The German League of Nations represents the most interesting result of the NeoRoyalist-Regionalism movement of the late twenty first century. Those long ago folklorists and historians who rebelled at Earth's homogenization of its cultures would be gratified to see the quaint and beautiful patchwork of tiny nations and city states that spread over Europa between the Middle and Northern Inland Seas. Pride helps to keep these states distinct and independent.
It is a pity that the German language is not as prevalent in daily life this region as French remains in the Ligue de Nations Francaises or Italian in the Royaume-Uni d'Italie. Some say that in this case history and regionalism went too far. Whether it was because no one could settle on which era's German should be used or old regional arguments, the Imperial visitor may be assured of a warm welcome in Imperial Standard English anywhere in this charming part of Europa.
Fodor's Guide To Europa, 85th Edition
"All your life?" Willow asked incredulously.
"As far back as I can remember," Tara said shyly. "I felt it strongest around my mother. H-how about w-when you, um... started?"
"After I knew my grandfather passed away I kind of just... did," Willow said distantly. "I was at school, first year I'd really been away, not that my parents ever noticed me unless I was studying or doing some multi-page report and using their books. I knew how to write a bibliography by the time I was eight."
Willow stopped and looked at Tara. The dark blonde girl was listening intently to her story. Willow smiled shyly.
"W-what?" Tara asked.
"Nobody ever wants to hear about my life," Willow replied. "Buffy is always listening and she tries but usually she starts thinking about some guy and Cordy is, well, she's nice enough, but shallow and kind of sad really."
"Cordy?" Tara asked with a bit of anxiety. She looked down and picked at her salad a bit more. There were noises in the dining room but they seemed far away right now.
"Cordelia," Willow said quickly. "Cordelia Chase of the Peninsula Railway Chases. A big frog, you should forgive the expression, in the small puddle that is Europa. She's always giving me stuff but it's more like I'm her favorite charity. Kind of annoying really, but she's trying her best."
"And you'd know," Tara said evenly.
"Yeah," Willow nodded. "Now that I think about it it's weird, but I've known what Buffy and Cordy were really like since I've met them. It's like when I saw-"
The moment drew longer as Willow blushed slightly. Tara hoped and said "Me?"
Willow just nodded, not trusting herself to speak lest she mention some of the images she'd been thinking of when she thought of Tara.
"I felt the same thing," the blonde admitted with a shy grin.
"You did?" Willow asked brightly.
"I'm not sure what it means exactly," Tara said trying not to build up her hopes. "But yes, I knew... I could trust you."
Be happy waking up next to you, her mind added. Down, girl!
"I think we're having the best lunch," Willow said smiling.
Dawn looked at her sister banging away on the typewriter. The lunch Beth, no, Dawn remembered, Buffy, had been so insistent that she eat was mirrored by plates still untouched by the young woman assaulting the machine.
"Umm, didn't Mr. Giles say the words would be rewritten by the editor?" Dawn said tentatively.
"This is for the Sunday edition," Buffy replied.
"Are you going to eat anything?" Dawn asked more boldly.
"Take what you want," Buffy replied as she tried to remember if 'monster' had an 'a' in it.
When she looked up a moment later Dawn was beside her with a plate of food.
"What I want is for you to take care of yourself," Dawn said a bit shakily. "I just found you, kind of. I want you around. You know, somebody to bother."
"That's my kid sister," Buffy said with a crooked smile.
"Thank you for joining us, sir," William said with a nod.
"Quite all right," Giles replied as he sat down. "I assume the 'unknown arms dealer' advanced by Miss Summers doesn't feel quite right to you?"
"I think it's an admirable attempt to get people thinking," the Prince answered. "I hope such an article in a paper with the reputation of the Times helps cool down the situation."
"There's a limit to the power of the fourth estate," Giles said dryly. "At least the responsible part."
"You don't think all of this is to sell arms?" William asked carefully.
"Only the smallest part of it," the older man answered. "But for the life of me I can't understand what else our unknown foe might be after."
"I'm afraid this is going to be a frustrating lunch," William sighed.
"So what's it like traveling with a couple of vixens like Willow and Lady Elizabeth?" Liam asked indolently.
"They've been very nice," Alexander said levelly.
"Nice as in niiiice?" Liam drawled as he smiled at the bumpkin's discomfort.
"They're l-ladies," Alex said tersely. "A gentleman shouldn't g-gossip about a lady."
"You're no gentleman, boy," Liam said with a silken snarl. "So don't tell your betters how to behave."
Like Hell you're a gentleman, Alexander thought. Then he tried not to let the thought show on his face.
"Who'd have thought the ship would roll this much tied up at a pier?" Liam said conversationally. "Back and forth, back and forth."
Alex felt his stomach flutter just a little bit.
"How do you say it again?" Tara asked.
"Schleswig," Willow said slowly. "And that's the name of the Principality too."
"The pictures don't show how pretty it is," Tara sighed.
The sturdy red brick buildings of the city seemed to meld with the gray stone of the port. The colors might have been dour but the scene was brightened by tiled roofs of red, blue, and green while the signal flags snapped on every vessel in the harbor. Even the gray looming presence of the warships at anchor seemed lightened by their pennants and the large gilt eagle on each bow.
