While the customs and languages of Europa seem quaint to a visitor they are of earnest importance to the natives of this charming planet. As hard as it is to imagine Europa has had many small wars. The pride and a deep connection to their varied heritages and folkways that give Europa its wonderful variation can also cause friction. The wise traveler will not take up sides in any local disputes.
Fodor's Guide to Europa, 85th Edition
Rupert Giles stopped in the darkness of the secret passage. He looked in the tiny viewing glass. In her sitting room the Countess of Sussex was wrapped in a long robe. Mercian and Aquitaine troops stood around her chair. An unpleasant looking junior officer, a second lieutenant by the single pip on his epaulet, smiled as he ordered his men out of the room. He winked at the Countess.
"Have a good time with our Aquitaine friends," he said lightly.
Giles reached into his jacket and pulled out a revolver. His breathing came tightly as he tried to find all of the soldiers before he plunged in. He saw the swarthy sergeant spin a chair into place in front of Joyce and sit in front of her.
"My condolences, Madame," he said roughly.
"She's not dead," Joyce said tightly.
"Of course, Madame," he said in a gentle tone. "There is always hope."
Joyce looked at the soldier for a moment and then nodded. Giles eased the grip on his handgun and listened. Against the wall he heard a whisper from an unseen soldier. Giles shuddered to think what would have happened had he leapt out of the narrow door behind the painting.
"Why is the old thief being so nice?" the unknown trooper asked.
"Who's running this show, enfant?" muttered an older voice.
"Prince Louis and that Mercian Lord Jonathon... oh," the youngster answered.
"Exactly," came the grumbled reply. "Mind your manners when the big boys and girls play nasty games. Losers have friends, and may not stay losers."
Giles turned his attention back to Joyce and the sergeant. The noncom was sitting at attention. Joyce turned to look at the painting on the wall. She took a deep breath.
"What I want is to go check on the search for Dawn and to talk to Beth," she said clearly. "At the very least Beth should be taken to a place that's safe."
"I understand, Madame," the sergeant said firmly. "But I have my orders. Please excuse me, but you must stay within your chambers until this matter is cleared up."
"Very well, Sergeant," Joyce said tiredly. "Do let your men sit down. The night has been bad enough, why add more discomfort?"
"You heard the lady," the sergeant snapped as he turned in his chair. "Relax. That's an order."
As the soldiers moved noisily into chairs, three of them gingerly upon the couch, they mumbled `merci' and rattled in their field gear. Giles stuffed his revolver back into his pocket and hurried away in the muted noise. He was nearly to the stables when he saw a figure sneaking through the gloom ahead of him. It was armed with a rifle. Giles let it go past and then stepped behind it and clamped his hand over its mouth. From his sleeve a sliver of sharp steel came to rest under the struggling form's chin.
"Softly, please," Giles said in a whisper that had little to do with books and ink. "The rifle."
The person he held stopped struggling at the sound of his voice. Giles pulled his captive around to the wall and released him. There was a ragged intake of breath.
"Giles!" Alexander Harris whispered harshly. "They've got Joyce-the Countess. We've got to rescue h-her!"
"Where did you get the rifle?" Giles asked taking the weapon.
"There's a crate of them in the stable, along with ammunition and these," the teenager said pulling out a packet. "They're maps."
"Follow me," Giles ordered the young man. "The Countess is better off here. We need to warn Lady Elizabeth."
"Oh no," he whispered in a way that confirmed Giles speculation about Beth's effect on the young males of the household.
They made their way to the stables. This part of the back passages had seen the most use. Giles looked carefully at the young man as they listened at the panel that opened into the tack room. There were no signs of betrayal on the orphan's face or in his body language. Giles doubted the odd jobs boy would ever have betrayed the Summers family, but this night had proven more evil than he could have imagined already. Finally they heard no noise and opened the panel.
The tack room's odor of leather and hay was welcome after the musty secret passages. There was no noise no in the stables beyond the unease of the horses. Giles looked out and saw a dozen unknown horses of quality in stalls. He slid out silently and looked at the tack. It was a mix of Mercian and Aquitaine. He turned to Alexander.
"Where were those rifles?" he asked urgently in a soft voice.
Harris went to the bedding straw pile and pulled off the straw. Giles bent down and looked at the crate.
