The Border worlds are full of problems they should be taking care of instead of propping up a decadent Empire that lives off the taxes of the First Planets. It would be a kindness to help their development by encouraging them to follow their own paths. The Empire is too hard, too cruel in this aspect for independence is not for every planet. Those too weak to withstand the trials of independence should be declared Colonies and ruled by more capable and mature governments.
It would be a trial in itself, but the truly great planets will be equal to this noble task.
The First Planets, Heirs of Greatness
"Is there anything you need, Mademoiselle Maclay?" the clerk asked almost unctuously.
"N-no, thank you," Tara replied with a weak smile. The man gave her a small bow and returned to his desk.
"What was that all about?" Claire asked in an eager whisper. "You're really an eccentric heiress, right?"
"No," Tara said with a small shake of her head.
"Worlds famous for your travel column in Empire Today?" Claire asked trying to hide her smile.
"You're getting colder," Tara said with a small but real smile. "Do you have a fishing license for all these questions?"
"I'm going to find out," Claire promised.
"It's nothing, really," Tara said as her smile turned sad. Claire eased back in her seat. She hadn't meant to make Tara sad and looked around the room for some way to make amends. In the corner there was a tiny newsstand.
"How about a paper?" she asked.
"Sounds good," Tara replied as she stopped drawing out the guidebook.
"I'll get it," Claire insisted.
"Here," Tara said handing Claire a ten frank Aquitaine coin after a very brief frown. "I don't think they'll take a smile even if it comes with puppy dog eyes."
Claire walked over and looked at the selection. There was a small pile of the Times left and a single Gazette next to a large pile of new Bugles. Each pile had a wooden board over it with the name of the paper on it to keep them in good condition and to prevent free headline gazing. She frowned at the thought of the Bugle getting any money from her but bought those three papers. She turned around to see Tara watching her with a distinctly protective and trying not to seem so look.
"I made it back without being eaten by lions," she teased as she sat down and handed the older girl the newspapers.
"We just need to be careful," Tara said as she looked at the front page of the Times.
"Maybe it's over," Claire said hopefully. "Maybe it was just bandits."
Tara didn't say anything. She was staring wide eyed at something on the front page of the Bugle.
"She's where?" Buffy demanded.
"The, um, steamship line office down near the big pier," Willow said weakly. "She's all right."
"How do you know that?" Buffy snapped. "Did you talk to her?"
"No," Willow answered in a hurt tone. "There's this thousand florin reward and guys with guns and reporters and who knows what else. And."
"And what?" Buffy said slightly more gently.
She's safe as long as she has that angel looking over her, leapt to Willow's mind.
"I thought.she needs to see a couple of people she can trust," Willow said quickly. "She seems to have an escort. A girl. A nice girl."
Buffy just looked at her friend for a moment. She shook her head and turned to Giles.
"I'll need my vest for a minute," she said levelly.
"Are you sure?" Giles asked as he opened the new trunk on the bed. "The capitol in that vest is all we have."
"Capitol in a vest?" Willow asked.
"A couple of gems in the lining," Buffy explained. "We'll need tickets out of here once the news breaks."
"You won't be allowed to leave," Giles pointed out. "Or at least Dawn won't. She's a witness to a multiple murder."
"Then she'll be safe with the police!" Buffy snapped. "I'm going to the police and if her escort turns out not to be a nice girl than they can handle it. I've got to know she's safe."
"Why don't we talk to the police first?" Willow asked quickly. "Mr. Taylor said there might be a warrant out for you."
"Why?" Alexander asked with an angry frown. "She hasn't done anything."
"Because she's a loose end," Giles said evenly. "And you have threatened to kill her."
"When?" Buffy asked in a shocked tone.
"I believe it was when she used your Aubren scarf to wrap up a bundle of flowers for your mother," Giles said with a slim smile. "Or the time she was experimenting with your cosmetics and didn't get the lid back on the mascara a tightly as you were expecting."
"I get your point," Buffy said with a glare.
"But that's sister stuff," Willow said with a confused look. "Or at least these sisters."
"Yeah," Alexander added. "Tildy said it sounded like her and her sister."
The room grew quiet. Buffy's face became hard.
"S-sorry," Alexander said looking down.
"It's all right Alex," Buffy said firmly. "I just forgot how dangerous everything is going to be now. Giles, please get one of the gems turned into cash and get us passage, economically sensible passage, open date in your name to Oldenberg. Alex, I need you to get the luggage to the steamship office. Will, we're going to the police."
"With your press stuff," Willow said with a quick grin.
"Why?" Buffy asked with a skeptical look. "You're being clever again."
"Trust me," Willow said picking up a notebook and the hat Buffy had borrowed from Giles.
"A nice girl?" Buffy asked as she studied her friend.
"Yes," Willow said surely.
