The city of Oldenberg is as charming as the nation around it. It invites the artist, the pedestrian, and nearly everyone else. Oldenberg is the most easy-going of any of the German League of Nations and its capitol leads by example. Be prepared to find yourself relaxing the moment you arrive.
Fodor's Guide To Europa, 85th Edition
The sunlight on the roses in the garden had never been so lovely. Joyce looked up from her book at the sound of laughter. Dawn was running towards her with Beth just a step behind. Then the roses became a wall and she heard her girls cry out in fright. Suddenly there were soldiers around her and martial music was coming from the ballroom. Soldiers were marching in time to the music while officers squired her in an intricate waltz while her children called for her. The music turned shrill...
Joyce awoke with a start. Hannah looked down at her sadly with a cup of tea in her hand.
"I'm sorry, madam, you were sleeping through that racket," the maid said as she pointed to the gilt porcelain alarm clock. "Perhaps you should stay in bed?"
"No," Joyce said wearily. "The dance must go on."
"But I want her safe!" Buffy snapped. "The palace means palace guards, and soldiers and- and safe."
"And public," Giles said quietly. "If the King takes in Dawn he is bound by law, custom and treaty to do certain things. Things like demand your mother's release-"
"Good!" Buffy interjected.
"Which would begin hostilities without a doubt," William said gently.
"And mean that your mother was less useful as a hostage," Giles added. "Once these people have what they want... the Countess is no longer an asset."
Buffy closed her eyes. When she opened them there was a hint of tears. Giles took her into his arms as William looked away. Finally the small young woman stood straight and nodded.
"Let's do this before I change my mind," she said with a confidence that sounded false even to her.
"Are you s-s-sure about this?" Tara asked as she smoothed out Dawn's vest.
"We're making this up as we go along," Riley admitted. "You know, when I left to come here my aunt just gave me an extra sweater."
"Mine was a bit more practical," Tara mused. "But I have to admit I, um, th-thought it was a bit paranoid at the time."
"Nothing says 'I care' like a spare spider-silk armor shirt," the tall young man said with a lean smile.
"Don't pull at it," Tara said to Dawn. "Don't call attention to it."
"But it'll stop any bullet on Europa," Dawn replied. "I'm invincible."
"Unless that bullet is aimed at your head," the mercenary pointed out.
Dawn gave a short gulp and put her hands down to her sides. There was a knock in code at the door. Riley stepped back out of line with the door. Tara looked out and saw Willow. She opened the door.
"Hi," both girls said at the same instant. Willow smiled at Tara for another handful of seconds, then she turned to Riley. "They're ready."
"Excuse me ladies," he said with a bow. "Oh, Miss Maclay, I may need you to add some veracity to our scenario. Got to go, I'm on."
As the gangway was lowered to the dock a party of three men surrounding a bundled figure in a dress hurried down the sloping wood to the royal carriages waiting at dockside. They entered one of the carriages with two of the men lifting the small figure between them. Then both vehicles sped away towards the palace with the Oldenberg Dragoons in close escort. In seconds the docks were mostly empty as dozens of people casually loitering at the pier were overcome by a sudden burst of purpose. Most rushed to find a stashed bicycle nearby while others took up a swift pace after the carriages. Only the stevedores and longshoremen were left unloading the Star of Copenhagen.
No one but the dockworkers noticed the other first class passengers as they left.
"I'm not sure whether to thank you or not, William," the King of Oldenberg said guardedly. "Welcome to Oldenberg, Miss Summers."
"Oh, I'm not Dawn," Anya said as she pushed back the cloak and held out her hand.
"I see," the King said as he took her hand mostly out of reflex.
"Good," Anya said giving the older man a vigorous handshake. "Your biological son said you'd notice. I'm just a different human."
"Anya, you can stop shaking his hand now," William said gently.
"Are you sure?" Anya asked. "I wouldn't want to be rude."
Willow watched Buffy as she strode down the gangway in front of their small group without a look back. Willow knew how tense she was even as the small blonde slipped easily into the role of reporter. Willow wanted to look back as well. She wondered how soon Tara would be registered at the University.
There's one school I might stay on Europa for, Willow thought wistfully. Her other thoughts faded as Buffy whistled in a most unladylike manner.
"Yo!" Buffy yelled. "Cab!"
Dawn looked out the porthole as her sister climbed into a cab on the dock. The driver cracked his whip and the carriage disappeared quickly into the morning traffic. As she turned she saw Tara put something under her jacket and then look at herself in the mirror. The off world girl nodded and picked up her rucksack. Dawn did the same. As she turned back to Tara the older girl straightened out her jacket collar and looked closely at her mouth.
"You're not going to wash my face, are you?" Dawn asked in a timorous voice.
"You're safe from that horror," Tara said with a lopsided grin. "Get your hat."
A few minutes later the last of the First Class passengers walked down the gangway. Tara shortened her grip on her staff to match the more careful steps walking in a city demanded. Beside her she could see Dawn staring about her. Tara could understand the girl's fascination.
As they made their way off the docks Tara knew she would be spending hours here one day. Along the docks themselves tidy buildings of colorful brick sported awnings that fluttered gently in the breeze. Doors and windows were painted to catch the eye. Nearly every upstairs window sported a wrought iron frame that held a box of flowers. She could only imagine the dedication it took to get a box of white roses to bloom so prolifically. Then they headed into the city along a narrow street lined with small shops. Dawn was the first to catch the scent from one particular place.
A few minutes later Tara was vowing to walk everywhere in Oldenberg. The pastry that was rapidly disappearing seemed to be filled with ambrosia, not cheese. The coffee was delicately hinting of chocolate under the barely sweet cream. As they passed a tiny gem of a park a trio of hopeful pigeons followed the girls. The small fragment of succulent pastry disappeared quickly under an iridescent tangle.
"How can they fly?" Dawn asked as she looked at the rotund birds.
Just then a small and ancient dog of uncertain lineage whuffed at the pigeons and they took off in a clumsy burst of energy. Dawn grinned as they wheeled up the narrow street and whirled over the rooftops.
