It is only with the tempering of true civilization that human beings, and human beings alone, can become worthy of being entrusted with decisions of import. Those without the understanding given by exposure to the culture and discourse of the pinnacle of human achievement must be guided by their superiors.
The First Planets, Heirs of Greatness
Some of the most unexpected sophants have taken the responsibility of becoming Imperial Citizens and all have done so by service to the Empire.
From Imperial Service-Is It Right For You?
Captain Huntington looked carefully at his reflection in the mirror. He was partnering the Countess tonight. There was a knock at his door. He opened it to see a Middlesex infantryman with a telegraph.
"Message, sir," the private said with a salute.
Huntington sketched an airy salute and looked at the message.
Fillies acquired. Current field looks good. Wager is on. 50?
"Any reply sir?" the soldier asked.
"No, I'll deal with the wager later," the officer said with a smile.
"Very good, sir," the young man replied. "Never bet myself."
"Yes, but if you don't gamble, you can't win," Huntington observed.
"Can't afford losing, sir," the soldier pointed out. He turned on his heel and marched away.
Huntington turned back to his mirror with a grim smile. Both Summers girls were in the bag. That left their dam to be rounded up. A pity, for the Countess was still a handsome woman. He shrugged away the thought.
"I don't intend to lose."
Prince Etienne of Aquitaine looked at the cards in his hands and wondered whatever had possessed him to play against the Countess of Sussex and Captain Huntington. Many officers had complained that the Countess was taking out her frustration with the help of fifty two pasteboard accomplices. He was ready to believe their tales of woe. He was on the verge of passing when a messenger arrived at the table. He looked at the man's uniform with a hint of concern. The Hussars were rumored to be partisans of his brother, Prince Louis.
"An urgent matter, your highness," the soldier said.
Etienne opened the sealed envelope and read the message:
Rumors about health exaggerated by op. press-Markets
Etienne confirmed the King's own cipher. He looked at his companions at the table and sighed.
"I fear I must bid everyone a fond goodnight," he said standing.
"At least this way we do not lose," his partner, a Pomeranian major of artillery quipped.
"I hope everything is all right," Joyce said, the concern in her voice unfeigned.
"Rumors," Etienne said shrugging. "An opponent with ten thousand mouths and no brain."
"I understand," Joyce said with a slim smile. "Though I wish you could stay."
"Am I that easy a mark?" the prince asked with a broad smile.
The card party's polite laughter drew their attention away from the messenger's predatory smile.
Willow looked up the tracks the way they had come. She could just make out a figure weaving on the side of the right of way. William and Riley were running that way. Dawn was sitting huddled on the steps of the platform and Buffy was hovering nearby. Tara was walking her way. Anya stopped the off world girl.
"Are you going to kiss again?" Anya asked. "It was very nice. Good technique, but you really should use your tongue more."
"I'll, umm, remember that," Tara said anxiously.
Anya beamed and walked over to where Cordelia was dealing with the policemen.
"What should we do?" Tara asked as she came up.
"Well, the tongue advice is good but, you know, not right now," Willow said blushing in the dark.
"Okay," Tara answered with a bashful smile.
In the distance suddenly there were gunshots. Willow looked toward the shots that peaked briefly and stopped. William and Riley were bringing back Klems. They began to hurry the stumbling figure. Willow took a deep breath and looked at Tara.
"I need to do something now," Willow said tightly. "But..."
"Later," Tara promised.
Willow nodded and turned toward Buffy. She reached her friend just ahead of several groups. Willow pulled on Buffy's sleeve. The small blonde turned to her friend.
"Buffy, we need to get organized," Willow said calmly. "The timing of all of this can't be by accident."
"No, it's not," Buffy said softly. She looked at the police approaching in one direction with Cordelia and then at William and Riley with the sagging, swearing Klems between them.
"Buffy?" Dawn asked softly. "Are you okay?"
"I'm all right," Buffy said softly to her sister. Then she looked at the Morlaix border police. "I am Lady Elizabeth Summers. This man and others in his employ kidnapped both my sister and myself. I believe they are also behind the gunfire we heard. Please take him into custody."
"Keep your hands off me if you know what's good for you, church mice!" Klems snapped. "Give me this criminal and I'll be on my way!"
"He kidnapped me as well!" Cordelia snapped.
"We will sort this out at the Sergeant At Arms' office," the senior constable said sternly.
"I must be on my way!" Klems roared.
"To start a war," William said coldly.
"This way," the constable said. "Herman, make sure our loud guest is escorted closely."
