The transport made its lazy way from Brindval to Kana over the course of two days, Stenibelle’s mood matching the pace of the journey. As it settled into a high orbit, there was a knock on her door. She meekly answered. “Yes?” she quietly asked.
Standing at her door was Ottoman John, this time looking much more at ease than he had on Hagthorpe, apparently the stuffy surroundings and manufactured air of the transport was much more to his liking. “Lady Belmont, it is good to see you again. I have summoned a footman to attend to your things. If you would, may I entreat you to follow me?”
“Sir Ottoman, not quite so green this time out. Pity—I thought the shade suited you.”
Had Stenibelle said that or just thought it? She wasn’t sure. Ottoman John didn’t react one way or another, so she must not have said anything.
“Come this way, please.” Stenibelle was used to the regimented life in prison, and Ottoman’s request had the sound of an order. She came out of her room, popped on her hat and followed him without a word or thought of protest.
As she followed him through the ship, her previous conversation with Lady Alesta and A-Ram flashed through her mind. “Where are we going?” she asked.
“To see your benefactor.”
“And, who is that?” If A-Ram and Alesta were not utterly mad and had told her the truth, then she already knew the answer: a strange professor from Calvert awaited her at the end of this journey.
“Please, we’ve a schedule to maintain. All shall be made plain in short order.”
“Fine, no vomiting.” Once again, she thought witty things but didn’t bother to say them.
They stepped into a waiting Ripcar and quickly were out the transport and on their way down to Kana below. Stenibelle sat in her seat quietly, still hearing the raised voices of her detractors that had assailed her during the trial.
“A disgrace and a traitor …”
“The worst and most ill-thought out appointee in recent memory. We shall re-write the book based on this disaster.”
“If you weren’t a lady, I’d call for your head!”
She, sitting there on the stand, listening to the searing words, seeing her father long-faced, sitting in the gallery, the memory of it all pained her as if it had just happened.
“I’m sorry, father. I did my best.”
As the Ripcar dropped into the atmosphere, Stenibelle could see the long golden line of the eastern coast tracking from south to north. About midway up was the spur of land jutting into the water where Tyrol was located.
Tyrol, Belmont Manor, her home. She wanted to go home, to bask in it and be soothed by all the things she loved, but the Ripcar veered south, to the sprawling green tangle of the Great Armenelos Forest splayed out on the southern continent like a gangrenous bruise. Even from orbit, the forest looked wild and untamable.
The Ripcar was soon skimming the treetops of the forest; dark green and primordial, bursting with life. A craggy graystone manor, plunked somewhere in the tangled growth, appeared at a rapid pace. The vessel slowed and settled into a tenuous clearing, landscaped with flair and studded with fountains and pathways. Containment came down and Stenibelle got out. Several servants ushered her onto a central pebbled path, passing not one, but two string quartets, wigged, hosed, and dressed for success,; spilling sweet, cultured music into the afternoon air amid the cawing and flapping commotion of the forest perimeter beyond. Gardeners hauled wheelbarrows full of shorn vegetation away. Keeping the massive forest at bay was clearly a daily chore. Winged, reptilian beasts lurked at the fringes of the compound, occasionally shaking the branches.
Stenibelle, despite the sweet music and manicured lawns, thought she could hear the wild forest stretching and growing around her.
Wigged footmen in frills, buckle shoes and pastel coats came forward to receive her. She was whisked down a footpath to the cool, temperature-controlled interior of the manor. Clattering on marble and polished stone, she was led through enameled corridors under paneled ceilings and painted hangings.
Somewhere down a quiet wing, a heavy baroque door opened for her. A spacious chamber, ornate and splendid, waited within. “If you will, my lady, fine garments have been laid out for you,” the footman said. “Please, we entreat you to put them on. Do you require assistance?”
Stenibelle could see a lovely gown draped over a mannequin waiting within, accompanied by flanking mannequins holding trays bearing fine linens and knickers and a pair of jeweled shoes. “Of course I don’t need any assistance.”