"I don't think I brought enough paper," Tara said wistfully as she followed the birds flight and saw yet another scene that called for a sketch as a little girl squealed in delight at the aerial display flying past her window box.
Tara started them off again. Dawn thought she was showing a lot of interest in the little shops until she watched how Tara used the reflections in the windows to look behind them. The teen felt tense when Tara walked right up to a policeman and asked for directions to the hotel Tara had circled in her guidebook. Tara seemed to ask a lot of questions of the patient official.
"Are we being followed?" Dawn asked as they started out again.
"Not as far as I can tell," Tara replied. "None of the people have the same coloring or shape to their face."
Dawn was about to ask another question when Tara stopped and stared at a handbill posted in a window. The off-worlder started to page through her guidebook.
"What time is it?" Buffy asked looking out the window of the modest hotel.
"Ten past, or two minutes later than the last time you asked," Giles said as he looked over his glasses. "We need to wait until noon. You might want to read the paper."
"They published the whole column in the local paper," Willow said excitedly looking up from the periodical. "You're the 'Times correspondent at large' with a byline and everything!"
"They syndicated the story?" Giles asked looking over Willow's shoulder.
"And there's an editorial too," Willow added. "They say you bring up points that people in power need to 'consider carefully'."
"Are you famous?" Alex asked.
"No, but I think this makes it more realistic to get an interview with the King now," Buffy replied as she looked at her words in print for the first time. "I hope Mom is seeing this, and Dawn," Buffy whispered. "What time is it?"
Tara could feel Dawn's mix of curiosity and worry as they entered the hotel in the middle of Oldenberg's theatre district. As they took the stairs to the second floor Tara opened her jacket. A dark haired girl leaned against the wall on the landing moved to block their passage.
"Nice lining," the lean brown eyed girl said in a challenging tone. "Get it at OmniMart?"
"At a little place on J-Jocelyn," Tara replied as a sudden image of a darting black and white dog came to mind. "Touch not the cat but a glove."
"Now's not a good time," the girl said quickly.
"Faith," an older woman said gently. "Make sure we're not disturbed."
The girl glared at Tara as she passed with Dawn. As they went down the hall Tara could see the doors to the rooms were open. Everywhere people were packing. Instruments were being wrestled into bags. A trio of dancers or acrobats hurried by with the fluid motion of frightened gazelles. Voices would be raised until Faith or the older woman said something. Finally the woman led them to a room with a rucksack on the bed and closed the door.
"Nunquam non paratas," the woman said levelly to Tara.
Tara pulled out a small titanium and polymer derringer from under her coat. She could see Dawn stare at the weapon. The woman nodded.
"I'm Chloe," she said easily. "Who sent you?"
"Aunt Abigail," Tara said relaxing a bit as she put away the small weapon.
"How's Hector's purr these days?" Chloe asked evenly.
"Old terriers don't purr," Tara responded. "But he is a bit, umm, aromatic."
"I don't suppose this is a social call," Chloe said with a shrug. "What level?"
"Flash, I think," Tara said hesitantly. "It's important to get this out as soon as possible without letting the other side know it even exists. It's about the PR."
"Get the message ready," Chloe said suddenly attentive. "Have you used one of these?"
She handed Tara a notebook with what looked like lines of neatly lettered gibberish.
"Yes ma'am," Tara said unsurely. "But that was in training."
"At least you've used a one time pad," the older woman smiled. "Get on it while I break some bad news to my best collie."
"Who are these people and why is she talking to her dog?" Dawn asked after Chloe left.
"These people took me in when I left home," Tara said as she worked on her message. "This is clan McHeath, at least part of them. They help performers all over the Empire. A collie is a family term for people who help by, umm, guiding or protecting the artists."
"You performed?" Dawn asked trying to reconcile the quiet young woman in front of her with the artists outside. Suddenly the door opened and a thin young man in glasses looked at the girls quizzically. Tara pulled her hand back to write her message.
"Hello Wesley," Tara said letting her breath out carefully.
"Oh, hello Tara," the young man replied. "Have you seen my slippers? I can't compose without them."
"Compose?" Dawn asked.
"Claire, this is Wesley Windham-Pryce-" Tara started.
"But you're so young!" Dawn exclaimed. "I mean, all that music-"
"No, no slippers," Tara interjected.
"Wes, you've got to get packed," Faith said from the hall.
"Oh, yes," Wesley said as he turned to leave. "I have to hurry, Miss Claire. Faith, have you seen my slippers?"
"Maybe Francesca has them," Faith said. Tara looked at the young woman carefully as a feeling of jealousy surged briefly.
"Oh God, not her," Wesley said rolling his eyes. "Could you get them back from her?"
"No prob," Faith said with a grin. Tara felt the jealousy vanish. She watched the young man look after the retreating form of the lean young woman. Then he shook his head and closed the door.
A few minutes later Chloe opened the door with Faith in tow. The younger woman had a pair of slippers in her hand. Dawn thought that once they might have had pink noses and ears, but much wear had left them shapeless and looking bedraggled.
"But you know how hard it is to keep Wes on track," Faith was saying.
"This is more important to the clan," Chloe said firmly.
Faith's face was a study in torn loyalties. Then she straightened up and shrugged her shoulders.
"No prob," she said offhandedly.
"Thank you," Chloe said rubbing the bridge of her nose. "Are you ready, Tara?"
"This is as much as I've gotten," Tara said holding out a slip of paper.
Faith took the paper and read the letters there in groups of five twice. "Got it," she said with a cool smile. Chloe took the paper and looked at it carefully.
"Fifth group, third line," she said looking at Faith.
"P-B-N-E-X," Faith recited.
"All right," Chloe sighed. "Be smug."
"Got that down," Faith grinned. "What's the job?"
"Get to the starport as quickly as possible," Chloe said tiredly. "You know the planetary situation. Here's some money. It's okay to eat and to pay for the food as well, remember?"