"What happens now?" Tara asked.
"The tugboats will come out and push us into dock at the pier," Willow explained as she leaned against Tara to point out the small sturdy craft chuffing their way. "We'll drop off cargo and then we'll take on lots of passengers."
"Lots?" Tara asked without leaning away.
"Yes," Willow said with a smile. "Most of them are going south to the starport to join up for Imperial service."
Tara looked at the red head. It took no talent at all to hear the yearning in Willow's voice.
"When are you going?" Tara asked.
"I can't," Willow said softly. "Not now. Be-Buffy needs me and, ah, the rest of them too. Besides, I've got to tell my parents."
"Th-they don't w-want you to go," Tara said quietly.
"No," Willow said with frown. "I think that's why they went on the survey of the Southern Inland Sea. I think I'm supposed to meet either a boy or a college I'll want to stay on Europa with while I'm waiting for them."
"Oh," Tara said looking down.
A pair of shrieks cut through the noonday air. Tara jumped a little. Willow giggled.
"That's a steam whistle," Willow explained. "They're about to push us in."
Willow leaned over the railing just a bit to watch and Tara joined her, covering one of Willow's slender hands with her own.
A knock on the door interrupted what had been a frustrating meal, so the Prince was less than happy when he saw the envelope the Steward had for him.
"Oh bloody Hell," he muttered. "Giles, I think you should go to Lady Summers' room and help get her story out."
"Problems?" Giles asked in a worried tone.
"Storm signs more than the storm itself," William said rubbing the bridge of his nose.
"Very well," Giles said with a nod as he stood up. "I'll round up Willow and we'll get her story on the wire."
"Thank you," the young man said shaking Giles' hand. "Good luck."
"And to you, your-excuse me, William," Giles said politely. "Good afternoon."
Riley saw the librarian out. When he looked back at his patron the young man was scowling with his eyes shut and shaking his head.
"Bloody Pomeranians," William muttered.
Giles didn't walk back to the stateroom right away. He stopped and looked out over the harbor to the sleek gray frigates that represented more tax revenue than he could really bare to think about. Buffy's idea about the article and the arms merchant story might have worked months ago had anyone thought to check out the newspaper owners. Now a crises had built and was rolling under it's own steam. The only thing that would stop it he was sure was the truth. He was also sure he had all the pieces of the puzzle, but they refused to go together.
The older man looked down at a young man lounging on the dock with a rucksack. It might have been him more than two decades ago, before he'd made a choice that had given him wisdom borne of pain and loss.
It would have taken the complete truth to stop me, he thought bitterly. And maybe not even that.
Giles shivered in the warm sun at a breeze only he felt and hurried to find Willow.
"So you were in administration?" Willow asked as they watched the activity on the dock below.
"Umm, not really," Tara explained. "I was a Clerk's Assistant, not an Assistant Clerk."
"What's the difference?" Willow asked. "I'm guessing the semantics are critical in some way."
"A Clerk's Assistant is someone who makes sure the Clerk has what they need to get they're duties accomplished and kind of takes care of them," Tara explained.
"I'm sure your clerk was well taken care of," Willow said smiling.
"I'm not sure," Tara said ruefully. "Kami needed a lot of help, even with the regen therapy her spine injury got her retired out of the Marines and nearly made her a citizen. They put me with her and the level one girl found something to do for the Emperor."
"What's a level one girl?" Willow asked with a thoughtful look.
"Level one is sort of 'minimum competency'," Tara explained with a shrug. "I'm not dangerous around Vacc Suits, or ATVs, or even any phase of an Evac. You need somebody barely competent to guide you down to a planet with just an unsteerable pod, I'm your girl."
"What about after?" Willow asked softly.
Before Tara could find the words to answer that question there was a shout and then the sounds of a brawl just below them. Police whistles cut through the air. Both girls looked over the edge to see an evenly matched number of young people fighting below them. Almost two hundred young men and women in sturdy clothes were embroiled with the same number of young men in gray blazers. Between the two groups knots of blue police uniforms pushed the groups apart. Just as the situation seemed in hand a few gray clad young men started to chant "Traitors!" and the fracas started again.
Willow watched the scene first with astonishment and then with anger. There was something niggling at the back of her mind, a problem or solution she couldn't quite yet understand. What ever it was the fight had broken the mood.
"We should get back and check on, um, Claire and Buffy," Tara said worriedly.
"You're right," Willow agreed.
If I ever find out who started this I'm going to be... cross, Willow thought, angry with herself that she couldn't come up with a good threat.
"What the Hell were you thinking, Schneider?" William snapped at the pudgy man in front of him.
"I will not apologize for the actions of the stalwart young German men from the Kingdom of Pomerania-" the small man started as he stood ramrod straight.
"Who very nearly ended up charged with Obstructing Imperial Recruits," Riley said dryly.
"Hunh!" grunted Schneider. "The Empire can't bring their fancy ships to Europa, sir. And if they did they would find it rough going for one soldier of the German League of Nations is worth a dozen soft off-worlders or Frenchmen."