“Excellent, women of Tyrol are so independent, so I’ve been told. If you would then?” The footman motioned for her to enter.
She stepped inside and the heavy door shut behind her. Standing in the ornate room livid with finery she heard the mags slide and engage. Locked in. She’d come all this way just to be imprisoned again. She could pick the lock and be out, if she wanted. She could fade into the shadows and not be seen as her Mother had taught her. Before the trial, she would have done those things. She would not have stood there in a strange manor locked in an unfamiliar room, fabulous, certainly, but no less a prison than her bare cell in Hagthorpe. Before the Seeker, Lady Stenibelle would not be bound.
Instead, she was now the post-Seeker, post-trial Stenibelle. The beaten one. The disgraced, incompetent one her Mother, thankfully, hadn’t lived to see.
“I hereby order you to come about, stand clear and await my boarding …”
The one who did as she was told.
Obediently she took her HRN and boots off, carefully laying them out on table where automated mannequins came and spirited them away, brushing the material as they went. The mannequins were geared and tautly cabled, some being full human automatons clicking with precision movement and preprogrammed grace, others were wheeled and only partially human-like and others were just delicate appendages running on mounted rails. Off came her man’s pants and her frilly white blouse—more mannequins took those. She let her Vith triangle hat fall to the floor; it didn’t remain there long. Another mannequin bore it away.
There she was standing there in the full-length mirror; nude. A smallish, black-haired woman, pretty, with an inviting smile, though she wasn’t smiling at the moment. Blue eyes like ice—now those were rather striking. The gentlemen calling on her through the years always remarked on her eyes. Good hips, Tyrol hips like her Mother had, built for punching out twenty or thirty children. There were the two dotted moons of her breasts and the waiting pearl of her vagina. She was in need of personal grooming to keep things properly in check.
She tried to imagine herself as a man: taller, with muscles, no hips and a cod piece.
She mused: If I had a little something dangling there I wouldn’t be in this mess, would I? I could have married some tea-drinker. I could have bedded and given her a good pounding every evening and punched-out Belmont heirs left and right. What currency a little hog-leg can offer.
Water came on in the bath chamber beyond and the mannequins gestured for her to enter and wash. She felt the steam and the heat of the hissing water and smelt the fine oils and expensive soaps awaiting her. Her showers at Hagthorpe had all been cold and sterile.
She saw something lying on the dense carpeting of the floor. It was a small photo, possibly it had fallen out of the pocket of her HRN as the mannequin had carried it away. Where had it come from? She hadn’t seen it before. Perhaps those two crazy-people A-Ram and Alesta had put it there trying to stir some sort of nostalgia within her. That must be the case. She picked it up and looked at it.
There, in the photo was a group of people standing together, smiling. She recognized Lady Alesta and A-Ram—they looked to be a very happy and well-suited couple. She envied them a little bit as she gazed at the photo, they had each other and that was all that seemed to matter. Next to them was a tall, handsome man, and near him was a pretty but somewhat proper-looking woman wearing a Fleet uniform with long brown hair. She stood with perfect posture and regal bearing.
That tall man—he was wearing an HRN coat, just like hers, only bigger and longer. It was unmistakable.
He had a Belmont face, like her father and black Belmont hair.
NTH’s jutted from his sash.
Eyes blue like ice.
Wait! She sucked in her breath. Was that … her?
Alesta and A-Ram had said she was a man in another reality. A bunch of balderdash, who wouldn’t think so; however, the whole concept of alternate realities wasn’t totally new or alien to her. Her Mother, during her years of secret training in Tyrol sorcery in the abandoned culvert under the city, had speculated on the existence of such a thing. And, come to think of it, she’d had occasional distant dreams of being a man, of fighting like a man and firing the NTH’s. Of loving women …
So, no, being a man in an alternate reality didn’t, after some reflection, surprise her much at all. She stood there holding a photo that belonged in another universe, was taken in another universe, depicting people from another universe. Everything seemed fairly normal and familiar, except for him/her. It figured that he/she would be the odd man/woman out.
