structure glinted like mica in the sand.

After they entered the stable, Penelope turned to her.  “Let me take Marlo, Charlotte, and I will take care of the tack if you would spread a few bales of straw to freshen the bedding.”

“Okay,” Charlie agreed, handing control of her mount over to her mother but making no effort to hide her puzzled expression.  Penelope, having left her daughter’s previous questions unanswered, did not comment further, but accepted the lead from Charlie’s hand.

Charlie, for her part, moved to the far end of the stables and proceeded to cut the bindings on several of the bales which had been stacked neatly against the wall, adding that straw to the mound of bedding already present and using a pitchfork to toss it a bit.  As she did so, Charlie watched as her mother removed the bridles from the snouts of their mounts, hanging them on wall-hooks.  The saddles came off next, hefted onto horizontal posts designed for that purpose.  Penelope then gave each jornju a loving tussle, running her hands through the shaggy, rust-colored coat before nudging them toward the gateway and the corral beyond.  The beasts loped into the open space playfully.

Her task completed, Charlie joined her mother and as she did so, noticed Penelope removing a flat package, almost like a large envelope, from her saddlebags.  Another bundle, presumably her mother’s overnight bag, joined that package on the stable floor before Penelope placed the first within the second.  Charlie said nothing, but retrieved her own bag, and then turned to her mother.

“What now?”

“Follow me, please, Charlotte,” Penelope replied.  “If you will be patient just a bit longer, I can provide some of the explanations you’ve been seeking.”  She looked through the open stable doors at the sky.  “As it is, we have a few things yet to get done before the sun sets.”

They left the stables, securing the door behind them, but leaving the connecting gateway to the corral open so that the jornju might be free to wander in and out.  Charlie followed her mother as they crossed the floor of the crater, making their way toward the mechanical contraptions on the far side.  Her puzzlement only grew as her mother approached the undercarriage, opened the hatch, and stepped inside.  When she hesitated to follow, Penelope called back through the still-open hatchway.

“Come along, Charlotte.  There’s work to be done.”

Mentally shrugging, Charlie stepped into the cabin and found her mother sitting in what she took to be the pilot’s seat, bent over the control console.  Without looking up from her task, the older woman gestured to the empty seat beside her.  Charlie took the hint, securing her overnight bag beneath the chair as her mother had apparently done.

“You have questions,” Penelope said as she adjusted another setting on the console, gave a curt nod of satisfaction, and toggled a switch.  “I will try to answer them now.”

Charlie looked up, startled, as a mechanical noise sounded beyond the cabin ceiling and then was joined by a low hiss.  She brought her eyes back down to her mother.

“This crater,” Penelope continued, “as you may have already guessed, is a base of ours.  It is used for a certain category of our operations which require more personal attention.”  She waved a hand at the cabin about them.  “This vessel was formerly the captain’s dinghy of the freighter we sold off those many years ago.  It has a collapsible gasbag, the inflation of which is the sound you are hearing now.  The craft itself has been refitted with certain modifications pertinent to our particular operational needs.”

“What kind of personal attention?” Charlie asked.  “Does this have something to do with that envelope I saw you remove from your saddlebags earlier?”

Her mother nodded.  “It does.  That envelope is the cargo we will be delivering on our first run this evening.”

“First run?”

Penelope held a hand up.  “We’ll talk more about that later.  In the meantime, what else would you like to know?”

Charlie paused for a moment.  “What modifications?” she asked.  “And what is that device outside?”

“Very good, Charlotte,” her mother nodded. “As you know, fuel for airship turbines has become much more expensive as the cost of interplanetary transport has risen with the continuing decline of vulcanite crystal quality.”  Charlie gave a shallow nod of understanding and Penelope continued.  “To counter this, as well as to make our operations less dependent on these imports, several of our key vessels--including the Midsummer’s Puck here--have been refitted with electric turbines running on battery power.”

Charlie’s hand went to her mouth as she laughed.  “Where did that name come from?”

Her mother gave a small sigh.  “That name, my dear, is what one gets when one crosses a reference to classical literature with your father’s peculiar sense of humor.”