"Takes all the fun out of it," Faith teased.
"Get going, and Faith," Chloe said looking worried. "Take care of yourself."
Faith gave the older woman an urchin grin and darted for the window. With a cat's grace she reached through the open window and grabbed the fire escape. She slid down the structure to the alley below and leapt the last two meters. Her landing blended seamlessly into a run.
"Be careful," Chloe whispered.
"Umm," Tara started uncertainly. "There's something about Faith and, ah..."
"Her charge," the older woman sighed. "I suspected. Did Deidre work with you?"
"A bit, ma'am." Tara said quietly. "I think it's, umm, mutual."
"Oh dear lord, my own version of Moria and Mai Lin," the older woman sighed. "How long do we have to get the delicate ones off?"
"Get them moving as soon as possible," Tara replied.
Riley Finn looked through the neat rows of books in his room. He pulled one volume that revealed a hand-lettered index. He found the article he was looking for and pulled out a copy of Tactical Review and paged quickly to the article he had remembered reading.
"Thought so," he said softly to himself.
He put the magazine in a black leather folio and set off for the Prince's chambers. As he walked through the halls he was reminded again of the odd mix of styles that defined the private part of the palace. The rococo structure mixed with favorite pieces from a dozen generations of House Lilienthal and the toys of the youngest generation now staying at the palace. Even the discrete guards that stopped him seemed a part of the tapestry of the place. Riley stopped at the King's private library.
"I'd rig for stormy weather, Mr. Finn," a footman said as he left the room.
"Thanks," Riley said as he knocked on the carved doors.
"Now what?" the King's voice called out.
"You wanted my report as soon as I had all the data, sire," Riley said politely as he entered the book-lined room.
"Very well, Mr. Finn," the King said as he sat down in an old overstuffed chair. "What do you have? Anything on this stranger my son entrusted with the key to this disaster and this theory?"
Riley looked at the King more closely. Randolph the Second, King of Oldenberg was looking every second of his nearly fifty years. There were dark circles under his eyes. Then Riley looked to the chancellor and the off-worlder noticed that for the first time since he'd been here Riley was seeing the stiff older man in his shirtsleeves with his collar undone. Maps and papers were on every available surface. William had looked up briefly but was back to looking through a pile of telegrams and dispatches.
"This should help explain Miss Maclay," Riley said opening the folio slowly. "As for the theory, I'm afraid it may be too real."
The King pulled his glasses from his forehead and started to read the article. He looked up after a minute.
"All right, she's brave, but what makes you think she's trustworthy?" he asked.
"Instinct, observation, and verifiable past actions," Riley said evenly.
The King ran his fingers through his graying hair and looked at his son. William was making a list as he poured over the telegrams and dispatches from every nation on the Peninsula and many beyond.
"William, I'm sorry," Randolph sighed. "You were right."
"And you're exhausted," the Prince replied worriedly. "When was the last time you or Von Soden had a night's sleep?"
"We're old," the chancellor said wearily. "We don't need that much sleep."
"That long?" William replied.
"There's too much happening right now," the King said. "I've got every one of the missions demanding to know if I actually have Lady Summers. That Mercian Travers, the one King John listens to so closely, is talking about postponing the signing of the trade agreement."
"But that's mostly to cover the talks between Wessex and Mercia," William frowned. "Both kings will be here sub rosa tomorrow. Then there's Rhiannon and Ryan who are expressing 'grave concern' about Sussex."
"And a dozen warships in the harbor, and another stack of cables, and two thousand helpful German boys looking for a glorious war camped on the southern border," Randolph said tiredly. "I've mobilized every reservist we can afford just to keep the peace. I wonder if who's ever behind this is just basking in their success."
"What do you mean, you can't tell?" Travers hissed.
"I woke up this morning with a screaming headache," Tyrrell snapped. "One like I had in Brest. I'd say she's here, somewhere."
"I agree, sir," Julia said evenly.
"Why?" Travers asked tightly. "Because that vain Irish fool stayed away from your bed?"
"Exactly," Julia said levelly. "He was herded away on the trip here."
"So Miss Summers could be here, but neither of you know where," Travers growled. "I've gotten better information from a gossiping maid this morning. The woman William arrived with is definitely not Dawn Summers. She's evidently some sort of high tech harlot."
"There was an incident on board ship," Julia said suddenly as she reached for a small notebook. "A gambler was using a construct to cheat at cards. He's in jail now. The person who uncovered it was a...Tara Maclay, Imperial citizen. She came aboard at Brest with a servant."
"An Imperial citizen?" Travers said darkly. "I'll run this name past our financier. In the mean time, look for this citizen. Check the best hotels and the smart shops."
"She'll be headed there, all right," Julia said in a catty tone. "She was practically traveling in rags."
"Very well," Travers nodded. "But do it yourself, no hirelings or agents who might talk later. I have no desire to be the subject of an Imperial inquiry. I would suggest using Miss Chase as a stalking horse. She moves in those circles and is a most oblivious young woman. Now come with me, Mr. Tyrrell."
"Why?" the hard eyed man asked.
"You're going to wait for a blinding headache," Travers said with a mirthless smile.
Tara opened the door to their hotel room. It was small since the hotel near the train station usually catered to those local travelers on a budget. She opened her rucksack and took out a few things.
"Claire," she said softly as she pulled out her white blouse. "Could you get this ready?"
"But it's too hard," Dawn said with a dramatic slump of her shoulders.
"Get to work," Tara warned in a gruff voice.
Dawn shook the garment three times as hard as she could. The wrinkled blouse hung in her hands without a wrinkle. Tara looked at the blouse and scowled.
"It usually just takes one shake," she said. "Now Europa's interfering with my wardrobe."
"And making your servant work her fingers to the bone," Dawn said lifting her hand to her forehead.
"Try to recover," Tara teased as she pulled on the blouse.
