First story in a new sequence, The Twilight of Empires.
The great Baroness-spy encourages her daughter to follow in her footsteps...
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.”
“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.
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--”
“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.”
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.”
TO BE CONTINUED IN
THE SEPTEMBER 2019 TALES TO ASTOUND