Alexander Harris felt his hands shaking. It had seemed like a story. The Sergeant At Arms of Morlaix had asked for every available adult who could fight to defend the Bishopric. Alexander had raised his hand. The shotgun they gave him was familiar. His mother had often stretched their meals with rabbits and birds he'd brought back with his grandfather's ancient 12 bore. But he had never hunted at night, and never shot anything that let out a cry of fear and rage as it fell.
Alex looked down into the dead man's eyes. Just a moment ago his opponent had been swinging an empty rifle at a wounded Morlaix constable. Alexander had just an instant picture in front of the shotgun's sight. He'd pulled the trigger. There had been the expected recoil, the noise, and the flash. When he looked again down the sights all of the men in the grimy uniforms with the red sashes were down. Including the one in front of him.
"First time?" Lady Dunbar asked as she reloaded her own shotgun.
"Yes," Alex replied unsteadily.
"You saved the constable," the older woman said in a steadying tone. "Not to mention all of Morlaix."
Alex nodded. Several of the raiders were still alive. Two of their horses screamed in their own agony, a shrill counterpoint to the groans of the wounded men of both sides.
"Is it always like this?" he asked looking at the moonlit road where the ambush had been sprung. What the pale light did not show the sounds and odors of sudden violent death filled in.
"Usually it's worse," Lady Dunbar replied knowingly.
Alex handed her the shotgun with the breech open, like he had been trained to do. Then he ran for the side of the road and lost what little he had in his stomach.
The bells of the Bishopric tolled twelve as the group moved down the path. Willow was bringing up the rear with the very polite border guards when the messenger from the Bishop intercepted them. He leapt off his horse and handed the senior constable a note.
"Lady Summers, you must hurry!" the young man in the livery of the Bishopric said hurriedly. "The Bishop must speak with you at once. Carriages are on their way for your friends."
"What of our messenger, Alexander Harris?" Buffy asked urgently.
"He has acquitted himself well this night in our defense, Lady," he said handing her the reins. "Take my horse and follow the road to the bridge. The guards are expecting you."
Buffy leapt into the saddle with a sureness Willow tried not to envy. Then she whirled the beast about and was gone. The senior border constable looked at the men flanking Klems.
"Secure him," he ordered.
"Fools!" Klems snarled. "You'll rue this day before it is over!"
When Willow arrived with the others at the main square of the Bishopric she saw to her dismay horses in full tack standing on the square. Buffy was speaking quickly to a gently rotund figure in a cassock. As they came closer Willow could see the scarlet piping that was a mark of a Bishop on the cassock in the torchlight. He looked haggard in the flickering lights. Buffy stepped toward them.
"We don't have a lot of time," Buffy started in a clear voice. "Speaking with the Bishop and representatives of various governments we've come to the conclusion those who started all of this are making their move. If we can prove Dawn is alive and I am the one to bring her back we can mitigate some of the caustic damage this crisis has done. Dawn and I have to go home. This is something you don't have to-"
"Buffy, shut up and get me a stool so I can get up on one of those things," Willow said stepping out of the carriage.
"I can give you a hand up, Miss Willow," Alexander said stepping away from a horse. "I'm ready."
"Shouldn't we have safety belts?" Anya asked.
"You may stay here, Miss Anya," the Bishop said. "Miss Summers explained you are not familiar with horses."
"Since you're one of the good humans who know I am a real person, I will modify my language and gestures," Anya said clearly. "I am very much going."
"Well, we can't very well let women rush off to danger alone," William said.
"No, if they figure out they don't need us for this we're down to being needed for killing spiders and reaching tall things," Riley agreed.
"Our mystique would be gone for good," Liam added.
"Can I have a more spirited mount?" Cordelia asked. She looked at Liam as he was seized by a sudden fit of coughing. She smiled at Willow. "Must be the damp night air."
Tara swung up into the saddle and let the stable hand shorten her stirrups. Then she eased her horse to Willow's. The redhead looked at Tara's easy seat and calm manner with the horse. She sighed.
"Is everyone in the galaxy better on a horse than I am?" Willow asked.
"Yes," teased Dawn.
"Just let yourself think of your horse as a fellow creature, trying to keep up with the others," Tara suggested.
Willow tried to visualize herself just going with the others. She had a brief glimpse of the horses, only their rank had nothing to do with their riders and the horse under seemed to ease.
"Let's just get through this," she whispered to the horse. It whickered softly.
"You realize you are all quite mad," Buffy said smiling and blinking away threatened tears.