Perhaps the photo was a fake, and A-Ram and Alesta were out to con her. Con her out of what? Money?
The man in the picture wore a triangle Vith hat like she did, Tyrol boots of leather and silver and wore a green sash with the wooden handles of two pistols that resembled NTHs jutting out. She recognized the detailing on the grips. Those were her grandfather’s NTHs, the ones she herself carried though they wouldn’t function for her because she was a woman. If A-Ram and Alesta were con artists, then they were master forgers.
Stenstrom the Younger, Lord of Belmont-South Tyrol.
If this photo was to be believed, then in another place she was a man and therefore her House wasn’t doomed. In another place, she hadn’t lost her chair and been sent to prison. A-Ram and Lady Alesta hadn’t mentioned that; on the contrary, they seemed surprised and put off by her dour attitude and her situation.
They said he was the bonded captain of the Seeker.
He had succeeded. That was reason for a bit of hope.
In another universe, perhaps she wasn’t an utter, defeated failure. She had a bit of longing for a moment as the water from the shower hissed. Some of her old spirit began to stir. Just like when she was a girl, fruitlessly wrestling with her sister Lyra—always the smaller and the weaker, but not lacking in spirit and determination.
“Get up!” Lyra would say as Stenibelle lay in the sandpit. And, without fail, she always got up to come to grips with her and to try again.
Her eyes moved across the picture to the woman standing next to him (her). Who was she? Long brown hair, wearing a tailored, female-issue Fleet uniform; a lieutenant. She had rather stern expression for a lady. A rapier dangled from her hip. She’d seen that face before.
Wait! It’s her—Lt. Gwendolyn of the Demophalon John who boarded her powerless ship and started the chain of events that led to her being unseated, paneled, tried, disgraced and imprisoned.
“Demophalon John coming in to dock. What do we do? Bel, what are we going to do?”
Lt. Gwendolyn, Lady of Prentiss. A woman she hated, truth be told. Look at them standing there; prim and proper, yet there was a familiar closeness to them, as with A-Ram and Alesta. What were they, courting? Romancing?
Perhaps her alternate male counterpart had little proper taste in women. Hated memories barged into her head.
“Lady Belmont’s ignorance in space-faring was matched only by her soulless, uninspirational incompetence as a commander,” was Gwendolyn’s rather terse testimony on the stand.
She angrily put the photo down and walked into the bathroom. She stepped into the shower and washed, talking to herself as she did so.
“Incompetence? I had a half-scuttled ship and a crew of two. What was I to do?”
Memories intermixed with the rising steam of the water.
“Can we run? Can we fight?”
“We got nothing, Bel!”
She pleaded to no one: “What could I have done?”
“Lady Belmont. I am here to remove you from command and take you into custody.”
“Don’t let her get away with that, Bel! Knock her out! Knock her teeth out!”
She finished her wash, dried and began the long process of dressing. She stepped into her knickers and linens, pulled on her hose and laced up the corset. She took the gown off the mannequin and laboriously donned it, taking the better part of an hour to get it properly situated around her small body. She then made her face up and put on the heeled shoes. Despite the drudgery, she liked “putting her uniform” on, it brought back happy memories of home when she and her army of sisters got ready for dinner in the vast manor changing room, all of them stepping into garments, pulling corsets tight, pinning their hair up and applying make-up. Many of her sisters were old enough to be her mother and she saw little of them, except in the changing room where all of them together labored to get ready for dinner.
Those same sisters, some of whom disavowed her even as she fought to protect their Household and heritage.
Stenibelle was impressed as she brushed on her face. Everything was correct and of the finest quality. The linens, corset and gown were all the proper size. The face paints were all of a shade she favored. The creams enhanced her skin tone. She liked the perfume, and even the shoes fit perfectly. Whoever this Hannah-Ben Shurlamp was, she was meticulous in her details.