As Tara looked in the mirror she sighed. There was no way anyone could take her seriously. She was too young, and Tara knew her stutter would come out at the worst possible time. She looked at the rucksack. She opened it again and took out the small box. Tara opened the high tech case and stared at the decoration there for a long moment. Then she took the rosette in the same colors and pinned it carefully on the center of the left lapel. She looked in the mirror and saw a much older pair of eyes looking back at her. Dawn stirred and Tara braced herself for the question she was sure was coming.
"Tara, do you like Willow?" Dawn asked quietly.
"She's a v-v-very n-nice person," Tara replied quickly.
"Yeah, she's neat," Dawn agreed. "I mean, ah, do you like her like... a girlfriend as in, you know, dating?"
"Umm," Tara replied as she tried to find words.
"You were holding hands," Dawn said quickly.
"It's complicated," Tara replied.
"I saw her smiling at you, even when you weren't looking at each other," Dawn said almost wistfully.
"Really?" Tara asked- and then blushed.
"I guess you do like her," Dawn said with a happy smugness.
"I do," Tara admitted. "Are you freaked out?"
"No," the young teen said thoughtfully. "It's cute, really."
"I feel my aloof, hard-edged reputation fading fast," Tara said shaking her head. "Dawn, You've got to be, umm, you know, careful around Buffy and the o-others."
"Buffy would never guess," Dawn said surely. "But your secret is safe with me."
"Good," Tara said reaching for her staff. "We need to get moving."
The girls went downstairs and Dawn watched Tara become just another student tourist. The off-worlder asked the desk clerk for directions using her copy of Fodor's Guide to Europa. The clerk assured her that the palace was the first place to see, and recommended she take a day for the palace and it's grounds alone. Tara thanked him and started in the direction of the palace. Dawn noticed that Tara's eyes never seemed to stop moving. Finally they came to the great square park in front of Oldenberg Castle. Tara knew a day would never be enough.
The castle itself was a romantic poem of brick, marble and granite with graceful wrought iron accents. The weathered copper roof gave an old green friendliness to the building that made the fountains and tree-lined boulevard seem even more inviting. The gatehouse was the palace in miniature with guards in formal Oldenberg uniforms on guard. The only jarring note were the more somber field uniforms of officers and soldiers that stood guard at the doors of the Palace itself.
Willow looked self-consciously at her reflection in the mirrors of the official wing of the palace. After waiting a few minutes and having their bags checked the group was shown into the King's office. A moment later King Randolph entered the office flanked by a pair of large men.
"Welcome to Oldenberg, Miss Summers," Randolph said easily. "I trust you found accommodations."
"Yes, your highness," Buffy replied. "We're double bunking at the Hotel Athena."
"You are mistaken, my dear," the King replied. "Clear eyed journalists are to be valued, especially in times like these. You'll stay here at the palace while you're in Oldenberg."
There was a strangled noise from their escort. The King looked up at the man.
"Yes, Franz?" he said in a warning tone.
"It's just that, with all the other guests already here fitting such an eminent journalist-"
"And her staff," Buffy interjected.
"And her staff," Franz added venomously. "Well, it would mean putting them near the royal apartments."
"Excellent idea," the King said nodding. "Good thinking, Franz. See to it while we get on with this interview. We need to get our views to the public."
"Yes, your highness," Franz said in a resigned tone as he bowed and closed the doors behind him.
"Now, Miss summers if you and your people will come with me," Randolph said firmly. "There are some people you need to meet."
"Explain yourself," King James the Fourth of Mercia, traveling under his title of Duke of Norwich, snapped at his nephew.
"Travers is wrong," Jonathon said as calmly as he could. "There's a bigger game going here. It's not just Etienne's Reformers or Louis trying to make his brother look bad."
"Listen to me, child-" James began.
"Excuse me, your grace," Von Pritwitz said sternly. "Your nephew has conducted himself honorably and intelligently in this affair. He crossed swords with a brigand at the border and dispatched that ruffian. He has pointed things out even an old soldier and hunter like myself missed. He is not a child."
"And you are?" James asked curtly.
"Heinrich Wilhelm Albrecht Von Pritwitz," the gray haired man said evenly. "Knight of Saxony and retired Colonel of His Majesty the King of Saxony's Hussars."
The King did not miss the omitted bow. The man might have gray hair but he still had a swordsman's wrists and the ease of a man who had proven himself on many occasions. He held a cane in his hands that James would have bet his most prized horse contained an efficient sword blade.
"I'm glad my nephew has had a steady hand behind him," James said diplomatically.
"I cannot take the whole credit," Von Pritwitz said easily. "Lady Douglas of Dunbar also considers Jonathon to be correct in this manner."
"A formidable woman," the royal Duke replied. "And one not to be trifled with. She's a cousin on my mother's side so I know her sharp mind and sharper tongue. What does she say about my nephew's thoughts?"
"Her words would be, shall we say, blunt but the gist would be to tread carefully, your grace," Von Pritwitz said in a hard tone.
James frowned at the German knight's words.
Tara was glad to see that civilians still wandered through the gatehouse into the Palace grounds proper. There were many other people drawing or taking pictures. Tara asked Dawn for her pad. The girl pulled the pad from her pack and handed it to Tara who started to rough in a sketch. She was quite taken with her study when she heard a familiar voice.
"Miss Maclay?" Riley asked.
"Hello Mr. Finn," Tara said easily. "You can call me Tara. Shipmates and fellow travelers after all. How is Anya?"
"She's fine," Riley said with a smile. "She's been a most unique guest."
"May I see her?" Tara asked. "I do feel responsible for her."
"Come with me," Riley said offering her his arm.
Tara handed Dawn her sketchpad, then took Riley's arm. Dawn rolled her eyes and followed, the very model of adolescent reluctance.
"An Imperial citizen?" Meers asked. "Are you sure?"
"My informant saw her service emblem," Travers said evenly.
"It might be a coincidence," Andrew said hopefully.
"Such coincidences are always suspect," the older man said in a lecturing tone.
