There weren’t many planets that still had royalty. But Sri’Quis was one of the few planets ruled by a male-preference primogeniture monarchy. With her son now in power, Queen Mother Rigel had been ordered to leave the planet and surrender herself to voluntary exile. Her absence was intended to dissuade the ambitions and plots of those who believed that Queen Rigel should still rule. This in turn afforded her son, Torin IX, sufficient assurance that his claim to the throne was uncontested.
The Queen Mother was sitting in an opulent stateroom onboard the Earth-ship Onyx, reconciling herself to a future of relative irrelevance. She was dissatisfied with that.
“When will we arrive at Lough Derg?” she asked.
“Soon,” her Sri’Quisian bodyguard, Oirin, told her. Oirin was tall and healthy, with strong muscles and silver-colored eyes. His head was shaved a perfect bald; he applied wax to his scalp, making his dome shine.
“They tell me the planet is named after an island on Earth.”
“Earth’s Lough Derg is an island sanctuary, surrounded by water,” Oirin confirmed. “As Lough Derg is a water-covered planet, save for the solitary island that holds your future palace and a few other destinations, the Earthlings chose the name to reflect the similarity to Lough Derg on their home planet.”
“Earthlings. We are resorting to the company of Earthlings. I once ruled over seventeen planets. People obeyed me. And now I must accept the charity of these newcomers?”
“The Uoy have been stepping up their attacks in our systems,” Oirin reminded her, pointing out the mounting aggression of Sri’Quis’s and Earth’s mutual enemy, the war-loving Uoy. “Earth has had remarkable success in fighting the Uoy. Their territorial planets are quite safe. And this particular planet—Lough Derg—is still close enough to Sri’Quis that you could arrive in a timely manner, should you be called upon to attend to official Sri’Quisian business.”
“Torin will not call upon me,” Rigel assured her bodyguard. “He has an ambitious wife and he has surrounded himself with newly powerful men and women who do not want me—nor the remnants of my Court—anywhere near them. In their shoes, I would have had me killed. But I suppose that sort of public malfeasance might engender some disregard for Torin. He can afford to alienate himself from my more vocal supporters, but he cannot afford to alienate himself from those factions that are currently pledged neither to him nor me.”
“Earth is neutral to Sri’Quisian politics.”
“Hardly. They are as embroiled in our internal quarrels as any Sri’Quisian. The Earthlings are using me. By keeping me alive in their pretty little palace-prison they will enjoy enhanced bargaining power with Torin and the Sri’Quis government. Cunning little devils, these Earthlings. The universe was so much simpler before they were introduced among the space-faring.”
“The Earthlings have assigned an Earth-born bodyguard to protect you,” Oirin added. “A woman named Mary Osprey. She has just been transported to this vessel.”
“They can’t even make up a convincing false name,” Rigel noted. “Osprey. A large predatory bird that lives by the water. When we are going to our exile on a water planet. No doubt our new acquaintance has a hidden identity. Perhaps many.”
“All you need know is that I will stand resolutely by your side,” Oirin assured the displaced queen.
“Nobody has ever stood resolutely by my side. Not even my King and husband. He died, and left me to the mouth-breathers and predators of Sri’Quis. He made no accommodation for my safety. If not for these meddling Earthlings, I would be dead. It was they who saved me, mere moments before the assassination attempt.”
“But you are safe now, Majesty,” Oirin replied.
“Earthlings,” she whispered, listening to the low hum of the Onyx’s engines. “How I loathe them. Why couldn’t anybody else have provided my salvation?”
“Well, this is awkward,” Rigel said upon meeting Mary Osprey. “I was hoping to complain about how ugly you were. But here we are.”
The two women bore striking similarity to one another. They were both tall, with reddish-blonde hair that cascaded in waves over their shoulders; their lips were thin, with the corners tending to droop downwards, as if perpetually on the verge of frowning. Their eyes were slightly large, with a subtle almond shape, their noses large and aquiline. They had a faintly bulbous firmness to their chins and broad squared foreheads. Had the exiled former queen of Sri’Quis and her unwanted guardian from Earth claimed to be mother and daughter, nobody would have disputed the claim.