"Let's go," Buffy sighed.
The blonde only raised an eyebrow when Willow opened a packet of gum.
Tara looked at the photo one the front page of the Bugle, the newspaper Claire had wrinkled her nose at. She folded the paper and turned so that Claire could sit next to her. The young teen looked at Tara with a concerned expression and sat next to her.
"Claire, I want you to be very quiet," Tara said in a firm, soft tone. "Take a look at this."
The young woman unfolded the paper and Claire saw a picture of herself, only in a useless dress with a hairstyle it would take hours to take care for each day. And the girl in the photo looked almost too perfect, down the hint of a aura or halo. Underneath the photo there was a caption that read `Missing Rightful Heir of Sussex, Lady Dawn Caroline Summers'. Claire took a deep breath and seemed to shake for a few heartbeats. Then she looked at Tara with a small shake of her head.
"I must be her double," Claire said sadly. "Do you think the real Dawn is dead?"
"Her double?" Tara asked in a confused tone.
"Ruling houses use them all the time," Claire explained earnestly. "Besides, look at her. She's got to be all of twelve and soft because no one will ever let her do anything. I've done.stuff. I know I have."
"And there's no way she could be you?" Tara said carefully.
"That child?" Claire said with a soft snort. "Never."
"Yes?" a gruff voice asked as Buffy and Willow entered the Police station near the harbor. Both girls looked up at a large man running towards fat and bald. There were stripes on the tabs of his color and on the jacket behind him.
"I'm Elizabeth Summers," Buffy started.
"You are?" a tired voice snapped beside them. "I'm Detective Grodet, and I'd like to speak with you, Lady Summers. So would the authorities now in control of Sussex. You're under arrest."
"What are the charges?" Buffy asked with a mix of anger and shock.
"Conspiracy to commit murder," Grodet said with a grim smile. "As if you didn't know. Sergeant, take them to the cells!"
As the sergeant stepped away from the desk and reached for his truncheon Willow snapped her gum and rolled her eyes.
"I toldya this was a hare brained idea, Buffy," Willow whined and popped her gum. "You ain't getting that interview this way. Besides they don't know nothin'."
"Buffy?" Grodet snarled. "Interview?"
"Will!" Buffy yelled as she twirled to face the redhead and stamp her foot. "I had everything under control!"
"Give me your papers now!" the detective shouted.
Willow shakily handed him her papers and then Buffy's documents in the plastic pouch. The detective glanced at them and tossed them back at the redhead.
"I ought to run you in and throw away the key," he snarled. "Both of you. Buffy? Willow? Bah! Perfect name for a pair of mudslinging trollops."
"Hey!" Buffy and Willow snapped back.
"Well, my dear Buffy Summers, I'm going to put your description out on the wire to every police department I can think of and have them forward it," Grodet growled. "Let's see how far you get posing as a noblewoman when every policeman from here to the Canadian Isles knows your little secret."
"You can't do that!" Buffy almost screeched. "The people have a right to know!"
"Our editor will kill us!" Willow added with another pop of her gum.
"Not if you're both in jail," Grodet said angrily.
"The Times has lawyers everywhere," Buffy warned. "Besides, I am Elizabeth Summers."
Grodet glared at her for a moment, then turned to the sergeant.
"These vermin live off an expense account," the detective said coldly. "What's the next steamship out of here?"
"The Star of Copenhagen," the sergeant replied.
"Steamship?" Willow wailed. "Do you know how much they charge?"
"I'll let your editor find out," Grodet smiled. "Or would you prefer to know how expensive a lawyer and bail will be? That's the only way you're staying in Brest this evening."
"Let's go," Buffy said tightly.
"But," Willow started.
"Now!" Buffy insisted as she grabbed the slender redhead by the hand and dragged her out of the police station.
"Be there this evening and make sure they board, sergeant," Grodet called after them.
Buffy pulled Willow behind her until she felt Willow really pull against her hand. Buffy turned, looked at Willow and saw her fright filled eyes.
"What is it?" Buffy asked in a worried whisper.
"I swallowed my gum!" Willow squeaked.
"You swallowed your gum?" Buffy asked with a relieved smile. Then she shuddered and hugged Willow hard. "You were great. Oh God, Will, thank you."
"Even if I swallowed my gum?" Willow asked with as she rubbed her throat.
"Yes, you goose." Buffy said shakily. "Let's get out of here."
"You're sure?" William asked a breathless Liam. "Dawn Summers and a woman in boots?"
"Going into the Blue Star Lines office," Liam insisted. "It looked busy. If we're going to get tickets we need to move."
"Did anyone else seem to be interested in them?" Riley asked quickly. "Were they alone?"
"No one else was carrying their rucksacks," Liam replied. He thought about Julia but dismissed her quickly. She was a woman and her interest was simply female sentimentality.