"Wessex issue and arsenal marked," Giles muttered. "There was a break in at the Devizes arsenal a month ago. Two guards were killed. And these scarves wrapped around the rope handles here are worn by Prince Etienne's Royalist Reform Party. Let me see the maps."
Giles looked at the folded papers for a moment. He turned pale. Outside there was noise. Giles looked around. There was always a fire watch in the stables with lanterns lit. He pulled at the crates.
"Help me get these out of here," he snapped.
"Where do we put them?" Xander asked worriedly. "What's going on?"
"Someone wants to play at war," Giles said tightly. "And they want to use Sussex and the Countess as the ball. We need to get Lady Beth to safety."
The two struggled to get the unwieldy crates out of the pile of straw. Giles shook his head as he looked at the crates.
"The courier motorized cycle and it's side car," Alexander said quickly as he pointed at the vehicle. "You used to ride, didn't you?"
"It'll get us to the border at least," Giles agreed as they lifted the crate. "We'll dump these into the Blackberry River."
They roughly secured the crates and pushed the groaning vehicle into the night. Giles held his breath as a party of hastily clad men and women were escorted into the stables by officers in Mercian and Aquitaine uniforms. Giles smiled thinly as he recognized the handful visiting consuls and nobles.
"Queer time for a visit to the stable," he whispered with a grin as he looked at the frightened young man. "We've got to hurry. The borders may already be sealed."
"There's the Brandy Route," Alexander said flatly. "Shouldn't we get our troops?"
Giles looked towards Hastings. The capitol of East Sussex was filled with lanterns moving in orderly paths. A squad of cavalry sat at the entrance to the estate. In the moonlight he could just make out the squat form of a machine gun on its tripod, the hoses to its water jacket and a belt of ammunition ready for action.
"No," he whispered sadly. "Let's move. And hope you remember the route."
"I know it," Alex said tightly. "Da loved his brandy."
Jonathon Albert Samuel Small shifted in his high collared Mercian Lancer's uniform. He looked at the man his uncle had told him, in no uncertain terms, to obey. Quentin Travers was angry, and Jonathon hoped he wouldn't take it out on him again. Still, he was a Mercian noble.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Travers," he said carefully. "I'm afraid I never saw a box or a map."
"Maps," snapped Prince Louis. Then he looked at the gathered witnesses. "They said maps, when they reported."
"Be that as it may," Jonathon snapped. "There's nothing here now."
"What about tracks?" Travers said quickly as Louis glared at the smaller young man.
"After we've tromped around?" an old soldier said harshly. "I doubt my best jaegers could find a track in this mess."
Travers bit back his comment. Von Pritwitz was a retired colonel from Saxony and a knight in his own right. He was looking around too carefully while he leaned on his cane. The old man smiled grimly at Travers then met Jonathon's eyes.
"By treaty are not Wessex and Northumberland also to come to Sussex's aid in the case of a question of sovereignty or succession?" he asked the unhappy young man.
"Err, yes, sir," Jonathon said tightly.
"Then I shall communicate with my embassy in Oldenberg," the soldier said evenly. "They shall pass along the word so that your communication will have added weight. You have sent word, of course?"
"I'm sure they have," an older, horse faced woman said coldly in a faint accent. "And the Kingdom of Dunbar has an interest in preserving our friends on the Peninsula as well."
"This is a matter for the continent, not islanders or northerners!" Prince Louis snarled.
A silence fell on the group. Travers stepped up and shook his head.
"Please, we're all tired," he said with a sigh. "We'll notify the powers interested in this matter in the morning. Let's get back to bed and we'll take a crack at this again in the morning."
The group grumbled but left the stables. Jonathon escorted them out and did not return. Travers waited until the door had closed.
"You bloody fool!" he roared at Louis. "Maps? Operation Pelican isn't due to happen for four more days now!"
"Do not yell at me old man!" snarled Louis. "I am going to be king of the Peninsula and then all of the French League!"
"Not if you get us all killed," Travers said impatiently. "This isn't a closed deal yet."
"The little Summers is dead, her mother will pay," Louis said surely. "Then their partisans, backed by my dear brother Etienne, take hostages in Oldenberg and everyone dies."