“I am Dr. Mary Osprey,” the Earth woman greeted. “Earth Secret Service. I will attend to your safety from this point onward.”
“Constant surveillance?” Rigel recognized. Someone on Earth knew her vanity well; they had sent a copy of her own youth to protect her. It engendered a certain level of acceptance from the Sri’Quisian queen. She sensed her desire to hate the young woman already being underwhelmed.
“I am sure that we are both ever constant and certain,” Mary replied.
“Walk with me,” Rigel said. “I find extended space travel tedious.”
“We will be at Lough Derg soon.”
“Will I be safe there? There has already been one attempt to take my life. I was told there was another plot against me, designed to assure that I never arrive at Lough Derg alive.”
“On board the Onyx you are relatively safe,” Mary replied. “We are in a controlled environment. Should anything threaten you here, all possible suspects are likely to be on board, either as perpetrators or accessories to any villainy. But once at Lough Derg, people may come and go with much more stealth. You will have to spend your life within the protective walls of the Patrician Palace, which is being prepared for your safe residency. Your ladies-in-waiting have already arrived there and are decorating your apartments, so that all you will need to do when you arrive is walk in and assume occupancy. But bear in mind, it will always be dangerous for you outside of those walls.”
“There is only one island on that drowned little world? No other land?”
“The island is large enough for your palace, a monastery of our St. Patrick, three good-sized cities, adequate cropland, a large freshwater lake, and a spaceport—with all the luxuries and infamies that generally accompany spaceports.”
“My son chose my exile well,” Rigel noted. “You know, Torin and I once got along magnificently. But he has allowed his ambition to veto my counsel. We are rivals now.” She looked at Mary. “You aren’t even asking me about the rumors?”
“Rumors are of questionable intelligence value,” Mary stated. “I do not put my trust in the unsubstantiated.”
“So, you have heard the rumors.”
“I was fully briefed for my assignment,” Mary replied. “Knowing the Sri’Quisian gossip could give me insight into the motivations of those who might plot to harm you. And keeping you from harm is my job.”
“Do you want to know if any of them are true? The rumors?”
“It does not matter to my position, if the rumors are true or not. Therefore, I do not need to know if they are true or not. I do not dally in supposition.”
“I should have had you as a daughter,” Rigel found herself saying. “A level-headed woman who does not wrestle with shadows when she recognizes that there are facts to administer.”
Mary started to direct them back to the safety of Rigel’s quarters aboard the Onyx.
“Back to my cell?” Rigel asked. “It is a cell, by the way. It has an airlock as a door and no windows. What was this area used for before my occupying it, if not a prison cell? There are little cameras that float about the area, capturing images. I am scarcely afforded privacy. My bathroom is the only place I can find any modesty.”
“The Onyx is a Letter of Marque ship,” Mary replied. “They have occasion to take on prisoners. Your quarters are a reconfiguration of the brig. It was remodeled, to provide a reading room for you, a bedroom, a bathroom, a small kitchen, and a living area. The rooms were decorated in attempt to reflect your culture’s opulence—and disguise the fact that the rooms occupy the brig’s space. But this ‘cell’ is not to lock you in, but to keep would-be assassins out. Only you, your bodyguard Oirin, the captain of the Onyx, and myself have access to the area.”
“I was promised that this ship was safe.”
“Captain Crowchun and her crew are undeniably safe. But should this vessel be boarded by hostile forces, Uoy mercenaries for example, we wanted you in a secure location. The airlock on your quarters secures you. You are safely in Earth custody now. We aim to keep you healthy, alert, and alive.”
“You need me healthy, alert, and alive—to employ as a Queen against my son, the King, as if we are pieces of a living version of your Earth game chess. And you do not mince words, I notice. Custody. Not even an attempt to hide my status. A queen who is being used as a pawn.”