"Right," Meers said. "Besides, I'm supposed to believe some Imperial just helped our target out of some candy floss kindness? Imperials are all connivers. They don't do anything unless it's to further their own power. What was this bitch's name again?"
"Tara Maclay," Travers said blandly.
"I'll send her name out and see what comes back," Warren said darkly.
Normally the peaceful tranquility of so many books around her would have eased Willow's fears. Today this private library did nothing to calm her nerves. William might just be William on board ship but here he was the Crown Prince. Then there was the King of Oldenberg, a chancellor, and a woman Giles had almost called 'your highness'. She had never had a reallyroyal audience for a presentation before and she desperately wished she had practiced.
"Any, ahhh, questions?" she tried not to squeak.
Just then the door to the library opened and Willow's eyes were drawn to Tara. She knew Riley and Dawn were there, but Tara being here made the pterodactyls in her tummy back into butterflies. Buffy hurried to Dawn and hugged her. The small blonde looked at Tara with grateful eyes.
"Thank you," Buffy said softly.
"Yes, Miss Maclay," Randolph said evenly. "We've just heard Miss Rosenberg's facts and theory. Do you have anything to add?"
Tara looked at Willow for a second. It was enough for Willow to know Tara was uncomfortable. Willow smiled at her and Tara smiled back briefly. Then the girl seemed to disappear as Tara assumed a parade rest. As she did so Willow noticed a rosette of vermillion edged in gold on Tara's left lapel that she had never seen before.
"I do, sir," Tara said in clipped, official sounding voice. "I would say my aunt was right."
"Oh?" the old woman with a regal bearing asked. "How so, Miss Maclay?"
"Let me say first that I am here to enroll as a student in Oldenberg University's Art History department," Tara said in a tone that made Willow uneasy. "I received the scholarship with the understanding that I would keep my eyes open and report to the woman I consider my aunt."
"Was that after you received the Imperial Gold Sunburst?" the chancellor asked bluntly.
"Yes sir," Tara answered quickly.
"Who arranged this scholarship?" the King asked levelly.
"My aunt, Abigail McHeath, retired Admiral and the former Commander for Intelligence, Fourth Naval District," Tara replied so steadily Willow could barely make out the nerves under that calm exterior. "She and Captain Chin arranged it."
"What is Captain Chin's title?" William asked warily.
"I think it would best be described as 'classified'," Tara replied dryly.
Of course, Willow thought in the silent moment that followed. A beautiful woman who has the highest award the Empire can give came here on a spying scholarship and I thought I had a chance to be with her.
"What help can you offer, Miss Maclay?" Randolph asked finally.
"None, sir," Tara said in what Willow thought of as her own voice. "W-we didn't know it had gone this far. I'm just supposed to report."
"Thank you for stepping beyond your duty again, Miss Maclay," the older woman said standing up. "Randy, I think we need to talk."
James Tyrrell hurried down the palace hall. This section was full of small apartments for minor visiting officials. Now he was glad Quentin Travers had accepted a room in the busier wing. No one looked twice at him as he nearly ran from the building. It wasn't until he'd gotten to the city's center that he could feel his talent stabilize. He looked for a pharmacy, and after he had purchased something for his throbbing head he looked for the shadier part that all cities had hidden somewhere. He was tired of being blinded and turned into a lower creature. It was time to see if the rumors about certain alkaloids were right
"Are we leaving soon?" Anya asked as she hugged Tara.
"I'm going to work on getting you to my aunt as soon as this is done," Tara replied.
"Does she need orgasms? From a human I mean," Anya asked.
"Umm, n-n-no, she was, you know, married to man," Tara explained in a flustered voice.
"That doesn't preclude a lesbian relationship or a desire for female-induced orgasms in some re-humans," Anya explained brightly. "Maybe I can teach her. I've been told I'm very educational."
"You are," Tara admitted quickly.
"Thank you," Anya replied with a wide smile.
"I, umm, Anya- I mean-" Tara started.
"Do you need my help?" Anya asked eagerly. "For Dawn and not orgasms?"
"Yes," Tara said with a relieved sigh.
"Okay!" Anya said as she smiled broadly.
"Shouldn't I have an invitation?" Cordelia asked as entered. "And this dress isn't really up to a royal dinner."
"You're fine, Miss Chase," Travers assured her. "This is more a series of calls and a working dinner. Not very glamorous I'm afraid."
"It'll help Beth and Willow?" the young woman asked earnestly.
"If we can find them," Travers said sadly. "Remember what I said about the danger they were in?"
"Yes," Cordelia said tightly.
"It may be deeper than I feared," Travers said softly. "We must tell no one of our true mission. Do you understand?"
"Yes," she answered trying to sound resolute.
"I envy your father his daughter," Travers said nodding.
Even in her worry Cordelia smiled.
Willow was in the main library of the palace. Tonight it was a busy place with nearly every seat taken at the long tables. In front of her a stack of incorporation records and international directories were telling a story that was a year and a half old. Through the newest publications she traced a series of once moribund newspapers to a single company with its headquarters in Zenda. Hoffman Publishing had the bare minimum information listed in the bulging Zenda listing of companies.
"Privately held," Willow muttered. She blushed at her breach of library discipline.
She stood up and took back the large stack of thick books. As she paused at the desk to have her materials reshelved she saw a copy of the most recent Imperial Register laying on the desk. She looked around but the librarians were busy. She picked it up and looked at the index. She quickly ran her trembling finger down the M listing until she came to 'Maclay, Tara'. Willow picked up the book and hurried back to her seat. She opened the book to the page listed and saw the heading 'For Valor in Service of the Empire'. There were sixteen entries in the section dealing with the Gold Sunburst. Most of the listings had an asterisk in front. Willow looked at the footnote and blanched when she read 'posthumous award'.