"They didn't find a body," Travers snapped. "I just received word from that Meers cretin."
"She has to be dead," Louis whispered, his anger turning to cold fear.
"Or we are," growled Travers.
In the wee hours of the morning a rider lead a horse away from the Summers estate. He stopped at a sound in the bushes ahead and pulled on his cane. Twenty-four inches of steel slid out of the walking stick.
"Oh, if I wanted you dead I'd have shot you already," a female voice with a faint burr said in the shadows.
"My pardon, Lady Douglas," Von Pritwitz said with a short bow that did not take his eyes off her gleaming automatic. "Are you on your way to the border as well?"
"Can you keep up, sir?" she asked archly.
"I'm always ready for a good ride," the knight answered with a grin.
"We'll see about that," she answered with a grin of her own.
"Get UP!" a voice bellowed in Crown Prince William of Oldenberg's ear. He came up with a start and a thundering head. He looked around the room and saw a dress over a chair. Then he saw the angry glare of his father.
"Move, boy," his father snapped.
"Wha's goin' on?" Liam asked as he looked up from a couch.
"While you two were out playing the Student Prince someone may have killed Lady Dawn Summers," growled the king. "I've got meetings with ambassadors and Ministry of State about our response and house arrest of the Countess of Sussex."
"For what?" William asked as he found his trousers.
"Murdering her daughter," the king replied tightly. "At least that's what the Aquitaine and Mercian press said in their first editions according to the embassies. And we have two independent confirmations wired from the border."
"But we're still hosting the Saxony-Braunschweig-Brunswick talks and the Mercian King arrives in three days to sign the trade agreement with Cambria and Eire," William said shaking his head. "And she wouldn't do that. Never."
"I know," his father said a bit easier. "I think there's some common sense in that head, not just cheekbones that will look good in profile on coins."
"In a hundred years," the young man answered earnestly.
"That trade mission from Eire, was there a Lord O'Donnell in it?" Liam asked as he ran his hand through his unruly black hair.
"Yes," the king answered curtly. "And you are?"
"His son," Liam groaned. "Oh bloody Hell."
"Get into uniform," the king said, turning back to William. "You're taking a Special to the site of the ambush. Take an escort of cavalry. Check it out."
"If I'm in uniform, it's official," William pointed out. "On my own I can still claim rights if needed, but I don't need to take a bloody cavalry escort and add more tension."
"Good point," the king agreed. "But take Finn and some of his toys."
"I'll go with you," Liam interjected.
"What's your interest, sir?" the king asked pointedly.
"I've got to keep an eye on my thousand marks," Liam said with his most charming smile.
Willow awoke earlier than she had in months. In her dreams frogs had been sneaking around her window and Dawn was wandering aimlessly through the campus. She shook her head and looked at the window suspiciously. She almost screamed when she saw a ragged figure leering in at her. She realized the haggard face was Giles', covered with dust except around his eyes. Willow rushed to open the window.
"What's going on?" she whispered.
"Let us in," Giles said raggedly. "We don't have much time."
"What's wrong?" she asked worriedly as she threw open the window as wide as it could go.
"Where's Beth?" Giles asked quickly.
Willow pointed to a bundle of bedclothes that rose and fell in time to a gentle snore. Giles walked over and shook what he hoped was a shoulder. Willow looked back to see Alexander Harris looking worse for wear hesitating at the window.
"Come on," Willow hissed.
"Are you d-decent?" he asked timorously.
"Yes," Willow said with a yawn. "Someone will see you out there."
The young man clambered in through the window. Willow closed it just as Beth finally awoke.
"Hunh?" she said blinking. "Giles? Is this real?"
"Very bloody real I'm afraid," Giles said tiredly. "Are you awake?"
"I am now," Beth answered in a small, frightened voice. "What's wrong?"
Giles quickly told her story of the night. Beth didn't interrupt. She nodded at the end and pulled out her school bag. She went to her dresser and began pulling out clothes. Alex looked at the ceiling. Willow pulled out her bag too.
"You're not going," Beth said tersely.
"Oh yes I am," Willow said quickly. "Resolved and sure and all of that adventuress stuff."
"She's not dead," Beth said softly.
"I know," Willow said surely. "Don't ask me how, but I know she's alive. And we're going to find her."