"These boys aren't soldiers," William said darkly.
"They have completed their Soldier's Weeks!" Schneider said angrily.
"Three weeks in the Pomeranian hills marching and singing songs while they live out of tents doesn't make them ready!" William snapped. "A day at the range and pretty silver badge means nothing-"
"It means they're real Germans and patriots and willing to fight for the honor of the German League of Nations!" Schneider roared with an impressive voice. "Now, if you will excuse me, your highness. This was simply a courtesy call on someone I had hoped would see reason."
"Good day, Herr Schneider," William said civilly. "I will think about your words."
Tara watched Willow and Buffy work on the noblewoman's first article. They had dragged in Alex to judge the impact the words had on the average man in the street while Giles listened to represent the more mature reader. Both of them thought the story was good, but Giles objected to the simplified explanations.
"I'm putting out a fire," Buffy said quickly. "I'll serve the historical record when I write my memoirs."
"It's kind of scary," Alex said a bit timidly.
"Good," Willow replied. "We need to get this off."
"I'll need you, Will," Buffy said to her friends. "Giles too. If Tara can stay with, ah, Claire I'd like Alexander to come along too. Those twits on the dock today may have friends."
"Isn't this place on our side?" Alex asked.
"We won't be encountering diplomats on the street," Giles pointed out.
"I'll stay with Claire," Tara said smiling at the girl.
"Oh!" Willow exclaimed as she looked at Dawn. "Back in a sec!"
"I'll get my coat and few things for a stroll," Giles said as he stood up.
"Right," Buffy said as she put the papers into a slim case.
The door burst open without the prearranged knock. Giles hand lanced out and caught Willow's wrist before he'd thought about the action. On the bed Dawn saw Tara take her hand discretely away from the small of her back.
"Sorry?" Willow said in a shaky voice.
"A bit more caution please, Willow," Giles said sternly.
"Caution, right, big with the carefulness," Willow said quickly.
"What's that?" Dawn asked as she saw the book in Willow's hand.
"The latest Clare Durano novel," Willow said with a touch of smugness.
"Pirate Sails!" Dawn squealed. "Thank you, Willow! You're the best!"
"Well, that should make her easy to watch," Buffy said as her sister sat down and started to read.
"At least she's reading," Willow said a touch defensively.
"Quite," Giles agreed.
"Besides, they're not a bad read," Willow added quickly. "For youngsters, I mean."
"Uh huh," Buffy said fighting a smile.
"I need to get my coat," Willow said quickly.
Dawn was immersed in an adventure that seemed both much more exciting and less cluttered than the one she was embroiled in. She came to the first illustration in the book, one of S. Cout's eloquent line drawings. It was a picture of Clare's teacher and bodyguard Brock. Suddenly the girl was seeing a real person, older and grayer. She saw Harold as he picked her up and threw her off the train. She started to cry.
"Honey, what's wrong?" Tara said softly. Dawn looked up at her through her tears.
"Tildy... Tara," Dawn said raggedly. "I-I saw Harold. He-he watched over me and, and, oh God, he's dead because of me. I remember him."
"Dawn, listen to me," Tara said with a gentle firmness as she framed the girl's tear-streaked face in her hands. "What happened was because other people made choices and took actions that were quite frankly evil. Harold made his choice and did his duty. You didn't get a choice, Dawn. None of that was your fault."
"But-" Dawn started.
"None of that was your fault, none of it was your choice," Tara said in a clear voice.
"If it wasn't my fault why does it hurt so bad?" Dawn asked in a bewildered tone.
"Because they were yours and you were theirs," Tara said tightly. "I think you loved them."
"I... I still can't remember everything," Dawn said dejectedly. "He taught me things. There was this..."
Tara waited for a moment but Dawn's shoulders slumped.
"It's gone," Dawn whispered. "I don't know if I should read this now."
"You liked the stories before," Tara said evenly. "If you stop..."
"If I stop they win," Dawn said with a more steady voice. "The ones who did this take something more away from me. And it was a present from Willow, who will get all worried and blame herself if she thinks it hurt me somehow."
Tara just nodded. Dawn stood up and picked up her book. The girl looked at Tara and sat down in the chair with the best light.
"Excuse me," Dawn said levelly. "I'd like to get in some reading."
"You do that," Tara said with a smile. "I'm going to get some things laid out to wear for dinner."
Dawn read for a few moments. She came back to the illustration. There was a twinge of sadness but she studied the picture. The picture had a rendition of a plain looking medal on the lower left corner. She looked at it and recognized it as the same one Tara had in her pack.
It must be the Imperial Service Medal, Dawn thought, but somehow she knew that wasn't right. She looked at the small writing S. Cout used to label the parts of the drawing. She realized her mouth had dropped open and looked up to see if Tara had noticed her reaction. The young woman was looking through her clothes. Dawn sighed very quietly in relief and read the words again. There was no mistake. The medal in the drawing and the one in Tara's pack were the same. Both were the Imperial Gold Sunburst.