“I don’t mince words. And I don’t play games.”
“Hmmm. You will have to work with my Sri’Quisian bodyguard, Oirin,” Rigel noted. “Do not let him go to your head. He has a crude passion for Earth women. He fetishizes them. And he is quite charming.”
“I am asexual,” Mary answered. “I have no desire for men nor women. My Sri’Quisian counterpart can indulge his crude imagination on his own time. My only focus is on keeping you safe.”
“Are all of your corps like you?” Rigel asked.
Mary did not really smile, but her eyebrows rose in contemplation as she answered: “There is nobody else like me. So, in that regard, yes—all of my corps are like me.”
Captain Morgana Crowchun was a woman who emanated energy. She was slightly plump, with wild curly chestnut-colored hair and flashing black eyes. Her skin was nearly white, a trait she enhanced by covering her exposed flesh with heavy white makeup. She indulged in a wardrobe that imitated the privateers of Earth’s Queen Elizabeth I’s era, dressing herself in rich fabrics embellished with heavy, intricate, gold-threaded embroidery. She even carried an old-fashioned cutlass sword with a gilded handle. She was proficient in its use, spending hours sparring with an android programmed specifically for the task of practicing swordsmanship with Captain Crowchun.
Mary stood at attention. “You wished to update me on our progress?”
“We will be at Lough Derg in three hours. Arguably the most critical phase of your mission. Getting Rigel to Lough Derg alive.”
“Do we detect any approaching vessels?”
“That almost concerns me. Intel stated that Torin wanted his mother to suffer a misadventure before she arrived at Lough Derg.”
“Torin claims that his mother—that regal little old lady we have in our redecorated brig—killed his father.” Morgana poured them each a glass of red wine. “King Torin IX says he wishes to avenge his father’s untimely death. Anyway, that is the story, if you wish to subscribe to gossip. Please, sit. You are my colleague, not my subordinate.”
Mary Osprey sat down.
“Should we toast to something?” Morgana asked, raising her glass.
“Why? There is nothing in particular to toast to. We should simply drink. I see no purpose in frivolous gestures.”
They drank. Mary said nothing.
“Rumor, as you no doubt know, reported that King Dorhath was fooling around on Rigel,” Crowchun recited. “And that in retaliation for his dalliances, Rigel had him poisoned. So that her philandering husband would no longer vex her and her doting son could assume the throne.”
“I have heard the gossip. Do you have anything that substantiates it to the level of intelligence?”
“Dorhath had ordered a shipment of Praven figs, his favorite fruit, from an Earth Herschel Colony planet named Gripinnia. Intel, which cannot reveal its methods nor its sources, confirms that while in transit the fruit shipment was momentarily—and secretly—diverted onto a pirate ship named the Sea Foam. After a short detour on board that criminal vessel, the figs were clandestinely placed back in the hold of the original ship, their brief absence undetected, and delivered as promised.”
“Sri’Quis sources validate that the figs passed all toxin screens upon delivery, and that others ate from the same batch of figs with no ill effect,” Mary reminded her.
“Dorhath mysteriously stopped breathing exactly four hours after consuming those figs.” Morgana replied knowingly. “Do you know who is counted among the crew of the Sea Foam? I mean, it is a very notorious ship. Earth Navy has been hunting them for years. There is an astounding reward to be paid out to whoever aids in their capture.”
“Dr. Ursula Manning, a former Earth Secret Service long-range recon agent, who has turned pirate, serves as physician and chef on board the Sea Foam,” Mary replied. It was obvious that Morgana already knew that.