Beth nodded and brushed her eyes. Her hands shook on the straps. Willow took the now stuffed haversack and handed it to Alexander. Then she took Beth in a quick embrace. Beth gave her a weak smile.
"There may be horses," she warned the redhead. "Especially since these two wrecked five thousand pounds of motorized cycle."
"Bring it on," Willow said with a toss of her head.
"Where will w-we look?" Alexander asked quietly.
"The attack took place on the other side of the Breton Tunnel," Giles pointed out. "There may be a way off the Pass and into Breton itself."
"She'd go to the coast," Beth agreed. "Either home or..."
"Exactly," Giles said with a nod.
"We'd better move then," Willow said as she picked up the thin local newspaper. "There's a coaster in port and nothing due for days after that. We sail on the tide in... thirty-four minutes and make for, ah, Brest."
"What?" Beth asked.
"Nothing," Willow insisted.
"We need to move," Giles said urgently. "The telegraph wires are down but they'll be here soon enough."
"Right," Beth said tightly as she threw open the window. "Let's go."
Tara Maclay looked at the stonework on the small train station. There was some delay with the track ahead. She sketched a rough drawing in her pad and took a photo with the film camera she'd purchased at 'Aunt' Abigail's advice. The bright sunlight this morning made it easy. She looked up the station in her Fodor's Guide to Europa. Finally the conductor stopped at her compartment.
"Our apologies, Miss Maclay," the harried-looking man said. "The tracks are still not cleared. We will be going back and transferring passengers to the eastern line."
"Oh, it was so difficult to pass those places and not s-stop," Tara said easily. "I don't know if I can do it again."
"I cannot recommend striking out here," he said with a wince. "The Bretons are all smugglers and cutthroats."
"And if I don't get off I s-shall be entranced by an Aquitaine village and never leave," Tara said with a shy smile. "And then I would lose my scholarship."
"True," the conductor said with a smile. "Shall I send your baggage on? One should travel light in the spring."
"Thank you, sir," she replied gratefully. "I can see why everyone raves about this railroad."
"You are too kind, mademoiselle," he beamed. "I shall get your trunk sent on its way."
Tara gathered her backpack and picked up the straw hat she'd purchased while wondering in the free city of Barcelona on her first day on planet. She picked up the white ash walking staff she'd been given by Moria and Mai Lin. Tara smiled briefly at the memory of her second going away party in a year. The parts she could remember were enjoyable. She made sure her boots were properly laced and ready for walking. There was a gentle rapping on the door. Tara opened it to se the conductor with two paper wrapped small bundles and two bottles of water.
"I cannot let you go off into these hinterlands without something to sustain you," he said with a shrug.
"Thank you," Tara said with a broad smile. She reached for her pocket.
"That won't be necessary," he said quickly.
"Oh, not for you, but for the lady who has such a gallant man," Tara explained handing him a two credit coin. "Please, get her something as wonderful as these will be on the trail."
"That I can do," he said with a tip of hat. "This way please."
He led her to the exit and waved as the train let go of a soft cloud of steam. Tara waved back briefly, then turned and adjusted the straps on her shoulders just a little. She looked into the tiny ticket booth and office. An elderly man with a great mustache sat smoking a briar pipe next to a silent telegraph. He looked up at her and gave a nod.
"Do you need to see my papers, Monsieur?" she asked hesitantly.
"If you are willing for me to see them, then I do not need to," he said with a small grin. "You are an Imperial citizen, no? Here for the walking tour?"
"Um, yes I am," she replied.
"Then have a good voyage," he said. "You certainly picked a good day, but be inside tonight. My knee tells me there will be rain."
"Thank you," Tara said with a smile. "I will be under cover this evening."
"Bon," he said with a real smile. "The trail starts just behind the station, between those two pines."
"Thank you," she said as she turned for the path.
The elderly man nodded and watched the young lady walk away. He sighed and leaned back with a smile.
"Nothing could have survived that," William whispered looking at the still smoking wreckage of the train that had held Lady Summers.
"If it happened all at once, no," Riley Finn said quietly. "Look at the patterns. This was a two stage hit, and it didn't go as planned."
"Because Lady Summers is missing, and we were supposed to find her body?" William asked the mercenary quietly.