"Yes," Willow said with a grin. "How are we getting to West Sussex?"
"The Brandy Route," Alex replied. "I know the way."
"In the dark?" Liam asked.
"That's how I traveled it most of the time," the young man replied.
There was a clatter on the paving stones and a magnificent gray gelding came into view. The older woman on the horse was tying on her hat.
"I think we had best be going, Lady Summers," Lady Dunbar said.
"I wish you would reconsider, Lady Dunbar," the Bishop said worriedly.
"Oh, Horace, don't be such a stick in the mud," she replied. "I'm just an observer. How much trouble could I get into surrounded by such fine young men?"
Joyce Summers hesitated on the stairs as a messenger came into her home. The young man saluted and reported the southern border was quiet. She caught her escort looking carefully at the soldier. Her escort this evening was again Captain Huntington of the Wessex Dragoons. The handsome officer leaned forward so just she could hear his words.
"We must speak," he said.
"I really should check with my chambermaid before I retire," she said easily to the two officers following her at the base of the stairs.
"Yes, Ma'am," they said politely.
She turned at her door and knocked on a door next to hers. Her chambermaid appeared and stood back from the door. Joyce looked at the girl.
"Just nod like we're going over a matter of the bedclothes," Joyce said softly. The maid nodded.
"There will be good news this early morning," Huntington said quietly. "But I don't trust our Aquitaine friends. Be ready to leave when I come by, say about five o'clock. I'll arrange coffee for your guards."
"Are my girls all right?" Joyce asked in quiet desperation.
"You will be reunited by the first light of day," Huntington promised.
"Are you sure we can make it before dawn without breaking our necks?" William asked as the group began their ride.
"I-I think s-so," Alex replied.
"Think?" Cordelia snapped.
Alexander felt the night closing in on him as his stomach clenched. He was the son of a drunk, more suited to shoveling out stables than riding with the gentry. What business did he have leading anything? He looked at the people in front of him. Willow looked at him, met his eyes, and nodded with a smile.
"If you can keep up, milady," he said sitting a bit taller in the saddle.
Willow was sure she should have fallen off half a dozen times by the first time they slowed to pass near a border post. The chill of the night and tension of the crossing worked against each other until they were past. Then the tiny rivulets of sweat became trickles of icy cold on her skin. Then they were riding again until Alex signaled a halt to rest the horses. She got off with her usual controlled collapse but for once was not the least graceful. Anya tumbled from her saddle, and before anyone could offer her a hand Alex was there.
"Isn't there a riding animal with a more ergonomic interface?" Anya asked. "Multi-humped camels perhaps?"
"Camels spit," Dawn said. "I read about it in Thief of the Sands."
"Are you all right?" Tara asked Willow softly.
"It's working," Willow said with a shy smile. "The thinking about the horse as part of a group thing I mean."
"I'm glad," Tara replied.
Without thinking Willow reached for Tara's hand and found it reaching for hers. Nearby Buffy, William and Riley spoke with Alex in low tones about the next stretch of the trail and the possibility of patrols while Cordelia complained to Lady Dunbar about riding in street shoes and Anya grilled Dawn for options concerning animal transportation. But in the tiny patch of moonlight Willow and Tara shared the touch became a long moment of silence between them as the other conversations fell away.
Then Willow reached out with her free hand and found Tara's again without looking. Now Willow knew Tara was worried for the others but mostly for Willow. The redhead could feel Tara's heartbeat in her hands as the world became two orbs of blue that shone impossibly bright in the moonlight.
"We have to go," Buffy said gently.
Even with her quiet tone both girls gave a start.
Etienne looked through the dispatches waiting for him on the train. He felt put out that so much of the ‘urgent' concerns were of the most mundane nature. Still, he had a duty so he busied himself and tried to work through the papers. He did not look up when the train stopped. Formalities had to be observed at borders, but he knew he would not be disturbed. The sudden blow to the back of his head was a painful surprise.
Tara was watching Dawn as they rode. The closer they got to West Sussex and her home the more chances she seemed to take. Several times Buffy had to almost drag her back physically. When they stopped again Willow drew close to the sisters before she dismounted. Tara did the same just as Buffy grabbed her sister by the arm.
"What the Hell was that all about?" Buffy demanded. "You stay in the middle of the group!"
"But we're close and Momma needs us and we can stop everything and it'll be all right and-" Dawn said in a rush. Then she shivered all over and couldn't stop shaking. Buffy looked on helplessly. Tara could feel Buffy's worry and anger turning to fear. Willow looked at Tara and nodded to Dawn. Tara gently pushed the trembling girl towards her sister.