Her hair was wild and uncontrollable at the moment, a black, curly mass on her head needing a barber’s attention. She tamed it as best she could.
“Look at your hair, Bel,” Virginia used to say. “You resemble a Monama with all that hair. Let me do something with this.” She smiled. Virginia always could make her laugh.
There came a knock a her door.
“You may enter,” she said, holding her brush.
The door to the chamber opened as she sat at the boudoir. It was a footman wearing teal and lace. “Good Lady, you are expected at audience,” he said. “If you would please …”
Stenibelle put down her brush, glided out of the room and followed the footman deep into the interior of the manor. Up a vast staircase, she was led into a colossal study which was baroque enough to have come straight from a dream; colonnades rising up, domes hammered in black and gold, inner terraces and stone walls carved in bold relief.
Sitting behind a gilded hardwood Hoban desk in the center of the room was a woman dressed in a snowy gown of white, gently typing away at a keyboard with one hand and manipulating a large glyph with the other as a tumbling gallery of holographic icons floated about her head. The glyph looked like a jeweled magic wand and with a flick of it she controlled vast amounts of data. She seemed to be working on at least ten different things at once, each with equal vigor and aplomb. A holo-photo of a portly wigged man floated in a prominent place among the other holos.
She snickered to herself. “Tell your father to watch the bon-bons,” she thought. Stenibelle always had a moderately ribald wit, and occasionally embarrassed Lyra and Virginia with off-handed and ill-timed quips when they went to town.
A pink padded chair with dragon-ball feet sat in front of the desk. Stenibelle went toward it and awaited an invitation to sit.
The woman at the desk continued typing and glyphing, sitting quite still and erect save for her fingers which moved in a flurry. She spoke into several cones, her voice muffled. After several minutes she, without looking up, said: “Be seated. I’ll be with you in a moment.”
Stenibelle sat and gazed at the woman. Though seated, she was clearly tall and fairly buxom. Her skin was powdered to a pearly white and she wore a towering wig of curled locks that looked like a carefully swirled mound of white frosting—almost good enough to eat. A few tendrils of raven-black hair fell out of the seams of the wig and her eyebrows beneath the powder were clearly black. Her eyes, like two brown buttons on a snowy landscape, stood out sharply.
As she waited, Stenibelle felt her humor come up. She decided to speak and break the ice. “Your father is a handsome man,” she said, noting the holo-picture of the wigged man floating over her desk. She thought to be bold and ironic, as the man certainly wasn’t handsome.
The woman stopped what she was doing, the temperature seemed to drop. “That, dear lady, is my beloved husband,” she said in a regal contralto voice. She began typing again.
“Oh, your pardon.” Inside, Stenibelle was roiling in laughter. “What, were they having a sale at the leper farm when you happened by?” She wanted to say it. She wanted to show this woman she was still a confident and bold person.
Without ceasing the pace of her typing or bothering to look in Stenibelle’s direction, she spoke. “Doubtless you are aware who I am, and clearly I know who you are, therefore the standard opening pleasantries are irrelevant. Now then …”
Stenibelle jumped in, for she felt she’d have little opportunity to speak going forward. “Your pardon, Great Lady. I am not in the habit of speaking to a stranger without proper introductions. I am Lady Stenibelle, 30th daughter, House of Belmont-South Tyrol. And you are?”
The woman stopped what she was doing and appeared rather perturbed. She rolled her glyph over her knuckles and tapped the smooth desktop with her fingernails, making a musical clack, clack, clack ... Stenibelle felt herself barbequing in the woman’s gaze.
“I am Grand Dame Hannah-Ben Shurlamp, Professor Emeritus, University of Dee. EVoR, QrduP. NvPhD. Gran-Sequitor Hobanis-Realis and Knight of Bazz. Is that sufficient?”
Stenibelle was certainly impressed. This woman appeared to hold just about every possible merit, title and tenure available to a scholar. Her sister, Lyra, was currently working on earning her “E” degree from the University of Arden, which had taken her six years of total commitment and still had two or three to go. To become an EVoR would take, at minimum, another hundred and fifty.