Charlie shook her head.  “Amazingly enough, that somehow makes sense to me.”

“Mmmm-hmmmm,” Penelope replied wordlessly, which Charlie read quite clearly as Do you see what I have to put up with?  “So,” her mother explained, “much of what was once passenger space has been taken up by the batteries.”  She motioned toward the rear of the cabin.  “There is enough cargo space remaining for the particular operations for which the Puck is employed, but not nearly what it once had.”

“And the device outside?”

“That--” Penelope cut off and her eyes slid over to the console.  Charlie heard the sound of the pumps overhead change pitch.  “One minute, Charlotte.”  Her mother toggled a switch on the control panel and rose from her seat, stepping through the hatch.  Charlie heard a click, followed by another, and a few moments later her mother reappeared, stepping back into the cabin, but securing the hatch behind her.

“Where were we?” she said as she resumed her seat.  “Ah, yes.  That device is a rather fascinating mechanism developed by an inventor with whom I’ve maintained good relations over these years.  Mr. Marconi is quite a clever gentleman.  He has provided me with working prototypes of his numerous projects in exchange for certain financial support.”  She gave a brief wave at the closed hatch.  “The mechanism outside utilizes a specially-designed film of crushed minerals--including a specific ratio of spent vulcanite crystals--to generate a modest electric current from sunlight.  We use it to charge the Puck’s battery bank.”

“So you can refuel directly from the sun?” Charlie responded, amazed.

“Yes,” her mother affirmed.  “It is a slow process, however, and the capabilities of the batteries are limited.  We’ll need to preserve their charge for our operations later this evening, which is why I wanted to inflate the gasbag before the sun set.”

“The sunset seems fairly well along now,” Charlie observed, motioning toward the darkening landscape beyond the forward viewport.

“Indeed it does,” Penelope agreed, reaching for the restraints of her pilot’s chair.  “We’ll be leaving momentarily.  You’ll want to strap yourself in.”

Charlie complied, but was curious.  “Any particular reason why?”

Her mother gave one of her characteristic half-smiles. “As I mentioned, we need to preserve our battery power for later.  This first run takes us into the space above Mars and we’ll be making an unpowered ascent to the altitude necessary for the aether engine to function.”  She reached for a lever rising from the floorboard next to her.  “So hold on.”

Penelope pulled the lever back and Charlie heard a clank as the Puck’s grappling gear disengaged, releasing the vessel’s grip on the planet.  The airship shot upward into the Martian night.

 

###

 

For the first several minutes, Charlie wondered at the purpose of her mother’s warning as the Puck rose smoothly from the crater floor and through the lower atmosphere.  Then they hit severe chop at a thermocline and Charlie was thrown violently forward against her restraints and then back into her seat.

“Is this absolutely necessary?” she asked through gritted teeth as she was hurled sideways now by a cross-current buffeting the vessel.

“You wanted to be a part of things,” Penelope smiled wryly.  Another lurch forward pressed them into their seats again.  “Welcome to ‘things.’  Practical instruction is rather different from the classroom exercises, don’t you think?”

“Agreed,” Charlie replied.  “It can leave bruises.”

The turbulence faded a moment later and their craft was now rising smoothly and swiftly once more.  Charlie observed her mother’s careful attention to the altimeter at the center of the control console.  After another interval, Penelope reached for the panel, toggling another switch.  A low hum appeared at the edge of Charlie’s awareness.

“You’ve activated the aether drive?” she asked.

Her mother nodded absently, then cut her eyes over the Charlie.  “It has just occurred to me, Charlotte, that this is your first flight into space.”  Her expression grew thoughtful.  “I was eight, you know, when your grandfather first brought me into space with him.”

“Where were you going?” Charlie inquired, curious.

“To Earth,” her mother replied.  “There was some family business he had to take care of.”  Another sideways glance.  “And my Aunt Margaret to manage.”

“Hmmm,” Charlie responded.  “Well, I can only say that this has been quite the introduction so far.”