Buffy noticed the many policemen on patrol in Schleswig's pleasant streets. There were knots of older teenagers in gray blazers with various facings on the lapels. Occasionally there were other signs that made her uneasy. Imperial citizens, usually in pairs and all visibly armed, stood watch at the doors of the more wealthy homes and businesses.
"Mercenaries," Giles muttered.
"And lots of police," Alex said softly.
Buffy noticed the boy's mouth didn't move much when he spoke. Even Willow seemed to have lost her good mood. The two men stood a little ways back as she went in to the telegraph office. The balding man there looked up at her with a scowl.
"How much?" he asked brusquely.
"About six hundred words," Willow said politely.
"Impossible," the man grunted, pointing at a pile of forms. "No more than one hundred words."
Buffy looked at the pile and the man's rumpled looking clothing. She motioned to Giles.
"Give me a demi-florin," Buffy whispered.
"But-" the older man hissed.
"Trust me," Buffy smiled.
Giles rolled his eyes but he dug in his pocket for a small coin purse and pulled out a small gold coin. Buffy took it and flipped it casually. The man looked up at the soft ringing sound.
"Look," Buffy said with a smile. "I need to get this off soonest so I have to break it down and you need a break. How about you take that break and I get my shortened story out when you get back?"
The man watched the coin worth a week's wage flip in the girl's hand. Giles cleared his throat.
"These are uncertain times," Giles said softly. "A reserve may come in handy."
"Yes it might," the man said distantly.
"Can I use your typewriter?" Buffy asked looking at the pages in her hands. "Nobody wants to read my handwriting."
"Don't break anything," the clerk said as he signed off on his handset. The man took the coin and placed it in his vest pocket. Then he pulled out a battered coin purse of his own and counted the coins there. He closed the door behind him and pulled the curtain. Buffy sprang forward and turned the 'CLOSED' sign around in the window.
"Come on Will," Buffy said as she headed for the telegraph. "You can do forty words a minute in your sleep."
"But this is bribery and-and it's against the International Accord on Communications and if we get caught we'll be fined and I'll never get into a good school and-" Willow said in a rushed voice.
"So do it fast and we won't get caught," Buffy said brightly. "Will, we need to do this, please."
"But-" Willow started in a shaky voice.
"You can do this, right?" Buffy asked with sudden doubt in her mind.
"Yeah, that's a Grundig one twenty with a standard hook up," Willow replied. "That's not the point. The point..." Willow could feel Buffy's worried earnestness and she could even pick up a hint of worry from Giles.
"How much do we have to send?" she sighed.
"Thanks Will," Buffy said hugging her. "All the stuff we wrote and coded."
"Right," Willow nodded as she sat down at the telegraph key.
As Willow started sending the opening code that would route the message Giles looked out the window at a newsboy hurrying past. The boy looked up and Giles could hear the faintest sound of distant snarls. He opened the door and called for a paper. The boy tore his eyes away from the sky just long enough to check the coin Giles gave him. Giles followed the boy's stare and caught the graceful half dozen aircraft above him flying south in formation.
Giles looked at the paper and read the article. The writer lambasted the government for the weak response of the League for committing only three frigates and half the combined aircraft of the League's members to the defense of 'our interests'. Giles scowled at the name of the paper, 'Bugle' done in a script so Gothic he doubted many people could decipher the name.
"What is it Giles?" Buffy asked as she looked at the paper. After a moment she looked at him with frightened eyes.
"It's real," Giles said, answering her unasked question. "I saw the Hanoverian Air Force flying south towards Oldenberg."
"We need to get this out," Buffy said pulling out Willow's small notebook. "We'll make this the hundred word message."
"Good God," William whispered as he looked up.
"Canvas and wood with a radial engine," Riley said clinically beside him. "The French-Italian Coalition has a squadron of all metal interceptors. Cost them a fortune."
"We need to get home as quickly as possible," William growled.
"We're on it already," Riley pointed out. "At least we're finally getting our fuel."
William shook his head and looked across the quay at the sleek forms of the frigates, one from each League nation, as they built up steam. The Star of Copenhagen's request for fuel had been delayed 'due to the nature of the current emergency' until the warships had been supplied. The captain was fuming as he looked to the tide and the weather. Then the harbormaster had announced that the commercial vessel would have to wait until the warships had been over the horizon for an hour for 'security reasons'.
The Captain had used all the words he'd learned in his years at sea to describe his opinion of the matter. At the moment William thought the officer had been restrained. He looked up as the aircraft grew smaller and tried not to think about time passing by.
"It's off," Willow said proudly. "Station wrap and everything perfect."
"Great," Buffy said as she finished typing the message.
"Well, don't get too excited just cause I sent a double blind signal that will cover our trail and managed to get the priority signal worked in without a single question from the transceiver station," Willow huffed.
"It sounds very clever," Alex said looking at the complex equipment with awe.
"Thank you, Alexander," Willow said pointedly.
"What?" Buffy said looking up.
"She fooled everybody and we're in the clear," Alex said proudly. "I think."
