A traveler on Europa returns to an age when travel was exciting and unpredictable. Trains and steamships are very reminiscent of old Terra's pre-spaceflight examples. These echoes of a bygone era of use much more efficient engines than their ancient counterparts, some carefully maintained for over a hundred years. In the more rural areas horsepower still means hay and oats. Many sea craft on Europa are wind driven for economy's sake.
But for those more eager to experience the many small communities nothing beats a good pair of boots and a lazy afternoon. Due to the lack of communications infrastructure reservations are hard to confirm beyond the larger towns and cities. The walking traveler should have a flexible schedule.
Fodor's Guide to Europa, 85th edition
Tara looked at the interior of the small farmhouse as she balanced a teacup. Normally that would not be hard but the chair she was on was rickety and the cup was definitely something nice kept for company. On the mantle over the fireplace a dozen flat photos sat in neat frames. Many of them were of young people in Imperial uniform.
In the tiny bathroom sounds of Claire cleaning up were interspersed with giggles and chatter. Madame Beaumont's granddaughter had shown up just after Claire and Tara had returned the wandering bovine. Now the girls were trying to clean up Claire, her hair and her clothes. The old woman had climbed down from the loft with a weathered trunk and was now mending old clothes that had been passed down and stored away for years. Tara swallowed some of the strong tea and tried again.
"That's an awful lot of thread and some wonderful stitching," she said with a forced ease. "I would have to pay quite a bit for such wonderful work anywhere."
"For old clothes and older eyes guiding rough hands?" Madame Beaumont said with raised eyebrows. "I think not. Besides, your guide will do me a favor by taking away these old things and leaving me a trunk I can use."
Tara sipped her tea and thought. She'd been unable to find a way to pay the old woman for the dinner she had fixed them and her generosity. Tara looked in the corner and saw a sturdy home made prie dieu with a rosary with blue glass beads hung carefully on a peg beside the kneeler. Tara remembered the thundering sermons about the evils of papists in the Prayer House.
After going through training with Hindi, Catholic, White Pagan, and Reformed Sunni squadmates Tara had come to conclusions that would have made Elder Johnson speechless. Tara smiled at the thought of the gaunt man struck silent. She looked up at her hostess.
"Could you see your way clear to two more favors, Madame?" Tara asked with soft earnestness.
"What is can I do for you?" Madame Beaumont asked with a gentle smile.
"Let us spend the night," Tara said as she heard the first of the threatened raindrops fall.
"But of course," the woman answered looking over her glasses. "This is no night for an injured girl to be in the rough."
Tara saw Madame Beaumont's look at her off world boots. She realized the farmwoman had not meant Claire alone. Tara could feel the slight tightness that signaled it was time for a rest and stretching. Her feet had come through well, but she had to still be careful.
"What else can I do for you?" the older woman asked.
"Pray for us," Tara said quietly. "We travelers need all the help we can get."
Madame Beaumont's answer was a wide smile.
The schooner had caught a freshening breeze and the wind sang in the rigging. Willow looked up at the moon and stars. Beyond the knowledge that the blood in her veins had first flowed generations ago around one of those tiny dancing lights in the night above her, beyond the navigation patterns that guided this ship and even beyond her longing to leave for those stars there was a beauty she never tired of. She pulled her coat around her and felt the waves and wind sing to her a song of travel.
"Just cut it off," Claire said with a sigh.
"But it's so pretty," the girl with tousled auburn hair said as she looked again at Claire's waist length and longer hair.
"Genevieve, it is not your hair," Madame Beaumont reminded her granddaughter. "These snarls and ragged patches won't come out."
"If you're sure," Tara said hesitantly.
"Its just hair," Claire said, then looked shocked. "I can't believe I just said that!"
"Neither can I after all that fussing," Genevieve giggled. Her grandmother shooed her on her way to fetch the scissors.
Tara looked at Claire sitting straight and still on the rickety chair, draped in a huge towel. She thought of the things the girl had said on the trail and the way the girl had settled into the Breton dialect of Imperial Standard without effort. Tara looked at the farm girl as she returned and paid attention to her hands. Claire was not weak, nor was she as pale as some of the first class train passengers Tara had seen, but Genevieve was more tanned and her hands were rougher.