“Oh, there’s more,” Penelope commented.  “Just wait and observe.”

Her mother’s attention refocused on the console as she began to pilot the craft away from the Red Planet, the aetheric flow being directed by the Henry-Germain lens.  Charlie took the opportunity to gaze through the forward viewport into the dark tapestry of space beyond and also to watch through the side viewport as Mars fell away.  The sense of wonder was overwhelming and it was some time later that her burgeoning curiosity forced her to speak.

“Can you tell me where we are going?”

“We are delivering that package of which we spoke earlier,” her mother answered.

“To whom?”

“To a client who pays very well,” came the direct reply.

Charlie exhaled audibly.  “Can I know what is in that package, at least?”

“Yes,” Penelope responded frankly, rather surprising her daughter.  “However, we need to discuss a few other things first.  To give you proper context. Agreed?”

Charlie could think of no reason to object.  “Agreed,” she nodded.

“Very good,” her mother replied.  “Now, Charlotte.  If you would, please summarize for me the nature of the relations among the greater and lesser powers of these worlds as you understand them.”

Charlie snorted.  “You don’t ask for much, do you, Mother?”

Penelope considered her daughter.  “Again, my dear, this is exactly what you have been wanting all these years.  I’ve been preparing you to be my heir, hopefully well.  Leadership is an obligation and a duty, not a plaything--a fact which many of my fellows of the peerage seem to have forgotten.  Our rights as nobles must ultimately be earned, else the people will dispense with them as well as with us, and rightly so.  Given the trajectory of our civilization in these coming years and decades, that leadership will be as difficult a task as it will be desperately needed.”  She looked at Charlie evenly.  “I cannot say that I envy you.”

“Thank you for that note of encouragement,” Charlie responded with no small amount of sarcasm.

“I have the utmost confidence in you, Charlotte,” her mother replied.  “If that is of any help.  Now, please proceed.”

Charlie acquiesced silently and gathered her thoughts for a moment.  “There has always been a certain tension,” she began carefully, “among the various ambitions of the Great Powers.  Equally, there existed a recognition that there was a certain mutual benefit in a balanced state of affairs.  The maintenance of this ‘balance of power’ had long been an explicit policy of the British Empire.”  Penelope nodded and Charlie continued.  “Aside from the United States making themselves a Great Power by fiat with their monopoly of Vulcan, this arrangement has generally persisted since the 1832 Treaty of Geneva.”

“However…” Penelope prompted.

“However,” Charlie nodded, “there have always been subtle alliances--preferences, you might say--within that balance of power.  The Americans, for example, had an early affinity for the Germans, in part due to the use of Mercury as a natural staging point for Vulcan shipping.”

“Very good, Charlotte,” her mother said.  “Now, what has changed?  And why?”

“While the basic desire for balance has remained,” Charlie replied, “these alliances have become more overt.”  She gestured vaguely.  “The British government’s purchase of a stake in Hephaestus Corporation nearly twenty years ago was one major catalyst for this change.”

“Excellent.”  Penelope smiled in approval.  “Yes--that arrangement gave the German and Franco-Spanish empires something of a common cause, as they felt that the new state of affairs gave the British Empire an inside advantage with respect to vulcanite crystal production.”  She eyed Charlie carefully.  “Which, of course, was precisely what Prime Minister Balfour was seeking. And so,” she waved a hand broadly, “we have three main camps of Great Powers: first, that led by the British and the Americans; second, that of the Germans and the Franco-Spanish; and finally, the camp of the Russians, who are working very hard to stay out of the middle.”

“And the various lesser powers are trying to figure out where to align themselves,” Charlie concluded.  “Quite a mess.”

“Exactly,” her mother concurred.  “Which brings us to this delivery of ours.”  She adjusted a setting on the control panel and the Puck entered into a gentle, sweeping turn before straightening out again.  Through the forward viewport, Charlie saw the faint profile of a freighter floating in the aether ahead in the distance.