Riley nodded as he surveyed the damage. There was still a familiar scent of death and fire around the site. He looked at the killing zone and looked back to the rocks above. He walked to the edge of the drop and glanced over. At first there was nothing but a view of the short river making its way tumultuously to the nearby ocean. He leaned out a bit and caught a glance of a tiny ridge. He looked back to see the tall young man from Eire getting pale as he spoke with the prince.
"She was what, thirteen?" Liam asked with a shudder. "Still traveling with a nurse."
"And an escort," William said looking at the wreckage. "A conductor, the engineer and his fireman as well."
"What business if this of House Lilienthal's?" a petulant voice asked. "Shouldn't you be opening a flower show or sitting in the Hall of the Citizen or the Kennel of the Rabble or whatever you call it?"
"Hello Louis," William said with a bright smile. "How's the arm?"
Prince Louis glared at the heir to the throne of Oldenberg. Two large men in the uniforms of his personal guard flanked him. They looked at Liam and Riley. Liam smiled. Riley bared his teeth.
"Ahem," a strong voice interrupted. "Your highnesses, gentlemen. I have been asked by my government to look into this matter."
"Why is that, Von Pritwitz?" Louis asked archly.
The old man fixed the prince with a glare. Then he bowed very slightly.
"I am an old hunter, and patient, your highness," he explained. "Besides, it keeps me out of trouble at home. I understand the delightful Lady Douglas of Dunbar will be joining me."
"Sir," a reedy voice came from inside the wreck.
"Yes, Jonathon?" Von Pritwitz called out.
"I found these," the young man said holding out several metal scraps.
"Twelve millimeter Hoffman casings," the old soldier said nodding. "This is a seven point seven short automatic shell. I do not know what this is."
"MilTech Maximum Flash actuator," Riley said looking at the wreckage. "Biggest flash-bang you can throw. What idiot used it on enclosed train car?"
"They were bandits, or worse," Louis interjected as he glared at Jonathon. "Perhaps terrorists. This would have destroyed the unfortunate girl's body, no?"
"Burned it, maybe," Riley said quietly. "Not destroyed it."
"Then she must have run from her pursuers and fallen over the cliff," the prince insisted. "Her hairbrush was found here. We shall search the river for her remains from the bay nearby to here."
"Excellent idea, old boy," William said with a nod. Louis smiled at him coldly and turned away. Prince William and his associates watched the Aquitaine royal walk away. He stopped and spoke with a young man dressed like an off-worlder. William turned to the old Saxon knight.
"Keep an eye on young Jonathon, would you?" he asked quietly.
"As you wish, your highness," Von Pritwitz replied in a grave tone.
"Not possible," Warren said as he reined in his temper. "She's a weak little low-tech aristocrat. She survives the fall to that goat path and she just falls off later. She's got no night vision gear, no fusing pitons, and no auto-tensioners or powered ascenders. She's jelly on those rocks."
"You might be surprised at what a weak low-tech aristocrat can do, Mr. Meers," Louis said evenly. He reminded himself how much he needed this annoying boor.
"Fine, I'll look around," Meers groused. "Don't you have spies with real cloaks and daggers?"
"We must move carefully," Louis said coldly. "This is the game of princes."
"What are they doing?" Andrew asked hesitantly.
On the edge of the cliff Prince William stood with the annoying Irishman. The mercenary was nowhere to be seen. Then the Prince climbed over the edge. As Louis and Meers approached, the tall black-haired man also eased over the edge.
"What are you doing, my dear prince?" Louis asked with a chuckle.
"Regretting my decision," William hollered back. "The way is quite narrow and there is no way back up. I'm afraid we'll have to follow it."
"Do keep a lookout for the poor girl's body smashed on the rocks below you," Louis requested politely.
"Of course," William called back.
Louis stood away from the edge and toed a large rock. He looked up to see Von Pritwitz and Jonathon watching him. He smiled and nodded as he stepped away from the ledge and headed to his private train.
"I thought the runt was on our side," Meers said with a frown.
"I'm afraid Lord Jonathon must go visit his royal uncle when the king of Mercia comes to Oldenberg," Louis said with a shrug. "Travers will need someone more obedient."