"We need to get back to the ship," Giles said as he did a final check of Buffy's spelling and grammar with only one wince. "Things are happening."
"What?" Willow asked.
The doorknob rattled as the clerk opened the door. Behind him a tall, thin man with a scowl and braid on his policeman's uniform glared at Buffy and pulled out a notebook.
"Ah, the famous journalist," the officer said with the same tone he might have used to describe an annoying insect. "Don't let me keep you from leaving, Miss Summers. Now."
"The people have the right to know," Buffy said putting her hands on her hips and drawing her notebook and pen.
"If you're not on that ever so expensive transportation in a quarter of an hour you can tell the people about the interior of Schleswig's jail," the policeman growled. He glanced at the 'Bugle' in Giles hand and scowled.
"It figures," the cop muttered.
Tara looked at the paper with the ornate mark of the shipping line in her hand and frowned.
"Another invitation to the Captain's table?" Willow asked.
"N-no," Tara replied. "It's an apology. Everyone is invited to the main dining room for a buffet and entertainment."
"Which won't make this tub move a bit faster," grumbled William. "Sorry ladies."
"I think you should go, perhaps with an escort," Giles said in a thoughtful tone. "Try to gauge the feeling of the passengers."
"We're thinking politics already?" Buffy asked.
"Afraid so," the Prince sighed.
Tara looked at Dawn as everyone in the crowded stateroom went over again what they had observed that day, trying to make the facts fit. Even Alex had contributed when he pointed out the senior police official seemed unhappy with the nationalist paper Giles had purchased. Tara listened as the girl in the corner read that paper and looked more and more unhappy. Tara looked over to Buffy. The small blonde met her eyes and then followed her gaze as Tara looked back to Dawn.
"Put that rag away," Buffy said sternly as she stood up and came to Dawn's side.
"Is any of this real?" Dawn asked in a small voice.
Buffy looked down at the line drawing of a windowless basement room with a leering rat at the door. The heading said 'A Mother's Cell' and the article with it reported that French barbarians were threatening the Countess of Sussex and strip searching all of her female attendants including the correspondent. Buffy pulled Dawn to face her. She stroked her younger sister's hair gently.
"Have you ever heard of this 'Miss Brown'?" Buffy asked.
"No," Dawn said softly.
"Does that look like any place on the estate you've been in, especially the ones where you weren't supposed to go and did anyway?" Buffy asked with a faint smile.
"I never... no," Dawn said a touch sullenly.
"It's not real," Buffy said surely. "I'm not saying things are all bright and happy at home, but that is not real. Okay?"
"Yeah," Dawn said with a nod.
Tara pulled on her jeans and stepped out of the tiny bathroom into her stateroom. Willow was looking at a book intently and not turning the page. Dawn and her sister were with Giles and Alex in the stateroom across the way and the men were getting ready in their own room. Willow had volunteered to help get Tara ready and the dark blonde had stammered her thanks.
Now what do I do? Tara thought to herself.
"Could y-y-you h-help me with this scarf?" Tara asked hesitantly.
Oh smooth, Maclay! she chided herself silently.
Willow reached for the scarf Tara was holding out. When her hand brushed Tara's she felt a warmth she'd never before this trip. Willow looked down at the loops of Tara's jeans and prayed the off-world beauty didn't want her to lace it through the way Buffy had the night before.
I don't think I could stand it and not... Willow thought and then blushed.
"How-" Willow squeaked. "I mean, how do you want to wear it?"
"Um, folded and around the shoulders?" Tara asked.
"I can do that," Willow said in a relieved voice.
The redhead started and realized that Tara was about as tall as she was now. Willow looked down at the flat shoes Tara was wearing.
It's the boots and being bigger in all the best ways that make her seem taller, Willow thought.
Then her thoughts became much less organized as she draped the scarf around Tara's shoulders. She brushed it out and felt the cloth seem to come to life under her hands. For an instant she thought about replacing the scarf with her arms and draping them around Tara and nestling against the soft dark blonde hair. It wasn't until she felt Tara's hand on hers did she realize she wasn't moving her hands anymore. She was about to apologize when Tara turned and framed her face gently in her hands. The kiss that followed was soft and over too soon.
"That was an I want to kiss you Miss Rosenberg kiss," Tara said with a smile. "Just so you know."
The knock on the door sounded distant at first. Finally Tara looked out to make sure of her escort. She smiled at Willow and let Liam escort her to the dining room followed by the Prince and Riley. Willow locked the door behind them. The she pirouetted in place and fell back across the bed and smiled hugely at the ceiling.
When Tara entered the dining room she noticed knots of people together with very little mingling. She overheard several people grumbling about being held at the dock. No one was near the embarrassed looking police constable near the Captain. Tara felt an undercurrent of disappointment and failure coming from the striking girl in the sequined dress at the only table that seemed to be attracting all kinds of people. She heard the sounds of a card game and felt her escort's attention drift toward cards and the girl.
"Why don't you go play a hand or two and listen," Tara suggest to the tall Irishman.
"What about you?" Liam asked mostly out of politeness.
"I'll circulate," she replied. "I'll work my way to the Prince."