“You must be really old then,” she wanted to say.
Hannah-Ben Shurlamp resumed her work and spoke. “To answer your first question, which is, no doubt pending, I spent the time and effort to free you from prison because I wish to employ you. I pay quite well, and I am aware your familial monies aren’t what they once were. Your House is marking time, isn’t it? Which will come first, I wonder, extinction or bankruptcy?”
“Now wait a moment, at least I’m not the one married to a fat guy wearing rouge,” rolled through her head. Before Stenibelle could open her mouth and rebut, Hannah-Ben Shurlamp continued. “I wish you to perform a simple infiltration and information-gathering session aboard a Fleet vessel. Your skills as a Tyrolese sorceress shall come quite in handy for this particular assignment, and, should those fail, your toothsome pulchritude shall fill in the gaps nicely. Do you understand? The vessel you shall be infiltrating is this one here …”
She moved her glyph and the holographic image of a Sprint-class Fleet vessel appeared, slowly spinning; long, pencil-like with a small set of shoulder-mounted wings placed well aft. “The George Parr, Sprint-class vessel, Miranda variant, captained by Lord Duval of Wilshire in his sixth seating. Captain Duval is a veteran of many campaigns and battles, he is a family man, a sexton at his local church, and he is also a member of the Nillists of Punt.”
Stenibelle was about to ask who the Nillists of Punt were when Hannah-Ben Shurlamp cut her off. “The Nillists of Punt are, on the surface, a casual social club, like any one might find and care to participate in around the League, however, a simple query into their club yields a strikingly different picture. They are not of League origins, appear to be quite ancient, and boast members in the League, the Xaphans, Ming Moorland and possibly the odd planet code-named ‘Mare’ by the Xaphans. Their motto is: ‘Se nade mote Crumdie’ which is Old Vith for ‘We shall bring about the end of the Universe’.”
“They are attempting to bring about the end of the Universe?”
“That is their motto, yes. They believe in a being often called in the usual vernacular the ‘Shadow tech Goddess’, a fanciful creature powerful enough to destroy everything around her until she is all that is left.”
She moved her glyph and an odd carved image appeared in the one of the floating holos. It was a carving of some sort of robed person, probably female, wearing a bullet-shaped, featureless helmet. From the sides of the helmet grew a host of twisting tubes and tentacles. “This is a representation of the Shadow tech Goddess that the Nillists often carry with them. Their goal is to perform certain rites that shall allow for the introduction of the Shadow tech Goddess into this and other realms of being, thereby destroying them.”
“For Creation’s sake, why?” Stenibelle asked.
“Unknown, and immaterial, as they do not seem to be able to accomplish their goal. There are many destroyers, beings of immense power who are tasked with cleansing certain areas of the universe from time to time, and the Shadow tech Goddess is just one of them.” She moved her glyph and the image of the Shadow tech Goddess vanished, replaced by what looked like the raging shaft of a tornado, undulating and terrible. “This is another destroyer, one that I’ve seen with my own eyes. A cleanser of whole worlds.”
She set the glyph down and the image vanished. “But, enough about this. The Shadow tech Goddess and her quaint lore does not interest me in the least. What does interest me are certain bits of information the Nillists are gathering in their attempts to summon their deity. That is why you are here.”
Professor Shurlamp paused, apparently expecting Stenibelle to interject with a question. She asked none and the professor went on.
“I have it on good authority that the Nillists of Punt have stumbled upon the stellar location of long lost Cammara.”
Cammara? Stenibelle knew the name. A place of lore, a long forgotten home-world. A place of magic and forgotten dreams.