"Did the woman wear any unit patches on her jacket?" Riley asked as they grabbed the trunk of new belongings William had insisted on purchasing for "simple survival".
"I wasn't close enough to see," Liam said as he smoothed his hair in the mirror before going out the door. "But she wore a short jacket with red and green patches."
"On the elbows?" Riley asked tightly as they took the stairs down two at a time."
"Yes," Liam said with a frown. "How did you know?"
"Running lights and internal starship directions," Riley explained. "Red is port, green is starboard. I'd guess she's Imperial."
"Hurry gentlemen!" the prince said as they hurried out into the street.
Julia looked at her small watch and fumed. Tyrrell wanted her to stay with the Irishman and the man she was sure was William of Oldenberg. They were the best lead to the missing girl. Julia wanted back up, and would even welcome the unnerving man with the dead eyes. The prince and his escort would not be so easily led as the randy Liam she was sure. The tall man had the feel of an off planet mercenary and the prince, while a touch foppish, was no fool. She looked out the window at the darkening street, but Tyrrell was nowhere to be seen.
The doors opened quickly and she saw the three men she had been shadowing loosely. Julia sighed and turned to the boarding gangway. She didn't want Liam to see her yet. She hurried aboard. If he found her it would be explainable.
Tyrrell clutched his head and swore silently. He'd come to Brest only to feel the senses he'd been refining for years almost drain away. He was almost as blind as the masses around him now. He'd felt this more weakly on the trail of the girl in the hills yesterday. In the last few minutes his headache had grown. The pain seemed to be coming from the docks. He pushed the power under his senses away and felt a slim wall spring away from him. The pain stopped, but he was unable to sense anything.
The docks he thought. If our little rabbit is running she'll need to get out of Brest. And where do you find men who run small packages past Customs and other inconveniences in a town of smugglers?
He loosened his pistol in its shoulder holster and headed for the seamier part of the docks of Brest. He wanted to find the girl, then find what or whom she had that was making him mind blind. He hoped it was a who and not a what. He needed answers and he could always get them from a person.
And the longer it took the better.
"How much?" Buffy asked with a shocked look on her face.
"Half our funds," Giles said tiredly. He slumped on the elegant bench in the boarding room.
"But we're traveling first class," Alex pointed out helpfully. Buffy's eyes got wide. "And the meals are included."
"I said economical," Buffy said shakily. "First class isn't economical, it's, it's the opposite of economical. Don't they take deck cargo?"
"No," Giles said evenly. "Third class was booked solid and some young woman got the last second class ticket. If we're getting on that ship it's in first class."
"Did that girl look like a first class passenger?" Buffy asked Willow quickly.
"She looked kind of an Imperial student with a rucksack," Willow replied. "And a staff."
And the most perfect smile, Willow added to herself. And when she walked away-
"Will?" Buffy asked. Willow looked at her and realized they were all looking at her with a touch of concern.
"Um?" Willow said quickly.
"Was Dawn wearing her blue vest?" Buffy said in a way that Willow knew meant she was repeating herself.
"I think so," the redhead answered. "But it was patched."
"All aboard please!" a ship's officer called out from the gangway. "Mesdames et Monsieurs, all aboard!"
The four grabbed their bags and headed for the gangway. Buffy hesitated at the shoreward edge and looked behind her.
"What if she's.?" Buffy said tightly.
"Trust me," Willow said quietly as she held out her hand to her friend. Buffy said nothing but took Willow's hand in hers and started onto the ship.
Cordelia Chase sat in her dark room at the Walsh Academy and told herself it was all a mistake. Beth and Willow hadn't left in the middle of the night without telling her anything. Beth's annoying little sister was at the bottom of all the trouble, and maybe at the bottom of the sea. The thought made her smile angrily and then feel sick that she had smiled at the horrid image. She'd never told Beth how much she envied her having a sister, even a stuck up, bratty one.
One that never missed sending letters once a week full of useless gossip as well. Maybe it was as Dawn had claimed, her mother sat over her and wouldn't let her read those dreadful adventure books until she'd written her sister. Willow had said it was all a pose. Now she would never know.
There was a knock on her door and Cordelia sprang for the door. She stopped just before she opened it, smoothed her hair and opened the door nonchalantly.
"Yess.DADDY?" Cordelia screeched happily. She threw her arms around his neck and hugged him fiercely. She felt her hug returned and then he was standing back and just looking at her.
"You're even more beautiful than your mother," he said with a wistful smile. "So grown up."
"I'll always be your girl," the young woman promised him with her whole heart.
"I know, pumpkin," Harold Chase said with a sad smile. "I know I don't have any right to just show up and ask you this.no, it's too much." He turned away.