Willow read through the first part of the citation. She already knew Tara had been born on Milton and enlisted on Jocelyn. It was jarring to see the name of the planet for it meant 'place of peace'. She'd heard of Tanner's Crossing. Willow felt her mouth get dry as she read the body of the citation:
Clerk's Assistant 1st Class (then CA 3rd Class) Maclay, after voluntarily giving up her place on the extraction aircraft was attached to the headquarters squad of the 1st Company, 2nd Battalion, 417th Imperial Marine Regiment. As casualties mounted CA 1st Maclay took over running supplies of power cells, water and ammunition to the Marines on the perimeter. Coming to a wounded Marine she pulled her to the shelter of the Administration Building. As fire intensified she continued to bring badly needed supplies to the perimeter even though her route was exposed to mortar fire. She recovered two more wounded Marines. On her last trip the perimeter forces primary VRF weapon's crew was incapacitated by enemy fire. Though exposed she was able to pull the sole survivor of the crew to cover while providing covering fire with her sidearm. When a wounded and unarmored Marine arrived at the VRF post to man the weapon CA 1st Maclay gave him her helmet and carapace chest armor. She then began to pull the stricken Marine to the Administration Building for treatment. She was wounded severely in the lower legs by a mortar round that mortally wounded the Marine she was escorting. A rescue attempt was thwarted by deadly mortar fire. CA 1st Maclay gave first aid to the dying Marine until she passed out from her wounds...
Willow looked around her, suddenly glad for the nearby normalcy of the library.
Who did you give up your place for? Willow wondered. You saved three, gave away your armor and I'll bet there was a smile and kind words for each Marine you gave something to, but you'll always remember the one you couldn't save. I'll bet you cried when you found out they were giving you a medal.
"Willow?" a familiar voice whispered hoarsely.
"Cordelia?" Willow said in a surprised voice.
"Shh!" Cordelia hissed. "Over here."
The taller girl led Willow to a small whisper alcove. Willow could feel the tension in her friend.
"Are you all right?" Cordelia asked in what she no doubt considered a whisper. "What's going on? Where's Beth? Is she all right? Have you heard anything about Dawn?"
"It's okay," Willow whispered.
"Okay?" Cordelia asked with raised eyebrows. "You two run off and Dawn's missing and soldiers are everywhere and it's okay? Are you in trouble? I can call my father-"
"Everything's fine," Willow whispered as she tried to reassure her friend. "Beth's fine, I'm fine, and don't worry about Dawn."
"Don't worry?" Cordelia asked incredulously. Willow looked at her friend and then looked at main room of the library. There seemed to be no one paying attention to them. Willow took a breath and made her decision.
"Dawn's fine," Willow said in a soft voice. "I can't say any more. Don't tell anyone, please."
"You're coming with me," Cordelia said earnestly.
"No, I've got to stay here with Beth," Willow insisted. "I've got to get back now. Trust me, Cordy."
"I'm at the King George Hotel," Cordelia said. "If any of you need anything call on me there."
"I promise," Willow assured her. "I've got to go."
"I saw Willow," Cordelia sighed to Travers in his rooms. "I couldn't get her to come with me. I think these people are holding Dawn. Willow trusts them."
"Is that a recommendation?" Travers asked carefully.
"She has the political instincts of a turnip," the young woman said tiredly. "If they have Dawn why not say so and stop all this murder talk? Then things will get back to normal."
"If they want things to get back to normal," Travers said darkly.
"What are we going to do?" Cordelia asked.
"The first step is to have transport ready to get your friends away from here," the older man said.
"I could ask for a Special!" Cordelia said quickly. "Daddy-my father lets me all the time."
"Very good idea," Travers agreed. "You do that. Tell them stand by for, say, forty eight hours."
"We can save them, can't we?" Cordelia asked worriedly.
"We'll get them out of Oldenberg's clutches," Travers promised.
Quentin Travers walked through the night towards a small park near the palace. Around the park there were half a dozen embassies including Mercia's. No one would ask why a diplomat was going down that street even at night. He stopped and entered a building just a half block away from the park. The small brass plaque read 'The Elmwood' and was the only mark for one of the most expensive and discrete hotels on the Peninsula. More than one diplomat had a mistress or lover here. Travers entered took the small birdcage elevator to the floor above the one he wanted. He walked down the stairs after making sure he had not been followed and knocked on the door of room 314.
"The swallow swims at noon," Andrew said softly.
"Open the bloody door," Travers growled.
"But- ow!" came the young man's voice.
The door opened and Travers saw the smaller man rubbing his head as Meers glared at Andrew. Meers looked into the hall and shut the door.
"Damn I miss surveillance equipment," Meers muttered. "What's the story?"
"Summers is most likely at the palace," Travers said without preamble.
"Great," growled Meers. "How do we get to her there?"
"We don't," Travers said grimly. "I need something to flush our quarry to the stand, and I think you'll have just what I need."
"So we're back on track?" Meers asked.
"I believe we are," Travers said in a satisfied tone.
Tara closed her eyes and tried to sleep. Her parting with Willow slipped into her imagination.
"You have to go, I know that," Willow had said softly. "I think its called 'tradecraft'. But, you know, later..."
"Later?" Tara had asked with her chest pounding.
Then Willow had leaned in quickly and kissed her. The redhead pulled back and smiled, half innocent and half coy. Tara felt her lips tingle where Willow had kissed her.
"Later," Willow had said, her single word a promise.
Tara opened her eyes and opened the window without turning on the light. The scent of the sea carried by the evening breeze mixed with the flowers outside her window. She smiled at Europa's nearly full moon.
"There's going to be a later," Tara sighed happily.
In the darker part of Oldenberg a man of evil reputation leaned back on a stool and fondled the young blonde girl roughly. He had wanted Clarice for a week, but she'd turned him down.
"No," she said firmly.
"Take this on account," he said with a grin as he handed her a gold coin. Clarice gasped as she recognized the Zendan florin. Then she frowned.
"So you've stolen a florin," she said with a toss of her head. "Big deal."
"I'll steal all the treasure of Morlaix for a week between those thighs," he growled.
Then the man was flying backward and the hardest man she had ever seen turned to Clarice and struck her hard enough to knock the girl to the floor. He grabbed her and lifted her roughly to her fight and placed a knife under her throat.