The outline of the other vessel slowly solidified as it grew larger with their approach.  Her mother maneuvered their craft so that they drew near at an oblique angle, orienting with what appeared to be a secondary cargo bay of some kind.  Toggling another switch on the console brought the pumps back on-line and the gasbag was deflated to enable entry into the bay.  Charlie was unable to make out the registration or name of the freighter, as they were obscured by wear and scarring.

“Are you going to tell me what we’re delivering before we dock?” she asked.  “Or to whom we are delivering it?”

“This package,” her mother replied as the cargo bay doors slowly opened, “is an internal Hephaestus Corporation report detailing present and estimated future production capabilities, as well as projected crystal quality assessments.”  She gave Charlie a knowing look.  “Let us just say that the findings in this report are rather at odds with the public pronouncements which have been made in recent years.”

Penelope returned her attention to the forward viewport and the command console, slowly easing the Puck into the cargo bay.  “As to the client, you’ll be meeting their key representative in just a few minutes.  But I’ll tell you this: there is one major power which has tried to remain neutral in this affair and whom I therefore consider as the prime candidate to see that this information is disseminated in a manner best serving all the people of these worlds.”

Charlie heard a clank as their craft docked.  The cargo bay doors slid slowly shut.  Her mother rose and moved to the hatch.

“Come along, Charlotte.”

 

###

 

“Greetings, Well-born!”  Charlie heard a man’s voice say as she followed her mother through the hatch, the words layered with a strong Slavic accent.

“And to you, sir,” Penelope replied.  The two women stepped away from their vessel, joining the man standing alone on the open floor of the bay.  Charlie glanced about, noting that aside from the three of them and the Puck, the small bay was empty.  She turned her attention to the speaker, a robust-looking man with dark hair and full beard, both lightly speckled with grey.  He wore the black uniform common to officers of the various national merchant marine, but the manner in which he held himself marked him, to her mind, as something else entirely.

“Major,” her mother addressed the man, confirming Charlie’s suspicions, “I would like to introduce my daughter, Charlotte Conner.”  Looking at Charlie, she continued.  “Charlotte, this is Major Vasily Filatov of the Russian Imperial Secret Police.”

“Please, Well-born,” the major replied with a broad grin.  “We prefer the official designation, Special Gendarme of the Office of Public Safety.”  He turned to Charlie and gave a crisp bow so sharp that Charlie thought he might cut himself on it.  “It is an honor to make your acquaintance, Miss Conner.”

“The honor is mine,” Charlie responded automatically, unsure of what else to say.

“Shall we get down to business?” Penelope asked.

“Indeed,” Filatov replied.  “I presume you have the item we discussed?”

Charlie saw her mother hold up the envelope.  “I do.  And I presume you have the payment on which we agreed?”

The major reached into a pocket and withdrew a small leather pouch, its drawstring cinched tightly.  “Indeed, I do, Well-born.”

The objects exchanged hands.  The major’s finger hovered by the flap of the sealed envelope.  “Shall we confirm receipt?”

“By all means,” Penelope replied.  She turned to her daughter.  “Hold out your hand, please, Charlotte.” 

Charlie complied and as Filatov broke the seal on the envelope, her mother emptied the contents of the small pouch into Charlie’s palm.  A quartet of small, clear stones of slightly differing sizes, but approximately the breadth of her little finger, glinted even in the industrial lighting of the cargo bay.  Penelope held the stones up toward the overhead lamps, examining each in turn.  The major paged rapidly through the thick report.

“I believe our business is concluded, Well-born,” the man said finally, looking up.

“I agree, Major,” her mother responded with a brief nod.  The stones found their way back into the pouch and the pouch found its way into Penelope’s pocket.  “With your kind permission, we will prepare for departure.”

“Of course,” Filatov replied, giving another crisp bow.  “I wish you and your daughter a safe journey.  May the hand of God be upon you.”  And with that blessing, he turned away and exited the bay through a hatch in the back wall.

“Come, Charlotte,” her mother commanded, stepping toward their vessel again.  “We have more work to do this evening yet.”