Claire chattered with Genevieve as the Breton girl showed her a battered fashion magazine. They giggled at some of the more esoteric coiffures, and sighed at the elaborate version of a spacer cut on a lean handsome model who had conveniently lost his shirt somewhere. Finally she held up the magazine and turned to Tara. On the page there was a brunette with a simple long cut. The model was turned to show the haircut but there was enough of the model visible to see she was pretty and dressed in a sophisticated business suit.
"What do you think?" Claire asked excitedly.
"I think its you," Tara said with a smile.
The wind was even now and it blew the few clouds along like ships in the moonlit sky. Willow thought she could see a distant dark speck that moved southward at a steady pace in the sky. She could not make it out clearly but it looked like an airship, perhaps even one of the luxury dirigibles. She wondered what the passengers in their tiny cabins would think if they could see the schooner as it plowed through the waves. She dismissed the thought as a flying fish left a brace of tiny rings in its short flight.
"I think we've found your element," Buffy said softly. "Hey, I didn't surprise you."
"Nope," Willow said surely, then she frowned. "Well not since you did the whole Buffy girl reporter thing."
"No, I haven't been catching you unaware for awhile," Buffy said wistfully. "You were so shy. I don't know why you didn't clobber me sometimes."
"Because I'm too nice and you're too fast and strong anyway," Willow said with a wry grin. "Besides, you pissed off the Dragon Lady, so I knew you were a good person."
Buffy smiled and leaned on the railing. She seemed to shiver. When she looked back at Willow there was the frightened look only Willow and Giles had seen. Willow hugged her and felt the petite blonde relax. Willow pushed her to arms length and met her friend's troubled blue eyes.
"She's alive," Willow said calmly. "We'll find her."
"The last thing I said to her was I couldn't wait until she was gone," Buffy whispered hoarsely.
"You'll get a chance to tell her something else," Willow said surely.
The other girl just nodded and let Willow lead her back to the awning that covered their tiny portion of the deck. Alexander had finally fallen asleep. Willow stopped to make sure his blanket was secure. She sat back against the raised hatch. Buffy, no she was sure this was Beth, tossed a blanket around herself and sat next to Willow. The redhead put her arm around her friend's shoulders and felt the small blonde rest her head on Willow's slender shoulder. In a moment Beth was asleep.
Willow looked at Giles and Alexander, making sure she knew where they were and only then did she relax. She let the roll and pitch of the ship carry her off to sleep.
Claire looked at the journal Madame Beaumont had given her when she had asked for a piece of paper. The old woman had rummaged through a small cluttered desk and handed her a small leather bound volume.
"Take this, please," she had said sadly. Claire had simply thanked her and not intruded.
Now Genevieve was asleep on a trundle bed next to her grandmother while she and Tara were bedding down in the loft above. She could just see the rivulets of rain on the window's small panes at the back of the loft. Tara was asleep already, her walking staff in easy reach. Claire did not know where the revolver was but she was sure it was near. She looked back at the blank pages of the journal and picked up the pen she had cadged from Tara.
I guess I'm not sure what I used to start with, but since this is all new I guess I'll just write down what Dawn's going to need to know. If you're reading this now-HI! And I'd better have given you permission, or else! I'm not even sure who I really am right now. I got banged on the head and now it's all too weird. I think this might have happened before and it turned out all right so I'm hoping a LOT right now. This is scary.
I remember hearing some guys talking above me. One of them, a real creep no doubt, said I was dead, but there was another one that wanted to make sure. Creepy said no. I ran. I'm sorry Dawn, but I was still fuzzy and I didn't even remember you until this morning. Hey, at least it took a head injury to get me to forget you. And the bonus is that I've forgotten my bossy sister for the most part. Maybe she's yours, but I couldn't get that lucky.
I really did luck out though. I really don't know how to describe her. She's older but not really old, like thirty or anything. Her name is Tara Maclay and she's nice. She's an Imperial citizen but she says she wasn't anything exciting. Yeah, right! She has this long staff and she carries a gun. I never saw her draw it. She knew this guy was trouble and I swear it was just in her hand. I recognize her boots, I don't know where from but I know the Marines wear them. I know she's good enough to catch me when I tried to get part of her lunch.