“My sources tell me that if Dr. Ursula Manning was protecting somebody, that anyone with ill-intent towards the person in her care would meet a mysterious demise long before they ever had the opportunity to harm their target. Manning operates as a pre-emptive strike in the assassination world. And I use the present tense intentionally. Amazing how playing pirate can enable an even more sinister role. What was her code name—is her code name? Ah, yes. It was told to me. Aize’Rcul. I thought it an odd codename, so I spelled it backwards. And you know what I discovered? Lucrezia. As in Lucrezia Borgia, a woman with a reputation for excelling in the fine art of poisoning. They say that if Dr. Ursula Manning is in possession of one single cell from your body, she can concoct any number of poisons designed to paralyze you, alter your perceptions, modulate your inhibitions, affect your memory, make you ill, or even kill you—and you alone. And my Intel has Aize’Rcul alone with that consignment of figs for over three hours. I suspect that Earth Secret Service has more than one of their own protecting Earth’s latest asset, the Queen Mother Rigel.”
“I would not know the full operational strategy of the Service,” Mary recited.
“I believe that. You have probably been told only what you need to know. Listen to me, Dr. Osprey: The Onyx is a Marque vessel, not a pirate ship. I operate within the boundaries of my Letter of Marque. My ship engages in legal business. And I do not imperil my crew, my ship, or my Letter. There will be no cloak-and-dagger bullshit on board the Onyx. Do we understand one another?”
“Of course. Your affinity for low-risk operations is one of the attributes that recommended your ship to us. But, I do have one request, to further enable me to perform my duties. Who knows what we may have already brought aboard?”
“What do you want?”
“I want full access to all data flowing in and out of Rigel’s quarters. She farts, I want to smell it.”
“You have full brig-quality surveillance already.”
“I want everything. Temperature, light levels, audio, visual, full logs of who goes in and out and when. Acquiescing to a legal surveillance request from an Earth agency is within the boundaries of your Letter of Marque.”
“And therefore you have it,” Morgana replied. “As you said, it is within my Letter, and I am being paid by Earth Secret Service for this run. So, for this request, I will indulge my customer. I will deploy whatever additional devices and equipment you need to the area. But you take the data you generate with you. All of it. I don’t want Torin’s lackeys showing up and demanding those records.”
“What records?” Mary smiled.
Mary Osprey’s next briefing was with Oirin. They were on final approach to Lough Derg and it was time to become acquainted and finalize their landing plans.
Oirin smelled wonderful. He had anointed himself with cologne; his shaved hair was perfectly waxed. His silver eyes were radiant. He bowed to Mary with a flourish. “I had heard that you were beautiful,” he greeted flamboyantly.
“Who told you I was beautiful? Please provide their name.”
“It is a greeting,” Oirin said, sitting down in a chair with an expression of mock dejection. “Earth women like being complimented on their appearance.”
“Appearance is a shallow platform to judge people by. And, not all Earth women indulge in such vanity. Physical appearance is not currency; a person’s value is not determined by how much you enjoy looking at them. Additionally, if you did not truly mean what you said, then the statement reflects poorly upon your veracity.”
“Well, what should I say, then?”
“I am interested in facts and honesty,” Mary replied. “We need to get the Lady Rigel from the Onyx to the palace on Lough Derg as quickly as possible. This is the entirety of our conversation.”
“We will get her to her palace quickly enough. A parade is planned to celebrate her arrival. There is a small population of Sri’Quisian expats on Lough Derg, as well as members of her court already in residence at the palace. Lady Rigel’s supporters on Lough Derg desire to see their Queen. The parade will not take long.”
“The parade will not happen.”
“What do you mean? Of course it will happen. Queen Rigel is a queen, not a prisoner.”
“She is a target,” Mary answered firmly. “And targets do not dally idly in the streets where would-be assassins can take easy aim at them. Lady Rigel will be transported in an armored vehicle, directly from the Onyx to the Patrician Palace on Lough Derg. I already have agents sweeping the palace grounds—again—for any dangers.”
“Make no mistake, Dr. Osprey, I, also, am pledged to die for my monarch. But you do not know our ways,” Oirin replied, equally firmly. “Some fanfare is required. She must appear fearless, not fearful. It is bad enough that you have stuffed her in a brig for this journey.”