"Right," Liam agreed. "I'll meet you there after I win."
Tara circled and listened, keeping her attention on the girl and the game. Her name was Anya and she was a constructed human. Her DNA would be tweaked in places to create the best possible result. Tara Remembered that only pleasure models were made so this Anya might give off subtle signals to increase her appeal to her client. Tara glared at the black choker on the girl's slim neck, a sign she was more object than person to her client. As she watched Tara saw the girl change her position slightly, a breast almost showing as she looked away. Tara looked away, unwilling to add to those watching Anya. Then Tara realized the construct had done that after a quick look at the table just after the cards had been dealt. She looked for the Prince and headed in his direction.
"William," she said with a smile for the first time. "May I borrow Mr. Riley for an errand?"
"What dangers am I sending him into?" William asked.
"I need to send him to Miss Rosenberg for a science question," Tara answered.
Dawn placed her bookmark into her novel and looked up at Mr. Giles and the others in the room. She was fairly sure they couldn't fly an airship or field strip a machine gun, but Alex had seen things the others had missed on the trip into town, Willow was smarter than Brock, that was for sure and she knew Mr. Giles would have been able to decipher the code of the Silver Sextant in about four pages. Even Beth was a better sister from what little she could remember now that she was Buffy the reporter.
"Taking a break?" Giles asked her with a small smile.
"Yeah," she said quickly. "Ah, sir?"
"What is it Dawn?" Giles asked.
"What does the Imperial Gold Sunburst really mean?" Dawn asked in what she hoped was a nonchalant way.
"Ah, Master Sergeant Brock of the Imperial Marine Commandos," Giles nodded.
"You've read the Claire Durano books?" Dawn asked in astonishment.
"Just the first couple to make sure I wouldn't be hearing from your mother," Giles explained. "They are fairly good young adult fare."
"Oh," Dawn said a bit embarrassed. "So what does it mean to win one?"
"Brock is damn lucky," Giles said without a smile. "You don't really win any military medal, Dawn. It's awarded to you because someone else thought you deserved it. Most of the people who were awarded the Gold Sunburst got it after they were dead or nearly so after doing something brave beyond all expectations and being seen. For every medal of any kind there are a hundred other people who did something equally brave, but they did it beyond the view of anyone and no one knows of their courage."
"So you'd have to be lucky and a hero?" Dawn asked.
"Quite correct," Giles said softly.
"Do people really make a fuss over you if they know you have one?" Dawn asked thoughtfully. "A big medal, I mean."
"Yes, some people do," Giles explained. "For some that's worse than what got them their medal in the first place, and every time someone asks about their decoration they have to relive that moment and try to live up to it. I think sometimes it's easier to be a damn fool. Nobody expects much out of you."
Dawn's next question was silenced by the knocking on the door and Giles reaching into the valise at his side.
"Mr. Giles?" Tara asked as the older man arrived with two small cases marked fragile.
"I'm afraid Miss Rosenberg didn't quite trust young Mr. Riley with her few pieces of lab equipment," Giles said with a thin smile as he handed the cases to Tara. "She did however trust you with them."
Tara blushed and turned away just in time to see the Irishman stand up at the table. She watched Liam as he ambled over to the Prince with only a couple of backward glares at the card game. She palmed the small lenses Giles had given her as the dark haired Irishman came up.
"Did you win much?" Tara asked sweetly.
"Didn't really want to," Liam said with a shrug. "It's just a small stakes game."
"At the moment," the Prince said. Above them the whistle shrieked the announcement that the Star of Copenhagen would be pulling out soon.
"Come with me," Tara said in a commanding tone.
She kept her attention on where Anya was looking. At the deal Tara caught her glance ever so slightly at the table and shift. Tara reached over the coffee trader's arm and took one of his cards.
"Hey!" both the trader and the gambler yelled at the same time. The gambler seemed a bit more strident. He reached for Tara only to have Giles' hand squeeze his wrist harder than he had Willow's earlier that evening. Tara lifted the card to the light and peered through the tinted lens in her hand.
"They're not marked!" the gambler shouted.
"Not to you or me," the Prince said as tiny lines showed under close scrutiny. "But to someone with enhanced vision for moving around a bedroom without disturbing anyone they're quite visible in this light, isn't that correct miss?"
"So she can see something I can't," the gambler snapped. "We never talk."
"Anya," Tara said gently as she met the construct's frightened eyes. "What does this mean?"
Tara positioned her hand and arm just so and Anya looked at the pose.
"Pair of aces and a pair of fours," Anya said looking at the pose. "I think you're trying to say king high."
"Those are my cards!" A man across the table shouted.
"Yes sir," Anya said quickly with a vacant smile. "They're very good and you played them very well. They're the winners unless my master uses the king under his lapel."
You just happened to mention that, I'm sure, Tara thought as she felt a wave of repressed anger flare in the girl.
"Well, well, well," the policeman said as he placed a hand on the gambler as Liam and the other men at the table grabbed him. "I think there's a few things that need to be straightened out at the station."
"Please officer, if I may?" William said politely.