Hey, I was HUNGRY! She had two wrapped croissants so I tried to get one but it was like she was all ready for me. Then she gave me one and listened to me. It took a bit of convincing but she believed me. And she fixed me up with this wonderful medic's kit. After the scary guy went by we found a loose Bordelais and was she ready to be milked! What's funny is Tara knew about milking cows. You don't think about cows in space. Turns out she has an aunt that she stayed with that had a farm. Too cosmic coincidence!
We got the cow back and this nice old lady helped us out. I'm putting her name down in our code in the back. She gave me this journal, and it was sad somehow. I met her granddaughter too. She's number 2 and she's nice. I've got a bunch of clothes now, even if they are SO last decade. I don't care because they're CLEAN.
I'm getting tired so I'm wrapping this up. I wish I knew where you were and if you were okay. I wish I knew a lot of things right now! Do I have a mom? Is she okay? I'm worried Dawn. I'll do what I have to and hope. I'm off to bed now. Good night.
Claire turned in her improvised bed and blew out the candle. She was asleep in a moment.
Young men in uniforms from five different armies walked guard on the estate in Sussex. After a flurry of telegrams there were four over-strength companies of infantry with one swollen cavalry troop from Aquitaine billeted on the manicured grounds of the Summers estate. On the second floor of the manor the drapes were pulled back from a window.
The room was quiet. Over a dozen soldiers from five nations watched the Countess light a candle and place it in her window. Several of the men made the sign of the cross. Others just shook their heads. Around the estate there was a sense of tension. Until Dawn or the evidence Prince Louis insisted was there were found the stand off would continue and tensions mount. But here in the room of the Countess the soldiers only saw a mother, worry and hope draining her. Joyce turned to the assembled soldiers and they all rose.
"Good night, gentlemen," she said quietly.
"Good night, milady," the senior noncom of each nationality said with a small bow. Behind them their men did the same.
As soon as the door closed behind her a deck of cards appeared. One soldier from each country pulled a chair to a table and a card game started as the rest of the troops found places to sleep. The Aquitaine troops had taken the couch by order of longest time served. All of the men tried not to hear the very quiet sobs coming from the bedchamber.
The light from the candle did not fall upon the stables. There a trio of unlikely officers gathered around a single shielded lantern on the repair table in the tack room. The men had their hands on their side arms. A fourth man, wrapped in an Inverness cape against the night chill, entered the room. As he stepped into the light of the hooded lantern the others relaxed. They had all had dealings with Travers.
"Gentlemen," he said with a quiet urgency. "Thank you for coming. Things have not gone as planned. We must make plans for salvaging our position."
"Meaning you have a plan, monsieur," the well-coifed Aquitaine captain of cavalry said with a cold sneer.
"Yes, Capitaine Bernelle," Travers said meeting the younger man's eyes. There was animosity but no challenge yet in the younger man's gaze.
"What do you want?" a lean, hard eyed man asked. He wore the uniform of a lieutenant of Oldenberg infantry. He was old for such a rank, even in the slow rise of peacetime officers. His boots were those of the cavalry.
"To the point, Leutnant Klems, as always," Travers said with a nod. "We need to control Dawn Summers should she be alive. I believe she might be. Someone else is covering the search. Should they fail and Miss Summers slip past them I believe she will go to Oldenberg. I need you and Capitaine Bernelle to retrieve her should she arrive and bring her here."
"In what condition?" Klems asked curtly.
"Alive," Travers said flatly. "Beyond that there are no conditions. If you need help make sure they can be disposed of without being missed."
"D'accord," Bernelle said with a nod. "Anything else?"
"No," Travers replied. "I will ask your commanding officers to detach you to escort Lord Jonathon to Oldenberg. He has an appointment now to meet his uncle the king."
"And what am I doing in all of this?" An indifferent voice asked. A rakishly handsome young man in the uniform of the Wessex Dragoons slouched against the table. The light barely showed his captain's pips on his epaulets.
"I believe there is a woman of a certain age, still attractive and at her wits end," Travers said easily. "I'm sure you can find some way of getting the Countess to trust you enough to make a break for it at the proper time. A duty for an officer and a gentleman, Captain Huntington."
"Just up your alley, Basil," sneered the Oldenberg officer. The languid ease of the Wessex officer belied the speed that his hand moved to his sword.
"Gentleman!" Travers hissed. "Enough! We must see to the situation at hand. Settle your imagined slights later."