“Coming, Mother,” Charlie replied, following Penelope aboard the Puck and taking her seat as her mother secured the hatch once more.  As Penelope resumed her position in the pilot’s chair, a low, mechanical noise vibrating through the floor indicated the opening of the cargo bay doors.  As the aether engine came online, Penelope manipulated the lever, releasing their vessel’s grip on the dock and the Puck floated free in the bay.  With a few deft motions, adjusting various settings on the command console, Penelope eased their craft through the open doors and set it on a course back towards Mars.

Another switch was flipped and Charlie heard the now-familiar sounds above her head as the pumps began re-inflating the vessel’s gasbag.  The cabin was otherwise silent.  Charlie considered the profile of the planet below them.  Her mother piloted.  The pumps altered their pitch once more and were switched off.  Mars grew closer.

“You have more questions.”  It was a statement, not an inquiry.

“Several,” Charlie acknowledged.  “On a variety of things.”  Her mother motioned for her to continue.

“Why diamonds?”

“Camouflage,” Penelope replied.  Charlie quirked her head, an expression of puzzlement plainly showing on her face, and her mother explained.  “One of the most important aspects of this kind of work is the maintenance of a low profile.  And having significant sums of money transferred into one’s bank accounts is liable to raise suspicions.”  She gave her daughter another of those knowing looks.  “But a member of the peerage pawning jewels?  Hardly an unusual occurrence these days.”

Charlie nodded slowly.  That made sense. 

“You had another question?”

Charlie coughed lightly.  “Yes,” she admitted.  “But on a completely different matter.”

Her mother’s right eyebrow arched.  “Yes?”

“How did you know about my...inclinations?”

“Oh, that,” Penelope chuckled.  “My dear Charlotte, I am your mother, after all.” She gave a small smile.  “Mothers know things.”

“Hmmm,” Charlie replied.  “Okay, I can accept that, I suppose.”  She looked out the forward viewport, where the night-side of the Red Planet had begun to loom large.  “Where are we going now?”

“To compete a far more important task,” her mother responded enigmatically.  “You are getting a fair sampling of our operations here, Charlotte.  This first part of this evening’s endeavors, for all its impact on the broader situation of the worlds, ultimately functions to pay the bills.  What we are going to do next is why those bills are paid.”

She fell silent after that.  Charlie took the hint and settled herself in to wait.  Her mother would obviously reveal no more than she wished before she felt it was time to do so.  For some reason, Charlie found her usual impatience at such a thought far more muted now.

“I do find it interesting,” Penelope observed, breaking into Charlie’s self-reflection, “that you named the individuals you did, earlier.”

Charlie blinked at her mother’s non sequitur.  “I don’t understand, Mother,” she replied, frowning.  “What do you mean?”

“During our ride over the sands,” Penelope explained, “you gave me some examples of individuals you thought were ‘doing something,’ as you called it.  And I find your list of examples ironic in that you have actually met some of them, though without realizing it.”

Charlie’s mind flashed through her recollection of that earlier conversation.  “Leo Populi?” she asked, still trying to digest the implications of her mother’s remark.  “Ignis Deorum?”

“Not Leo,” Penelope replied, shaking her head.  “Or, I should say, Leon Davidson, which is the name he has gone by for some years now.  He was born Lev Bronstein.”  Her eyes cut over to Charlie.  “You have, however, met his daughter.”

“Leon.  Bronstein,” Charlie muttered to herself.  Her eyes widened.  “Brownstone.  Leone?”  She looked at her mother.  “She’s his daughter?”

Penelope nodded.  “And another of your examples.”

“She’s Ignis, isn’t she?”

Her mother nodded again.  “Leon and I have our differences of opinion, but we see eye-to-eye more often than not these days.  His daughter is young yet, but also stubborn and recalcitrant.  Rather like her mother.”  Penelope’s eyes shifted back to the control panel and she adjusted several settings as the Puck began to descend into the thickening Martian atmosphere.

“I rather suspect that there is more to that assessment than meets the eye,” Charlie observed, thinking of her father’s comments earlier that day.