Riley steadied Liam as the prince knelt carefully on the narrow track. William ran his hand over the disturbed soil in front of him.
"I must say I'm glad my father insisted on my knowing what the servants did for us," he said standing up.
"Most of it spent with the gamekeepers?" Liam asked as he leaned back and closed his eyes.
"Afraid so," William answered. "A small shoe, toes pointed ahead of us. She might have made it to those rocks over there."
It took them some time to get to the rocks. It was just afternoon by the time they could see the trail slope into an almost invisible cleft in the rock ahead. They hurried across the narrowest point of the trail and sagged in relief once inside the narrow passage. William looked down and pointed. There, in the protected thin dirt over the rock a series of crisp shoe prints went straight ahead. The men hurried forward until the path was barred by a simple gate. One post of the gate rested on a track.
"She made it this far," William said excitedly as he pulled on the gate. "This was put up after she passed."
They passed swiftly with Liam closing the gate behind him out of reflex. They stopped suddenly as they turned on the narrow path to find a paddock ahead of them filled with sheep.
"Damn," William muttered.
If there is ever a time when you must leave home, you must go to Oldenberg, a worried voice told her urgently. Things may become unsettled. Go to Fourteen Parkstrasse. Tell them you're my daughter. They'll know what to do.
"Why Momma?" a tired voice whispered.
She awoke with a start. Ahead of her a tiny form looked at her, grabbed a seedpod, and scampered off. The girl tried to remember what had happened. She was... Claire. Men wanted her dead. Her head ached and she wanted to go back to the dream. She heard rustling in the bushes near her. The girl looked up to see a cute but homely face snuffling her. Her heart froze as she realized this was no domestic swine but the offspring of the wild boar. She heard a grunt.
Girl and piglet exited the bushes in opposite directions at breakneck speed.
When she stopped running the young teenager sagged against a stile. She could smell the wonderful scent of fresh bread. She looked up to see a bag hanging on the top of the stile. She reached for it and stopped. If a herdsman was here her stealing his lunch would mean they went hungry. She turned and walked down the trail. Her stomach rumbled. She paused when she saw movement ahead.
As she crept closer she saw a young woman in a skirt and long sleeve white blouse. She was wearing a straw hat and leaning on a staff. The girl crept closer. Now she could see the motion that had caught her eye. The woman had taken off her jacket and was now cinching it to the rucksack by her feet. The woman had on off-world boots. Claire crept closer and saw the tiny glint of a pin on the jacket. Then the woman pulled out a bottle of water and a wrapped bundle that smelled divine. She put it down and pulled out a book and started to write. Claire decided a rich off-worlder could spare a sandwich.
Tara couldn't understand why she felt a touch of unease in such a beautiful spot. Still, it did not go away, but neither was it really threatening. She sat and started to write her observations in her travel journal. She wondered how to put the fact that she'd been passed on her way down by a small contingent of Breton militia bearing a machine gun and leading a balky mule back the way she had come. They had barely noted her in passing. She heard a very soft rustle. Quicker than one would imagine she had a thin wrist in her hand.
"It's polite to ask," she said raising an eyebrow. She held back her words as she turned and saw a battered girl, streaked with dirt. Her hair was stiff in places from dried blood. The girl swallowed nervously.
"Please, miss?" she said roughly. "I'm very hungry."
Tara handed her a bottle of water and the other bundle. The girl unwrapped it and made to wolf down the filled croissant. Tara shook her head.
"Sorry," the girl said and took a small mouthful. She smiled and moaned happily.
Tara took a bite of her flaky pastry and was surprised. Normally she did not eat a lot of meat, but the sharp cheese and the thin slices of ham were almost sensuous in her mouth. Neither pastry lasted very long. Now the girl looked a little less feral, but still very frightened.
"What's wrong?" Tara asked reaching gingerly for the lump on the girl's scalp. The long brown hair was stiff around it.
Claire didn't know why the woman, almost a girl except Imperial citizens were never girls, made her feel safe. She met the kind blue eyes and started to cry.
"I can't remember," she sobbed softly. "All I know is someone wants to kill me." A heartbeat later the woman had the girl's hands in a surprisingly strong grip.
"You'll be okay," the woman said gently.
The girl relaxed, and didn't know why.