"Please," she sobbed. "I don't like fish!"
"What did you say, whore?" her assailant asked softly.
"He said he'd get me Morris' treasure, and I swear I won't say you're after the fishmonger's payroll," she promised.
The man smiled and dropped Clarice to the floor. Then he pried the coin out of her hand.
"Good girl," he said politely. "Don't make me come back here."
The girl cringed as he kicked the groaning man on the floor before dragging him out the door. The attacker picked up a red bandanna with an intricate pattern on it. The girl's eyes narrowed as she recognized the piece of cloth. The crowd muttered as they turned back to their drinks. Clarice put her hand to her face.
"I'll get more than a florin for that," she vowed with quiet anger.
Willow woke to the wonderful smell of coffee and sweet rolls. She looked up and saw Dawn smiling at her. It took a moment for Willow to realize where she was. She wasn't used to waking up in different places each day.
"You're smiling because...?" Willow asked almost afraid of the answer.
"Because one of the royal cousins is really cute and because there's a way to stop this," Dawn replied happily. "That's why they let you sleep in. Well that and Buffy threatened to kick the first person who woke you before ten."
"Ten?!?" Willow squeaked as she tossed back the covers. "We've got to get to work!"
"It's being done," Dawn assured her. "But my sister probably needs you to make sure she spells 'the' correctly."
"Are you decent?" Anya asked from the doorway.
"You're supposed to ask before you look in," Dawn said gently. "But you did ask."
"Thank you," Anya said with a smile. "I didn't expect such a strong reaction for a nudity taboo. Did you know Alexander can blush to his-"
"He's under a lot of stress," Willow said quickly.
"I don't see why he was so flustered," Anya said. "I was just going to continue the conversation we were having last night."
"Maybe it was a bit early," Willow said hoping the conversation would veer in some other direction.
"Where are you going next?" Anya asked Dawn.
"You don't have to stay with me," Dawn said gently.
"But remember, Tara asked me to watch over you," Anya explained. "Besides, I'm learning from your interaction patterns with other humans."
"Oh," Willow said with a touch of worry.
"Don't be alarmed," Anya said confidently. "With the security restrictions Mr. Giles explained to me there are a limited number of interactions that can take place. Our plan and Dawn will be safe."
"Good," Willow said as she picked up her toiletries bag from the suitcase brought from their hotel.
"She'll be as safe as an insect in a floor covering," Anya promised.
"So, has anyone actually had the high tech bimbo yet?" Liam asked as he toweled his face in the gym.
"She's not a thing, she's a person," Alex said with some heat.
William was about to step in when Giles put his hand on the Prince's shoulder. William had been surprised that the older man had been able to hold his own against Riley in close in work with knives and even take the young mercenary down with a very nasty trick in unarmed practice. William looked at Riley who nodded and smiled.
"She's made for fucking," Liam said brightly. "Any way, any time."
"Have you talked to her?" the thin young man asked hotly. "Do you have any idea what it's like to be helpless and just get used?"
"She likes it, boy," Liam said with a smirk. "Maybe I'll go over right now and..."
"Maybe you'll leave her alone," Alex warned.
"Don't take that tone with your betters," Liam growled.
"I'm not," Alexander replied.
"You are," Liam said and pushed Alex hard. The boy landed in a heap. "That's a better position for you, boy."
Alexander didn't say a word. He just levered himself up as the bigger man looked away and buried his fist into the Irishman's solar plexus. Liam let out a grunt and staggered back. Then Liam swung hard and bounced a punch off the side of Alex's head. The smaller young man drove three quick punches into Liam's ribs and followed up with an upward headbutt that staggered the bigger man.
"I think that's quite enough," Giles said quietly.
"I'd prefer if my guests conducted themselves like gentlemen in the future," William said evenly. "Is that understood?"
In the hallway near the gym dawn noticed Anya suddenly looked distracted. The construct tilted her head just so and stepped closely to one wall. She stayed like that for a moment as Dawn tried to see what had drawn her attention. All the teen could see was a glimpse of the gym. Anya looked back at Dawn and gave a thoughtful frown.
"What do you think of Alexander Harris?" she asked.
Quentin Travers had had a busy morning. He had for the most part wandered deep in thought and simply listened. It was just coming up to noon when he had the last bit of information he needed for his next step. He felt the small spheres in his pocket and hoped the off-world solution that inactivated fingerprints and DNA traces worked. He waited in the hallway nearest the royal wing he could get into. Suddenly two additional guards blocked the door beyond. He waited until they were gone. He smiled as he saw a maid enter a nearby room.
Dawn was torn between feeling grateful for the extra security and chafing at the restrictions. She was eating lunch in a small dining room near the middle of the palace next to a dashing young officer when there was a loud snap and screams. Suddenly the room seemed to close in around her and she could swear for a moment she saw Tildy. Then there was another bang and the screams increased. Anya grabbed her and pulled her to the wall just as another explosion crashed nearby. Then silence fell for a moment. The officer stood up and yelled for everyone to leave in an orderly manner. As Anya hustled her out the door an older man with blood streaming from his forehead staggered into the stream of people. Dawn was sure she couldn't breathe.
Finally outside Anya pulled her close as people asked panicked questions. Dawn started to breathe normally when she saw a woman who could not have been more than twenty with a pregnant belly scream and grab her stomach.
"No!" she cried. "It's too early!"
Dawn looked away to see the older man kneeling on the ground with several other bleeding people.
"Who did this?" a footman asked in a bewildered tone.
"I don't know," said the wounded man. "My God, I was in the room where the first infernal device went off just minutes before it killed that woman."
"How many were killed?" the footman asked in a panic.
"I don't know," the old man said tiredly. "What could be worth killing so many innocent people for? How many more are going to die because of this? Women... old men... my god, babies in their mother's womb- what sort of monster could cause all this. Is it worth the death and destruction?"