“This vessel provides superior protection,” Mary noted. “Captain Crowchun is renowned for her ability to evade attacking vessels. The brig—and yes I acknowledge that it is the brig—is a very secure space.”
“There are eight people on this ship,” Oirin reminded her. “Six Earthlings, the Queen Mother, and myself. I agree with you that Queen Rigel is safe here. That is why she should be walking around at will aboard this vessel, owning it. Not confined to a cell. ”
“The parade is a no-go,” Mary reiterated. “Rigel can deliver her greetings via a video link, once she is safe inside the palace.”
“The parade will happen,” Oirin replied harshly. “It is our way. Our monarchs must be seen by their people.”
“How long have you served Rigel?”
“Over ten years,” Oirin replied. “I was her guardian while she and Torin spent their summers at the Sand Palace on Sri’Quis. I was there when the assassination attempt was made.”
“The one we Earthlings thwarted.”
“It was fortuitous for Earth that your agent caught the would-be assassin with the knife in his hand. The attacker had plotted a crude method of execution for our Queen. Very unsophisticated.”
“Death has never required technology,” Mary said. “Captain Crowchun, for example, is adept with a sword—a bladed weapon. It is just as deadly as any energy-based weapon. The would-be assassin—he was identified as loyal to Torin. He had authored a manifesto, explaining that as long as Rigel lived, she posed a credible threat to Torin’s power. And that, therefore, in the assassin’s mind, Rigel needed to be out of the way—permanently—in order to preserve peace on Sri’Quis.”
“I am familiar with the assassin’s motivations. After all, I was there. You were not.”
“No parade, no precession, no leisurely stroll,” Mary said. “This mission is under Earth governance. We call the shots.”
“The shots? As in weapon shots?”
“Actually, yes. No weapon formed against Lady Rigel shall prosper while Earth Secret Service has a say in the matter.”
“You think you’re some sort of god? To tell a queen what she will do?”
“In the Service we note that God sees even the sparrow as it falls. It is our job is to make sure that the bird never dies to begin with. We do our duty to alleviate God’s anguish. Likewise, there shall be no mourning among Rigel’s supporters.”
She stood up and leaned over the table at Oirin. “Just make sure that we are crystal clear: there will be no parade.”
She turned and left, feeling the resentment from Oirin following her.
Perhaps his encounter with her had tarnished his fascination with Earth women.
In the old days of the Cold War on Earth, espionage agents would sometimes possess the hotel room beneath a visiting target, performing duties from eavesdropping to gathering human waste from the above-room’s sewage line to deduce the medical condition and chemical habits of the target.
Mary Osprey was not a spy, per se. She was a protective special agent.
Rigel was correct: there was great value for Earth in keeping Rigel alive. Earth needed Torin unsettled. Sri’Quis was situated next to a space-folding rift that could transport enemy ships very close to Earth in very little time. And Sri’Quis had abundant reserves of the rare metals needed for inter-stellar space-craft construction. Earth, new to space-faring, wanted preferential access to those materials.
Earth wanted Sri’Quis to consider itself indebted to Earth.
Earth also wanted Torin to know that if he disagreed with Earth directives and requests, a powerful rival for his throne could be produced off of Lough Derg in a moment’s notice.
Mary watched every possible reading registering the conditions in Rigel’s rooms aboard the Onyx. That the Queen’s quarters had been designed to fit in the brig was helpful; numerous streams of data were already programmed to monitor the self-contained space. A series of mobile cameras were deployed in the brig, capturing images from Rigel’s quarters. Only her bathroom was off-limits to the cameras, granting Rigel some privacy.
Mary sat attentively at the monitors. Rigel had adjusted the thermostat to 80 degrees Fahrenheit—Sri’Quisians liked it warm. There was very little humidity, and a perfect one atmosphere of pressure. Rigel had scented the air with lavender, and the lighting was soft and golden.
Rigel was in the bathroom, attending to her personal hygiene. The bathroom was a self-contained space within the brig, fashioned from the brig’s solitary confinement cell. It was not a very large space—only ten cubic meters, but it sufficed for this journey.