Klems nodded briefly to Travers and then to Huntington with a smirk thrown in for good measure. The Aquitaine captain simply turned on his heel and followed Klems out. The other two waited for a few minutes to allow anyone seeing one set of figures to move on and not see all four. Huntington reached for an enameled cigarette case, looked at the older man and shrugged as he put it back.
"Where did you get the fools that blew the ambush?" he asked Travers with a slight drawl.
"I didn't," Travers grumbled. "Our off-world source did."
"He didn't get former or ex-Marines," the officer said in a matter of fact tone.
"He led me to believe his 'Security Force' personnel were the equals of the Marines," Travers said in a rueful voice.
"Remind me sometime to tell you the difference between 'Security Forces just as good as the Marines' and the Imperial Marines," Huntington said with a very small shake of his head. "When we have a lot more time."
William tried to find a comfortable way to sleep on the bench. Riley was already asleep and Liam was off somewhere in the inn chasing the pretty skirt he'd seen earlier. William finally lay on his side and tried not to think of what might be happening to Lady Summers. They had found one clear footprint of hers by candle lantern on the trail. Next to it was a small Imperial boot print. Was it from a hunter or an escort?
The young man stared into the darkness. One girl was lost, her mother all but accused of murder for succession or greed or to protect a secret. A dozen large and small countries were on alert and more were standing to each hour. The last cable he had received had said Prince Etienne was losing popular support in Aquitaine. The Aquitaine army was becoming restless. Rumors of the French Coalition backing an intervention in Sussex `for the good of the Peninsula' had caused the United Kingdoms of Britain to meet and the many small squabbling German states to actually honor their various treaties. Saxony and Bavaria were even cooperating.
And in all of it only a handful of people bothered to remember there was a girl not yet fourteen lost and maybe hurt. He sat up and reached for his boots.
"Don't," Reilly said quietly.
"In this rain..." William started.
"You'd catch cold at best, slip in the mud and break a leg at worst," the mercenary said calmly. "She has enough sense to be out of the rain. We'll leave first thing in the morning. Get some sleep."
William lay back down and tried to relax. He tossed and turned on the bench.
"It's sad really," the woman said. Liam tried to remember her name. He thought it was Julia.
"What is, lass?" he asked in a relaxed tone. Whoever she was she was more sophisticated than his usual choice.
"A missing girl, all alone," the woman sighed. "Probably dead, poor thing."
"I wouldn't bet on that," Liam said in a soft tone.
"You think there's hope?" she asked looking at him with wide eyes.
"A wee bit, or maybe more than that," he said leaning forward.
An hour later Liam left her room quietly. He made his way to the common room below and leaned back a chair. He was asleep in a few moments. He never heard her leave the inn.
Around her the clouds danced. It was raining. On a wooden floor a pair of patched quilts were under Dawn and another figure. Dawn was writing in a tattered journal and the other... woman was looking at a guidebook by candlelight. Her blue eyes were kind and beautiful, yet tinged with pain. Outside dark things moved past them, always looking away towards rougher or more luxurious resting places. Willow found herself back reading the guidebook over the young woman's shoulder, past her dark blonde hair. Dawn was safe here for now.
An image of the young woman sitting next to her made Willow think of the graceful line drawings in the book that had turned her world upside down. The scene changed to the library and her writing the name of the book down in her smallest notebook. Then Buffy was leaning forward, looking for all the world like any other noisy reporter with her smallest notebook for a prop.
Willow awoke with a start. Buffy was asleep next to her now. There was streaking in the sky to the east. The crew was up and grumbling. Willow tried to remember her dream, but all she could remember was pair of haunting blue eyes.
Tara yawned and tried not to move too fast. The weak light from the loft's only window told her how early it was before she looked at her small mechanical watch at the beside. The sound of movement and smells of fresh food told her she was on a farm. Mornings broke earlier with a cow and goats to be milked and the dozens of other things that filled the day when you lived on the land that fed you.
Tara rolled out of her bedroll to find Claire sitting up in her own bedroll blinking at her with owlish eyes. Tara smiled at the younger girl as Claire yawned.
"What?" Claire asked with a bit of a scowl.
"I was just thinking it would have been a lot nicer to have a little sister than the horrible big brother I go stuck with," Tara explained.
"You were a little sister too?" Claire asked with happy disbelief.
"Oh yeah," Tara said rolling her eyes.