“You have no idea,” her mother responded.  Another knowing glance.  “So I find it both interesting and ironic that you and Leone are alike in so many ways.”

“How so?” Charlie asked.  She and Leone seemed thoroughly dissimilar to her mind.  Aside from that one thing.

“Leone has inherited her father’s talent for the pen, but like your father, her mother comes from a grittier background.  And while Sibyl may not be of a literary persuasion, she does have a preternatural ability when it comes to mechanics,” Penelope explained.  “So Leone, like you, has grown up with rather contrasting parents.”

“I’ve only met her that once,” Charlie said, “but I can see her penning those essays.”  She nodded to herself slowly.  “That girl has fire in her belly.”

“And you find that attractive?” her mother asked casually, toggling another switch on the console.  Charlie felt the low hum of the aether drive die away and the soft vibration of the electric motors commence as the turbines came to life and the blades began to propel the craft forward.

Charlie felt her face warm.  “I honestly don’t know how to answer that,” she replied after some moments of quiet.

“Hmmmm,” Penelope replied.

“Do you know any of the others that I mentioned,” Charlie asked, shifting the subject but also rather curious now.  “Meister Shattengartener, for example?  I’ve always found his arguments compelling, even if the pace of change he accepts is slow.”

Her mother’s smile gleamed, not one of her characteristic half-smiles, but full-toothed and genuine.  “Why, yes.  As a matter of fact, I do.  He originally wanted to sign himself ‘Speaker of Unspeakable Things,’ but I pointed out that Sprecherdesaussprechlichen made for a rather cumbersome signature.”

Charlie laughed out loud.  “That sounds like something Pa would try--”  She stopped short, her head snapping towards her mother.  “You aren’t telling me that Pa…”  Her question trailed off.

Penelope cast a sideways glance at her daughter, arched one eyebrow, and said nothing.

“Holy shit,” Charlie whispered.

“Your father has a way with words,” her mother commented.  “As for his ideas, yes, over the longer term, gardening in the shadowed cracks of these empires will bear fruit.”  She made another adjustment at the controls.  “I, on the other hand, prefer to act in a more direct manner.”

“What do you mean?” Charlie demanded.  “Damn it all, Mother.  Why must you be so mysterious about everything?”

“Secrecy is a vital component of our operations, Charlotte,” Penelope replied.  “I’ll need you to keep silent for a little while.  I must concentrate.  This extremely important.”  She looked at her daughter squarely.  “Do you understand?”

“Yes, Mother,” Charlie answered with a somewhat bewildered nod.

“Thank you.”

Charlie watched as her mother’s expression slowly grew more intense.  With swift, precise movements at the command console, she dimmed the cabin lights to the operational minimum and brought the Puck in low, the vessel skimming the landscape, a narrow beam of light angled down and just forward.  The nearly silent electric motors hummed through the Martian night.  Charlie wondered at the deft manner with which her mother negotiated the terrain in the darkness, but kept her questions to herself.

Penelope’s fingers flew over the control panel and brought the Puck to a halt, setting the airship onto the soft sand in a precise landing.  Charlie peered through the forward viewport, but could only just make out the face of a rocky ridge a short distance ahead.

Nearly as soon as their craft had settled, her mother was out of the pilot’s chair and at the hatch, opening the portal to the Martian night air.  Charlie’s jaw dropped as shadowed figures stepped past, directed to the rear of the cabin in low, hushed whispers.  She counted eight figures huddling against the rearward sidewalls, but by the time she had done so, her mother had already closed the hatch and resumed her seat.  As they lifted off from the sands, Carlie realized that the entire sequence of events had consumed less than two minutes.

They flew for a time as before, low and fast.  Then Penelope took the Puck to a higher altitude.  As her mother brought the cabin lights back up, Charlie saw her visibly relax.

“You can talk now, Charlotte,” Penelope commented.  “We’re past the worst of the danger.”

Charlie looked from her mother to the figures behind them and then back again.  “You’re Mother Esperanza,” she stated, not quite believing the words even as they left her mouth.