"Please, Travers, calm yourself," a member of the Mercian delegation said gently as he knelt by the stunned looking diplomat.
"What could possibly be worth all this death?" the old man asked in a confused, angry tone.
Dawn started to cry silently.
"Are you two alright?" Alexander asked breathlessly as he ran up to them.
"She's crying but she's not hurt," Anya said worriedly. "I can't get her to stop. Somebody's going to notice and that will violate the security guidelines."
"Let's get her into the stables," Alex said picking the girl up. "Nobody bombs horseshit."
Anya followed him. She saw a familiar redhead and waved. Willow ran to them with wide eyes. Willow drew Buffy's attention as she ran and when she saw her sister in Alex's arms she very nearly called out Dawn's name. She started after them. She caught up with Willow as she came to the stable doors. The stable was empty, the stalls standing open as an alarm rang in the distance.
"What happened?" Buffy asked urgently. "Are you hurt?"
"It's because of me!" Dawn wailed. "Those people are dead because of me! Why? Am I a monster?"
"No," Buffy cried as she pulled her sister into her arms. Buffy started to almost sing as she rocked Dawn, "It's okay, it's okay, it's okay."
Willow watched her friend try to comfort the girl who was sobbing brokenly. Anya looked frightened and worried. Alex was stricken but trying to be brave. Willow was surprised as her shock gave way to a cold rage at the people who had hurt innocents and her friends.
The police station was a madhouse. Clarice had spoken to three different officers. Finally one hen pecked looking older man had listened to her and asked her to stay. He even bought her a lunch.
Tara hurried through the crowded streets toward the palace. She had no idea what she was going to do once she got there but she knew she had to get there. She tried not to listen to the wild rumors around her about the number of dead.
Nothing happened to Willow, nothing happened to Dawn, rolled over and over in her mind like a mantra.
Finally she was at the palace gates. Soldiers barred the way and the crowd waited silently. A man hurried out of the palace with a piece of paper clenched in his hands. He pulled the back of a panel on the gate opened and fastened the paper inside, then swung the panel back to be read. He stepped up to the gate and took a deep breath.
"The King and all his family lives!" the herald called out. "Long live the King!"
"Long live the King!" the crowd called out in relief.
"Please!" Tara called out to the herald. "I need to get in!"
"I'm sorry, Miss," a soldier nearby said politely.
"Give this to Riley Finn," she said to the soldier as she dug into her jacket pocket.
The man looked down at the rosette in his hand. A moment passed before he realized what it was. He looked at her closely, then called for the corporal of the guard.
"This means we're close to their plan," the chancellor said angrily. "We must ready the diplomatic airship at once. Prove the control of the papers, prove the conspiracy."
"Perhaps," Randolph said tiredly. "But we have no one to spare for the mission. I need everyone here just to make sure months of work don't evaporate and give these bastards more fuel for their fire. It took a company of troops to stop those boys from marching south."
"I could go," Willow said timidly.
"I don't remember asking for your presence, Miss Rosenberg," the King said gently.
"Oh, I was just here to explain things and carry Mr. Giles' bag, your highness," Willow explained in a rush.
"Mr. Giles?" the King asked thoughtfully. "A learned librarian who is used to dealing with delicate situations. Yes, that would be a very good idea. Sir, do you think you could carry out this mission?"
"If Miss Summers is safe here, yes," Giles said reluctantly. "I will need papers and I'm sure cables must be sent."
"By the time the airship is ready the papers will be ready as well," the Chancellor promised. "Though I would feel better with another person going with you."
There was a discrete knock at the door. It opened to admit a footman. He bowed to the King.
"Sire, Miss Maclay is here with Mr. Finn," a footman said politely.
"Excellent," Randolph said. "We may pull this off."
Dawn was doing her best to read her book. She couldn't close her eyes without seeing the bleeding people on the lawn again. She read the page she'd started twice before, determined that this time she'd make it through.
"That's it!" Claire said excitedly.
"That a hundred men are guarding the castle?" Lisa asked confused by her friend's outburst.
"Those hundred men are trying to keep people from getting in," Claire explained. "Not to stop people, especially servants, from going out."
Dawn read the page again and looked at the door of her room and then the peasant's clothes she'd been traveling in.
"Nobody else gets hurt," she whispered.
"There's an Inspector Stephan Vorman to see you, sir," a footman announced to William.
"Why does he want to see me?" William asked tiredly.
"He wanted to see the King or Von Soden, but he's settling for you," the servant explained. "He's quite serious."
"Perhaps it's something new on the bombing," William mused. "Show him in."
"Thank you, you highness," the policeman said before the servant could turn around. "I'm afraid this is important, especially with tensions as they are."
"Oh?" William wondered if anything could make the day worse.
"I think someone has paid the scum of Europa to attack Morlaix in the colors of Prince Etienne of Aquitaine," the Inspector said in a matter of fact tone.
"Dawn, is the privacy time up yet?" Anya asked as she looked in Dawn's small room. "Dawn?"
Anya looked at the neat pile of clothing and the book the girl had been reading on the bed. On the book was a note. 'For Willow' was all it said. Anya whirled out of the room and tore down the hall. Buffy stepped out of her room just as Anya found out waxed floors had a lower friction coefficient than she thought.
"What are you running for?" Buffy snapped as she disentangled herself from Anya.
"Dawn," Anya said quickly.
"What's wrong?" Buffy demanded.
"She's gone," Anya said urgently. "I've got to get Mr. Giles."
"You want Giles?" Willow asked as she looked out her door at the commotion. "He's with the King."
"No!" Buffy said quickly. "I know where she's gone."
"Who?" Willow asked in a worried tone even though she knew the answer.
"Dawn," Anya explained. "She wanted a private time so I waited for thirty five minutes and then checked up on her but she was gone."
"Shouldn't we tell the King and get some soldiers?" Willow asked urgently.
"No, Will, if they bring her back everyone will know," Buffy implored. "Please, Willow, I know what I'm doing."
"All right," Willow said reluctantly. "But I'm coming with you."