"Daddy, please, let me help," Cordelia pleaded as she stepped in front of him. "It's about Beth and Willow isn't it?"
"That's my girl," he said with a weak smile. "Too damn smart for her own good. Yes honey, your friends are in deep trouble and you just may be their only chance."
The brunette pulled back slightly and swallowed. If half the rumors she'd heard were true the situation her friends were embroiled with was a dangerous mix of power and politics. Beth might know what was happening, but she was blind when it came to some people and Willow had the political instincts of a rock.
And her father had come to her for help.
"What do you need me to do?" she asked resolutely.
Cordelia climbed aboard the special train with just one trunk of clothes and small sheaf of papers. She wasn't sure she could find Beth or Dawn, much less convince them to return to Sussex with her. Her father had explained it was the only way the truth could be found out. She resolved to do her best for him and for her friends. If they came home on their own their words would be taken much more seriously. Cordelia looked out the window of the train and waved to the solitary figure as the train pulled away. When the lights of the train disappeared a second figure joined Harold Chase.
"If she gets hurt, Travers," Chase started darkly.
"You'll have your other three bastards," the Mercian said blandly. "Don't worry, she is too valuable to risk uselessly. Have you thought of a marriage for her?"
"She's eighteen!" the railway man said in a shocked tone.
"Yes," Travers replied. "The proper marriage and the two hundred percent over subscription of your company's debentures will disappear."
"You said they'd disappear if she delivered the Summers brats," Chase almost pleaded.
"They'll be delivered," Travers said evenly. "And then the world will change. A marriageable heiress will be a valuable asset in the future for your company. Besides, she'd be moving up in the world."
Harold Chase shivered under his coat at the Mercian's words.
Tara watched the pilot boat pull away from the ship. She could feel the engines come to life with a distant base hum. The lights of Brest were falling behind them. Tara couldn't help but wonder if a pair of green eyes watched the ship from one of those lights.
"What are you looking at?" Claire asked as she joined Tara at the railing near their stateroom.
"I've never sailed away from a city before," Tara said after a moment. Or a pair of perfect green eyes, Tara added to herself. I doubt she remembers me at all.
"Is it different in space?" Claire asked as she looked up at the stars. "Sorry, stupid me. Yes, it is."
"The planet gets smaller and disappears," Tara explained wistfully. "Then there's a thousand streaks of light and all the stars go out for about a week. When you come back to normal space the stars are different and when the planet grows in the viewer it's different too. You can almost believe the other planet was just a memory."
"A good memory?" Claire asked hopefully. She thought this woman deserved to have good memories.
"Sometimes," Tara said with a small smile. "We should get you inside."
"Do you think there's people after us-me here?" Claire asked in a quiet, worried tone.
"I don't want to take any chances," Tara said as they headed back to their stateroom. "Besides, you're out without a sweater."
Claire just rolled her eyes. Some arguments are lost before they start.
"Come on," Willow pleaded. "The lights are fading and the stars are coming out."
"I've got to get something out for an article if I'm going to be playing reporter," Buffy said from the desk.
"Sorry," Alexander said quickly. "If I don't go outside and look at the water my stomach seems much happier."
"I'll take care of, ah, Buffy's more serious transgressions against her mother tongue," Giles said as he cleaned his glasses. "Go out and enjoy the evening, but don't go too far."
"I'll try to avoid sea monsters," Willow said with a grin.
Willow grabbed her jacket and turned for the door. She marveled briefly at the electric lights and wondered why the sea seemed to allow electricity to work so much better. The stateroom even had a radio that picked up the signal from the Oldenberg radio ships just off their coast. Alexander was entranced by the radio drama on now. Willow didn't doubt his seasickness, but wondered if he was one of those people who would be roped into silly adventures with no basis in reality.
Her mind was quite engaged when she opened the door and turned. She bumped into someone and turned quickly to apologize. She turned and found herself looking into two pools of blue under the blazing electric lights.
Tara was opening her stateroom when the door to the one across the way opened. She moved quickly to block that person's view of Claire-and froze when she saw the redhead she'd seen just hours before.
"Hi," the slim girl said shyly.
"H-h-hel-lo," Tara replied and looked down, trying to hide her blush. Then the redhead looked past her with wide eyes and Tara's heart froze.
"Dawn?" the slim young woman said.
"No!" Claire snapped and slammed the stateroom door.
Tara looked at the redhead's anguished face and somehow knew she could be trusted, just as she knew Claire was shocked and hurting and that behind the door this vision had come from there was worry hiding poorly behind a frightened young woman's calm face. She'd never felt as much before, or felt it as truly. She looked at the redhead and met her eyes as she tried to ignore the pounding in her chest.
"Wh-where do we go from h-here?" Tara asked the other girl.
"I-I don't know," she answered unevenly, then she held out her hand. "I'm Willow."