“Yes,” the professor said, studying Stenibelle’s face. “You know the name and the prospect interests you. Irresistible, isn’t it—Cammara. A place of wonder and riches that our ancestors abandoned with the Elders 200,000 years ago during the eponymous CX time epoch. Cammara, like our other former home worlds: Earth, Lemmuria, Emmira, and Eng, is lost to the ages. We followed the Elders, and as they moved on, we moved on too, and Cammara was forgotten. Too much time has passed and its stellar positioning is long since forgotten. Its light in the sky is unknown. That is an unforgivable offense, to forget knowledge that was once plain simply due to the passage of time. Of course time is the great oblivion, as the Sisters say. All shall be forgotten in time.”
“Why not ask your husband, he was probably there,” she mused, proud of her unspoken wit. This professor couldn’t possibly be serious.
“There have been many scholarly efforts to rediscover Cammara, and Eng and the rest. My peer, Professor Merlaman of Shirster, recently gave a symposium regarding his beliefs as to the location of Cammara, and, unfortunately, I had to discredit his claims and humiliate him publically. Even that idiot Professor Compressor from Arden has chimed in on the subject.”
Stenibelle stirred. “What does the location of Cammara have to do with the Shadow tech Goddess?” More wry wit bubbled up. “Shall I take both she and your husband out for a walk?”
“Apparently, the Nillists believe that certain arcane objects reside on Cammara that shall assist them in summoning the Shadow tech Goddess. My sources tell me that there is a great deal of credibility regarding their research.”
“And so, what do you want with me?”
Hannah-Ben Shurlamp momentarily lost her cool, white-powdered demeanor. Her large brown eyes grew wide and she coiled and twisted behind her desk like a great black snake covered in flour. “You,” she hissed with intensity, “are going to board the Fleet ship. You are going to observe, ingratiate yourself and listen. That done, you are going to get me the information I seek. You are going get me the stellar positioning of Cammara.”
“Such knowledge shall set the League on its collective ear. Whomever rediscovers Cammara shall be celebrated forever more as a pioneer and a visionary. Make no mistake, it shall be the name of Hannah-Ben Shurlamp, Professor Emeritus, University of Dee alone, whose name is remembered as the rediscoverer of Cammara. It shall be me who gives the lectures. It shall be me who breaks the bottle on the newly christened Fleet ship dispatched to quest across the deep sea to Cammara for the first time in 200,000 years, and you, Lady Stenibelle, the worthless thirtieth daughter of a dying, impoverished, insignificant Household, are going to fetch me this information. I do not care what needs done. I don’t care what beds you have to sleep in, what earlobes you have to bite, what poisons you have to administer, what murders you have to perform, what backs must be stabbed or what graves you must lie in. I shall have this knowledge and you are going to get it for me.” She placed her long, somewhat boney fingers on her desktop and moved her nails along the surface. “Am I clear?”
It was like an icy wave had launched itself from across the room and hit Stenibelle full in the face. All her wit and puns regarding the professor’s husband dried up and wilted, replaced with shock and a touch of fear. It was like being stuck in a room with her old school master whom she was terrified of. “And, and if I …”
“Refuse?” the professor said. “I wouldn’t if I were you. Please consider that I have extensive information on not only you, but all of your twenty-nine sisters, and your father and your dead mother too. You must acknowledge by now that I am rather meticulous in my methods. I’ll have your sisters defrocked from whatever social circles they inhabit, I’ll have your father off his Fleet chair and inhabiting a prison cell at Hagthorpe as you did, and I’ll have your mother dug up and set into the stocks in Tyrol where ruffians may throw rotting fruits at her equally rotting skeleton. And, by the by, if it’s any interest to you, I could have you right back in Hagthorpe prison alongside your father should I choose to do so, but I think you would rather like that, wouldn’t you? Yes, to sit unobserved in a comfortable if Spartan cell where your disgrace can be hidden and forgotten right along with your tiny little carcass. No, no, instead, I think I would go after what’s left of your House. I’d call in markers and demand margin calls. I’d bankrupt you and allow your creditors to dissect the worthless remains of your holdings while you watch the entire ordeal from a cricket shack or whatever seedy lodgings you can manage to afford. So, with that in mind, if you wish to be the stake that is hammered into your House’s tortured heart at last, then, by all means … refuse.”
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