"Yes, your grace?" the constable said in a puzzled tone.
"I believe we are about to depart, and I must attend to duties that await me at home," William said easily. "If you take him in here it will be a matter for the courts here and I would be forced to choose between a duty to the law and to my country."
"I see," the policeman nodded. "Could you charge him there?"
"If I may," Giles said with a smile that seemed more challenge than smile. "Miss Anya, do you have a copy of your contract?"
"He does," she said pointing at the gambler. "He keeps it in his jacket pocket next to the gun."
There was a grunt from the table as the policeman removed both objects Anya had mentioned with a minimum of gentleness. The cop offered the paper to Giles.
"Thank you," Giles said politely. "Miss Anya, who is this Mr. Tappert?"
Anya flinched at the name and looked down. Tara touched her hand and gave her a reassuring smile.
"He can't hurt you here," Tara said surely.
"My original owner," Anya whispered hoarsely. "He trained me."
"Owner?" Giles asked gently.
"I was made," Anya said looking down.
"That's an Imperial contract!" the gambler screeched. "It's not from Xanadu!"
"Yes, and I see in this you're listed as a minor, Anya," Giles said in a pleasant tone. "How old were you, legally, when this was written?"
"In real terms I was sixteen," Anya said softly.
"Sixteen?" Giles said more loudly. There was a growl from the crowd. The gambler had been reduced to making panicky noises that were half sobs and half groans. Giles looked to the Captain and the policeman. Then he turned his attention to the man being held by his former victims.
"I doubt this piece of fiction would last thirty seconds in any courtroom in the Empire as anything but an admission of chattel slavery," Giles said in a hard flat voice as he looked at the contract. "Would it, Mister... Crenshaw?"
"I didn't know!" the gambler pleaded in a sob.
"You didn't want to know!" Giles growled.
"I think we'll take him with us and do a proper job of it in Oldenberg," William said to the policeman.
"Very well, your grace," the cop said glaring at the sobbing Crenshaw. "Do have a safe journey."
"What about Anya?" Tara asked. As she did so Tara removed the scarf from her shoulders and draped it around Anya's, covering the frightened girl a bit more. Anya pulled the scarf closed and smiled at Tara.
"How old are you?" Giles asked.
"Nineteen in real terms," Anya said looking down.
"The contract is illegal," William pointed out.
"I have no function," Anya whispered fearfully.
"But we need her as a witness," Tara said quickly. "So we need to take her with us."
"Yes, quite so," William agreed. "I realize you already have-"
"Your servant," Giles interrupted quickly as he looked quizzically at Tara.
"Yes, your servant," William continued. "Would you keep an eye on Miss Anya as well at least until we arrive at Oldenberg in the morning?"
Tara looked at Giles, who nodded.
"With the Captain's permission," Tara said bowing slightly to the Captain. The ship's officer stood and nodded.
"The stewards will bring Miss Anya's things to your room," the Captain said. "Mr. Crenshaw's assets are to be placed under my lock and key and delivered with him to Oldenberg authorities. Please tally your losses, ladies and gentlemen. Now if you will excuse me, the pilot is aboard. We must be underway."
"So you figured this all out yourself?" Willow asked wide-eyed. "And I wasn't there to see it."
"You were critical," Tara said as she handed Willow the cases with her small lenses.
"Which one was it?" Willow asked.
"The ultraviolet," Anya answered brightly from across the room.
"Anya's hearing and vision have been enhanced," Tara explained.
"That's not all," Willow muttered glancing at the striking girl's chest.
"No, those are natural, well, they're a result of my DNA being told to make them this shape," Anya explained in a helpful manner.
"Are you sure she's safe with...Claire?" Willow asked in a whisper. "And you? I mean there are stories."
"Miss Willow, I know who freed me from that man and then gave me a new function," Anya said looking down.
Willow felt a bit chagrined and shrugged. Tara took the slim redhead's hand in hers. Then the stateroom door rattled and the rest of the party stepped in.
"We'll be making port early in the morning," William announced.
"I would say everyone needs to get some sleep before tomorrow," Giles said sternly.
"I'll get Anya settled in," Tara said fighting a sudden yawn.
"We'll be over in a bit," Buffy said as the three young men made their goodbyes. Tara just smiled at the attention Buffy was getting in the process and led Anya to the stateroom.
Tara turned up the light and closed the door. As she turned around Anya looked up and met her eyes. The construct started to ease out of her dress.
"Males are my primary area of training but I'm well-versed in all aspects of inducing orgasm in females as well, Miss Tara," Anya said softly. "How would you like to start, Mistress?"
"Oh dear," Tara said in a very tight voice as she pulled Anya's dress back onto her shoulders. "Its n-n-not l-l-like that!"
"I don't please you?" Anya asked in a hurt tone.
"No!" Tara said quickly. "I mean you're very, ummm pleasing but its just I, ahhh, you don't have to..."
"But I enjoy sex very much," Anya explained in a confused tone. "It was horrible with Mr. Crenshaw because all he wanted was to win at cards. I haven't had a single orgasm in months."
"I know the feeling," Tara muttered before she realized it.