"Hold her," Willow said softly.
As Buffy took Dawn in her arms both girls started to cry. Willow and Tara eased their arms around the Summers girls.
"It's okay," Tara said gently.
Buffy framed Dawn's face gently with her hands as she smiled and tried to look the part of the wise older sister.
"Everything will be okay," Buffy promised.
"Everything?" Dawn asked in a small voice.
"Everything," Buffy promised, hoping that her word would bind the future.
"S-sorry," Dawn said hesitantly.
"You're up late on a school night," Buffy replied.
"Always a bad thing," Willow agreed.
"I promise to go to bed on time tomorrow," Dawn said trying to smile.
"What are the possibilities things will actually be okay?" Anya asked Alex.
"Slim and none," he replied quietly.
"Then she's lying to her sister?" Anya asked aghast.
"It's complicated," Alex said uncomfortably. "She's trying to be strong for her and give her hope."
"Hope?" Anya asked. "So this is a real human thing?"
"Yes," Alex nodded.
"It's very confusing," Anya said. "It's kind of frightening too."
"Yeah," Alex said.
Alex looked at Willow and Tara now holding hands in the moonlight next to the sisters. He reached for Anya's hand. The construct looked surprised at the contact. Then she smiled and felt the first hint of a blush in the night. Alex smiled at her and let her hand go. As he mounted his horse Anya looked down at her hand.
"This is most irregular," grumbled the Zendan Minister of Finance.
"These are irregular times," Giles said calmly, fighting the urge to yawn.
I'm getting too old for this, he thought.
"Why should the laws of the Republic of Zenda be imposed on this company?" the Minister grumbled.
"Beyond war and chaos?" the Premier asked in a testy tone. He had no urge to see the world in the wee hours of the morning.
"Those are the politics of others," huffed the Minister. "Such things have come and gone before. We are neutral. It will not come to our borders."
"But the results of the currency manipulation will most certainly impact your economy," Giles said levelly. "Especially the off-planet resources that would no doubt be brought to bear. I understand there are off-world criminal gangs with engraving machines that can copy any paper or coin down to the molecular level. Even hard-gild gold over lead."
"Counterfeiting?" the Minister of Finance asked in horror.
"I'm afraid so," Giles said sadly.
"I will call on the Chief of Police myself!" the Minister rumbled. "Be ready to move within the hour!"
The Premier watched the de facto ruler of Zenda bellow to his servants. When they were alone he turned to the librarian who had arrived by diplomatic airship with such a chilling tale.
"Have you actually heard of such things?" the politician asked.
"Read about them," Giles nodded.
I'll just not mention it was in a Claire Durano novel, Giles decided.
Etienne could just make out the lid of the box, or what he desperately hoped was a box, above him. He could barely hear any sounds. He pounded on the lid. The sound was muffled. It did not interfere with a conversation being held several feet away.
"Aye, she'll make the shelf before light," the smuggler said with a nod. "Fastest thing on these docks."
"Can you drop this off there?" the cloaked figure asked.
"My back ain't that good anymore," the smuggler sighed.
"Will a dozen Zendan florins ease your pain?" the shrouded man asked holding up a purse.
"You, sir, have the cure for lumbago," the smuggler chuckled as half dozen men pushed the low rectangular box onto the swift vessel.
Willow caught sight of the distant bay when they crested the hill. She could see Buffy and Dawn both sitting straighter. Alex and the other men were looking downhill at the sleeping estate and the town beyond. Then something furtive just brushed her mind as several figures broke away from the stables and led their horses away.
"Something's happening," Tara said softly.
"About to," Willow said surely.
"How do you know?" asked William.
"They're sneaking," Willow said.
"What's over there?" Tara asked.
"They're headed towards the railway," Buffy said coldly.
"The one we're supposed to be delivered on," Cordelia said coldly. "What time is it?"
"Almost five," Lady Dunbar replied.
"The milk run," Cordelia said nodding. "Nobody would even notice with all those stops."
"Then they'll know we're not on it shortly," Dawn said tightly. "What about Mom?"
"We've got to get down there," Buffy said grimly. "Before it's too late."
Captain Huntington opened the door to the Countess's drawing room. The figures around the table were sprawled, their cards still in their hands. The candle on the table was low and guttering. Near one still hand a coffee cup was spilled. The officer smiled and nodded to the men following him. He stepped into the room.