“One hour to Lough Derg,” Morgana Crowchun reported over an intercom. It was an open access announcement.
Rigel exited the bathroom, and allowed herself a regal sigh. Her face seemed to instantly age ten more years, contemplating the imminence of her exile.
“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” Mary recited. “Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II. I’ll get a copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare for you to read, Rigel. You’ll find you have a lot in common with some of his characters. We can discuss his plays. I have two doctorates—one in physics, the other in English Literature. The latter, hopefully, will be the most useful for all of our future conversations.”
Rigel loosened her jacket, indicating she was becoming slightly warm. She rubbed her head, as if she was getting the hint of a headache.
Mary consulted the gauges. The statistics for Rigel’s quarters were constant, except for one reading: the bathroom, its door closed, now registered slightly less than one atmosphere.
Mary kept her eye on the data. A minute clicked by. The atmospheric pressure inside the bathroom dropped a little more. It was a steady decline.
Mary got up and exited the room.
She activated the entrance to Rigel’s quarters. “Accompany me,” she commanded.
“What is the meaning of this?” Rigel exclaimed. “Barging in here unannounced? Have you Earthlings no couth?”
“The atmospheric pressure is dropping in your quarters,” Mary explained. “I see no cause for the drop. We need to evacuate you, as a precaution.”
Rigel was unresponsive.
“I have pledged to take a bullet for you, as my duty,” Mary said. “And that duty encompasses pulling your sorry royal ass out of the way of an oncoming bullet if I feel justified to do so.”
Rigel was aghast, but now responsive. She sensed Mary’s urgency.
“This is not a drill?”
“Majesty,” Mary implored. “We need to get out of this room now. If the pressure falls just a little bit more the air locks to these rooms will close this room off, to protect the ship. We will both be trapped in here if we stay. We could both die.”
Rigel obediently accompanied Mary.
“Where are we going?” Rigel asked
“My quarters,” Mary replied. “Do not alert anyone. Repeat—do not alert anyone.”
As they reached the door to Mary’s adjacent quarters, the heavy air-lock door to the brig slammed shut. Its gears let out a hollow screeching noise as they sealed off the rooms that had served as Rigel’s quarters. A series of orange lights began to glow in the hallways.
“We detected a pressure loss in the brig,” Morgana reported, using the secure communications line into Mary’s quarters. “Rigel?”
“She is safe with me,” Mary reported. “I want an Earth guard outside of my room. And do not report anything to anyone. Turn off the orange alarm and tell everybody it was a test of the system. I don’t know what is going on yet.”
“It must have some logical explanation,” Rigel suggested. “I will call on Oirin…”
“Negative,” Mary insisted. “You must trust me, Majesty. I need to be in full control of the flow of information right now. Nobody is to know where you are, or how you are, except for the Captain and me.”
Rigel nodded. “Since you have started calling me ‘Majesty,’ I will presume there is some gravitas to your concerns. I will abide by your counsel for now.”
Rigel was sitting in a chair in Mary’s room, apprehensive yet royally composed.
Morgana entered, careful not to let the guard know that he was guarding not only Mary, but Rigel, as well.
“Oirin is being a pain in the ass,” Morgana reported. “He keeps asking if Rigel is all right or if her quarters have been compromised. I don’t know how much longer I can stall him. We are thirty minutes from Lough Derg. What do you have for me?”
“The bathroom is self-contained—it was fashioned from the solitary confinement cell. It has a volume of ten cubic meters and was being maintained at eighty degrees Fahrenheit and one atmosphere. It took 344 seconds for the pressure to fall to 0.5 atmosphere and the airlock to automatically separate the rooms from the rest of the ship. About six minutes. Utilizing Fliegner’s Formula and the equations associated with compressible fluid flow, there must have been a small leak in that room.”