"I could help!" Anya said brightly.
"N-No, that's okay," Tara said rapidly.
"Oh!" Anya said smiling. "Am I a present for the redhead who's scent was jealous?"
"No!" Tara snapped.
"Now you're jealous," Anya said in a frightened tone. "I'm sorry, Mistress."
"Anya, that's your old function," Tara explained as she tried to make her voice calm. "Your new function is to be yourself."
"That's only for reals like you," Anya explained. "I'm just a construct."
"Reals?" Tara wondered aloud.
"Real humans," Anya said in a soft, dejected voice.
"Anya, you're a real human," Tara said firmly.
"I was made," Anya said. "I'm a thing. Everyone says so. Sex is all I'm good at. It's my function."
Tara reached for Anya's hands. She clasped them in her own. Anya looked up, her face a mix of hope and fear. Tara smiled.
"These are human hands," Tara said softly. "Anya, you're a human who just came to being in a different way. Everybody who's decent says so."
"But..." Anya said almost daring to hope. "Decent?"
"Everyone from Lamas to lawyers say you're human," Tara assured her. "Even the Pope says you're a human."
"I've met lawyers on Xanadu," Anya said defensively. "They never said I was real. They were just all 'kneel and-'"
"Real lawyers," Tara said quickly. "There isn't a lawyer in the Empire who'd say you weren't human. Xanadu is over the border and out of the range of Imperial law. The only people who go there can afford a million crowns a year for a 'citizenship' in a place where the law just means that means they can do anything they want. It's different here."
"Different?" Anya said with a shiver.
"Yes," Tara said earnestly. "And this is different too. Anya, this isn't about sex, it's just a human thing."
Tara took Anya in her arms very carefully and gave her a hug.
"I liked that," Anya said after Tara released her.
"Any human would," Tara explained carefully.
"A human thing?" Anya asked with a widening smile.
"Yes," Tara said with her own hopeful smile.
Anya smiled back and wrapped her arms around Tara and gave her the human gesture back. Her stress showed itself in the vigor she used to return the gesture.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Riley asked as the three men made their way to their cabin. "I mean from security stand point."
"Correcting injustice rarely consists of simply tossing the miscreant in jail," William said soberly. "We have to right the rest of the wrong as well. Besides I rather doubt someone would go through all this just to get to our rather unorganized effort with her."
"I could keep an eye on her," Liam volunteered. "You know, just to be safe. I wouldn't let her out of my sight until we get to Oldenberg."
"We'll be there early in the morning," William said.
"We wouldn't want you to lose your beauty sleep," Riley added.
"Duty first," Liam replied.
"I can't believe you brought that stuff along as we were running for a boat to who knows where," Buffy said as they put on their coats.
"Well, it's just a basic kit," Willow said defensively. "Just the telescope with the microscope conversion kit."
"And a few slides and caps and test tubes and stoppers and beakers-" Dawn pointed out.
"One beaker, and it's a small one," Willow insisted. "And without an infrared or UV filter you just can't catch all the possible observations, especially with plants and besides, they were useful."
Buffy was about to say something but Willow didn't hear it as the blonde opened the door. There, in the middle of the room Tara Was in the tight embrace of the girl made for pleasure.
There seemed to be no air in the room for the redhead. Jealousy and anger warred in her. Then the slinky demimonde looked Willow in the eye and approached her. Willow wanted to cry and slap her and scream but she couldn't move. Then the creature had the gall to smile at her like nothing had happened.
"Hello, fellow human!" Anya said happily.
Willow was trying to understand what that meant when Anya wrapped her up in the hardest hug Willow could remember.
"Umm," Tara started until Buffy held up her hand and yawned widely.
"Let's save the explanations for the morning," Buffy said. "I think this is going to take a while."
"Hello!" Anya said as Buffy finished. The blonde couldn't get out her protest before she too was engulfed in a hug. It was all Willow could do not to laugh at her friend's gasp.
Willow was dancing with Tara to a string ensemble. They were both in gowns of silk. Buffy was nearby, surrounded by tall men in white tie and tails. Anya slinked along as she pounced and fiercely hugged people. Giles beckoned from the side of the dance floor as he held up his watch. Then the musicians each turned into different soldiers from all over Europa in their best parade uniforms. They moved into line with allied soldiers and leaped at each other at their easily predicted opponents. They shattered as they collided and turned into broken puppets.
Willow looked up at the darkness where the strings disappeared. A deep, almost subsonic amphibian croak echoed in her ears. She turned to Tara in a panic and saw the girl was sitting on the dance floor with it's almost jeweled colors. Then Willow saw what Tara sat on wasn't a dance floor at all but rather the wings of a damselfly almost as large as the frog above her. She looked up and saw the warty giant open his jaws.
"Willow, it's a dream, it's all right!" Giles shouted.
Willow shook her head and stared at him, finally realizing she could feel the pitch of the ship and see Alex's frightened eyes from beyond the next bed. Willow looked at Giles as she grabbed his hand.
"I know what they're after!" she said breathlessly. "Giles, I know why this is happening! I've got it!"