They chatted easily, comparing Claire's fuzzy memories of her over bearing sister with Tara's all too clear recall of growing up with her brother as they cleaned up the loft. They put away the borrowed bedding and climbed down to help. Claire's tattered clothes were piled neatly by Tara's rucksack.
Tara opened her pack and began rearranging things as Claire helped with breakfast. The girl came over to Tara just as the older girl was packing a very small box. It slipped from Tara's hand and fell to the floor. It popped open. Claire picked it up before Tara could reach it.
Claire recognized the small bits of ribbon as the Imperial Service ribbon, an Expeditionary Service ribbon with the red stripe showing that the bearer had been wounded and a vermillion ribbon edged in what looked like burnished gold she had never seen on any military adviser. In a separate small clear box was a rather plain looking gold medal with the Imperial sunburst suspended from a short length of vermillion silk. Above the medal was a rosette the same color as the ribbon edged on the outside with gold. It didn't seem very impressive. She handed it to Tara.
Tara seemed to relax slightly as she pushed the small box deep into her rucksack. Claire noticed her clothes were gone except for the ones she was wearing.
"You're not carrying all of those clothes," she said firmly.
"Just until we can get you your own ruck," Tara promised.
"Well, only if I carry it part of the way," Claire replied. "Breakfast is ready. Hope you're hungry. She's cooking like we're a haying crew."
William woke up as the noise in the common room increased. He brushed his chin and winced. He stood up stiffly and stretched as much as he could. He tapped a slumbering Liam on the shoulder. The tall Irishman lurched up with a startled expression then sighed and smiled.
"I'm afraid we're going to have to go a bit rough," William said regretfully.
"Not too rough," O'Donnell answered and pulled out a small leather case. "I'm kind of used to traveling light. Nothing like a shave to make the day a bit brighter."
"Good thinking, old man," William said with a smile. "I thought I was clever to grab one of those folding toothbrushes."
"We should check out the stables and the-" Riley started.
"In just a few minutes, Mr. Finn," the prince interrupted easily. "A gentleman has to look his best."
William and Liam made their way to the restroom of the inn. They were not the only ones making an improvised toilette this morning. A quarter of an hour later they strode out to meet Riley in the front room of the inn. The mercenary was speaking quickly with the owner. William frowned.
"What's the matter?" the prince asked.
"The livery doesn't open for another half hour," Riley said tightly.
"So we'll grab breakfast," Liam said looking at the golden crusts on the bread sitting next to a large selection of meat and cheese.
"And the omnibus for Brest gets further ahead," Riley snapped. "It turns out it left about five minutes ago."
"And any Imperial citizen trying to make time would take the motor coach," William said with a sinking feeling in his gut. "When's the next one?"
"Tomorrow," the owner said helpfully. He didn't know why the young nobleman started to swear softly.
Tara waved goodbye as they turned onto the path outside the gate. Claire sighed and looked back at the small farm until it disappeared behind the hedgerow.
"Eyes ahead, Claire," Tara admonished gently.
"Do you think you could be happy on a small farm with just a big garden and some chickens and goats?" the young teen asked wistfully.
"And a cat and a dog too," Tara replied with a wistful smile of her own.
"Oh yes," Claire agreed.
They walked along in silence for a little while. Tara wished half a dozen times she could just sit and sketch a scene or a flower. Finally they came up the road and a tidy village ahead. The two were about to cross a bridge when they heard the sounds of trotting horses. They stepped off the road and waited in the shade as a trio of horsemen pounded by, their attention focused on the road ahead of them.
Alexander looked a bit less green as the schooner slid through the water behind the small tugboat. They were approaching the harbor of Brest at a leisurely pace. Willow knew why it was necessary but for her friend's sake she wished the tug would hurry. At least a night on the deck had taken the newness out of Buffy's reporter outfit. Of course, it had taken the newness out of everything they were wearing.
"She's not going to be on the dock waiting for us, Buffy," Willow said gently.
"I know, I know," the blonde replied tightly.
"We need to know what's happening," Giles said worriedly.
"Willow hits the news agents, you find us a place to get cleaned up and Alex takes care of the luggage," Buffy said quickly. "We find out what's going on and then we... find Dawn."
"We'll find her," Willow said confidently. Buffy smiled at her hopefully.
And maybe, just maybe, a girl with blue eyes that have seen too much, Willow thought to herself.