Mary used remote commands to open the bathroom door and pilot a remotely controlled mobile camera into the room. She scanned the walls, eventually visualizing a small dark circular aberration. She directed the floating camera closer to the object, located in a corner and partially hidden by a bathroom rug. “There,” she pointed. “A one centimeter by one centimeter hole. Crudely rendered in the wall that connects to the outer hull of the Onyx. You can see the tool marks on the wall. There is a deposit of chalky residue – suggestive of a metal dissolving chemical being poured into the hole – it took a while to work through the metal and make the hole.”
“If you hadn’t gotten her out of there, Rigel would be dead,” Morgana noted. “The triggered air-lock would have trapped her inside, to safeguard the rest of the ship. The air inside the quarters has evacuated into outer space. There’s no way she would have survived.”
“Somebody is going to be very unhappy when we land with Rigel alive,” Mary noted.
“Thank you for saving my life,” Rigel said to Mary, looking at the images from her now segregated quarters. The Queen Mother was expressing both gratitude and embarrassment.
“Who did this? Who endangered my crew and ship?” Morgana asked.
“I will find out, I promise,” Mary replied. “The air-lock contained the room. The rest of the ship is safe. You can expect repairs once we are on Lough Derg. I will get Rigel to the Patrician Palace as soon as we land. No fanfare, no parade.”
“My life is in your debt,” Rigel acknowledged. “I will do as you direct.”
Mary Osprey had Rigel dress in the uniform of female junior officer from the Onyx’s crew. She ushered the former queen into a plain hovercraft car and they began an unheralded trip towards the palace. The manifest listed that Mary and the putative crewmember of the Onyx were traveling ahead to secure the palace grounds.
Oirin was instructed that he would accompany a regal-looking heavily-shielded hovercraft that presumptively carried Rigel inside. He was instructed that there could be no communication with Rigel while she was ‘in’ the royal transport, owing to security concerns on the ground.
He seemed stressed and confused, but he acquiesced. He really had no other option.
Mary was keenly observant as Rigel and she traveled towards the security of the isolated palace on the isolated island on the isolated planet.
“You never asked me about the rumors,” Rigel said, tiring of the silence.
“I told you that I don’t need to know.”
“I want you to know,” Rigel said. “You risked your life coming into that room and rescuing me. The least I can do is let you know everything you need to know.”
Mary said nothing.
“I knew that my husband was an adulterer,” Rigel said. “I would have had to be an imbecile not to know it. He had private communications, received clandestine messages, and he would appear with new items—gifts from his whore. He would pass the items off as something he had just ‘found’ or say that they had been given to him by a dignitary for whom there was no record of visiting the palace. He would explain the conversations he had to have away from my presence as privileged discussions with his advisors. I overheard him tell his mistress: ‘I love you more than anybody else in the galaxies.’ Can you imagine how I felt? I ruled our empire while he philandered. The satisfaction of the people, the power of our planet and our protectorate systems—that was all my doing. I brokered the alliances that brought three new planets into our empire, I managed the administration of our government, I set up the financial policies that have fueled Sri’Quis to greatest prosperity it has ever seen, and I established the social changes that yielded the highest public satisfaction levels in our empire’s history. I oversaw the increased commerce of our colony planets. I built our military forces up so that we could provide a counter-threat to the ever increasing aggression and provocation of the Uoy. The Uoy—the only planetary people I despise even more than Earthlings. And, while we are on that subject, it was I who managed the détente with Earth. Yet he loved her more? It wasn’t jealousy, so much as feeling unacknowledged and ridiculed. I detested being made to look like a clown. But I endured it. For decades, I endured it. I was the queen. I was the wife. I had my own authority, my own legitimacy. I may have wished Dorhath dead on occasion, but I never killed him, nor did I ever order him killed. Torin spread that rumor, to discredit me. I lost my husband and my son. Now all I have left is a title and a handful of obligated servants. You may be the only honest person I have in my life. An Earthling. A commoner. I never thought it would come to this.”
Mary remained silent. The list of accomplishments that Rigel cited were exactly the reasons Earth wanted her alive and on their side of the board.