Penelope gave a small sigh.  “I suppose that I should be grateful that no one remembers the name properly.  Your father always did think that Mère d’Esperanza cut too close to the truth for safety.  I insisted on it for purely sentimental reasons.”

“I don’t understand…”

“Come now, Charlotte,” Penelope chided.  “Surely your language skills are not so poor as that.”

“Mère d’Esperanza,” Charlie repeated, her brow furrowing.  “Mother of--”  Her eyes flew open wide.  “Mother of hope,” she said quietly.

 

###

 

The Puck flew toward the rising sun.  As the slow light of dawn crept over the landscape below, Charlie sought out landmarks amid the terrain in an attempt to find her bearings.  The rugged, uneven land, however, offered her no clues.

She looked to the rear of the cabin, where the fleeing bond-servants huddled in clusters.  An older couple held one another, a young man hunched close by them protectively.  A woman of middling years clutched two small children to her, their young eyes wide with apprehension.  Another couple, not too much older than Charlie herself, leaned close to each other, the man softly caressing the woman’s cheek.  All wore unkempt, tattered clothing, typical of those at the bottom of the social structure who owned nothing at all, not even themselves.

The airship began to angle downward and Charlie returned her attention to the forward viewport.  She saw a canyon, incredibly wide and of a length stretching into the distance and beyond her sight.  Her mother continued the Puck’s descent and the stratified rock walls embraced the craft.  After a bit of time, the floor of the canyon loomed near and Charlie saw people gathering in a clearing towards which her mother seemed to be maneuvering.  Mooring lines were let out and these were taken up by some of the people below.  A few minutes later, the Puck lay firmly anchored.

Motioning for Charlie to remain in her seat. Penelope stood and moved to the hatch.  She turned to their passengers, who were slowly getting to their feet, uncertain.  Penelope opened the portal and gestured toward the open hatchway.

“Welcome home,” she said to them.

Various expressions of joy, rapture, and disbelief showed on the eight faces, but they shuffled forward and stepped into the morning air, some of them giving thanks to her mother in low voices, others expressing that same sentiment with a wordless look of gratitude.  Penelope nodded to each and every one as they passed by, tussling the hair of the two small children as they left.

After all of the former bond-servants had exited, Penelope turned to Charlie.  “Come along now, Charlotte.  I want to show you something.”

Charlie stood and followed her mother.  The morning light was moderated by the shade cast by the canyon walls, but the orange sky was clear and the sun bright as it peeked over the rocky rim above them.  The people who had gathered now began to move away again, turning to other business to be done.  A scattered few stood off a ways, whispering to each other in awed tones and staring at Penelope.

“What is this place?” Charlie asked as she looked about, trying to take it all in.

“Alexandra!”  A sudden shout to her left caused her to look to where one man had broken from a cluster of people and ran towards the woman with the two small ones.  “Carl! John!”  The man shouted again as he swept the three of them into his arms.  The reunited family embraced one another, as though not quite believing the reunion to be true, crying and laughing and sobbing with unrestrained joy.

Penelope smiled at the sight.  “We call it Shangri La.  There are other smaller colonies further up the canyon, but this is the largest and the first.  It is a new world for these people.”

“Where are we, exactly?”

“Well into the southern highlands,” her mother replied.  “The landscape of the southern hemisphere is rugged and treacherous, thus not terribly conducive for habitation.  There are, however, nooks and crannies such as this system of canyons which provide some opportunities for settlement, well out of sight of the authorities.”  She smiled.  “A garden in the cracks of empire, as your father might say.”

Charlie nodded and slowly turned around, her eyes assessing the area.  There was an entire village, she could see that now, and pathways leading from the village further into the canyon.  It was indeed a whole world here.

“You asked me the point of it all, when we were out on the sands.  Why we bother to merely survive in such worlds as we have.” Her mother’s voice resonated with a power she’d never heard before.  Charlie turned and had to take a step back in the onslaught of the fierce green fire blazing in those emerald eyes.  “This, my dear Charlotte,” Penelope swept one arm wide, indicating the people, the village, the canyon, “is why.”