“Do you believe me?” Rigel asked.
“It doesn’t matter what I believe,” Mary replied. “I honor your majesty according to my duty. No more, no less.”
Rigel was silent for a moment.
“Thank you, Dr. Osprey,” Rigel finally said, her countenance calming. “You provide me with candid respect. I apologize for my rudeness. It is unbecoming of my station. I hope that you can forgive an old woman for a moment of foolishness expressed in a very trying time. It may take me a while to adjust to having an honest person in my life.”
Mary watched the fully repaired Onyx as it lifted from the bay in the spaceport, rose into the early morning sky, and disappeared into the crucible of space.
She retreated into her apartments at the Patrician Palace, and logged onto her secured communication lines. Outside her window she could see the vast ocean that surrounded the island.
“Cecil,” a female voice greeted. “How is my sister-in-arms today?”
“I am living a bodyguard’s life. How are you, Special Agent Aize’Rcul?” Mary replied. It had been a while since she had been addressed by her own codename, Cecil.
“As you well know, it is a pirate’s life for me,” Aize’Rcul answered. “I heard there was nearly a misadventure upon the Onyx.”
“I have a suspect in that misadventure,” Mary replied. “But I wished to call upon your special insight, as you seem individually familiar with the royal house of Sri’Quis and its tragedies.”
“Tell me your suspicions. I will tell you no lies.”
“There were only a few people who had access to Rigel’s quarters on board the Onyx, much less her bathroom.”
“The captain of the Onyx, for example,” Aize’Rcul noted. “That odd creature, Captain Morgana Crowchun. With her garish white make-up and her habit of dressing herself up like Sir Walter Raleigh.”
“Crowchun had opportunity and means to create a hundred scenarios in which Rigel could have been killed, without risking the entire ship. A hole in the hull, with air leaking out at sonic speed—that would have been a very low priority scheme. Even with an airlock in place on Rigel’s quarters. One miscalculation and all upon the Onyx could have perished. Morgana is eccentric, but not suicidal. Besides, she was fully vetted for this mission. By me. It wasn’t her.”
“We’ll grant you that instinctive assessment, and move on. How about you? You had access to that room.”
“I think I would know if I did it.”
“I can assure you, given my abilities, that statement is not necessarily true.”
“It wasn’t me,” Mary replied.
“Then I will indulge that assumption, as well. Proceed. What of Rigel herself? She could be acting out. Or making it look as if Earth was incapable of providing adequate protection for her.”
“She was appropriately obnoxious when I pulled her out of that room. She had no idea.”
“Alright. Bad manners as an alibi. Stranger things have served as evidence in the universe.”
“There was only one other person who did have access to that room, even when Rigel wasn’t in it. Oirin. And he was very desirous of a public procession upon Rigel’s arrival on Lough Derg, an event which would have placed her in danger. He also seemed very anxious to know about Rigel’s condition—and if her quarters had been compromised—when the possible compromise of her quarters was not knowledge available to him at the time. In addition, he served Rigel and Torin for over a decade. I suspect he served Torin alone. That he was an agent placed aboard the Onyx by Torin, with the mission of orchestrating an unfortunate accident for the exiled Queen Mother.”
“You forgot to mention that Oirin was present—and completely ineffective—during the previous assassination attempt of Rigel’s life while she was on Sri’Quis.”
“I was going to add that next.”
“Asset protection. What a dreary assignment you’ve drawn, Cecil. You are there to take a bullet for some cantankerous old biddy. And when she dies—of natural causes, for I am sure you will keep her alive—you will have no one left to take a bullet for. That must be a devastating moment. And you are pledged to protect someone you don’t even like.”
“My service does not depend on my affections.”
“You do know that Rigel did not have her husband killed, correct?”
“She asserted so.”
“Rigel is actually a very reliable woman and ruler. And she despises our mutual enemy, the Uoy. Which commends her to Earth. Dorhath, by contrast, was on the verge of signing an alliance with the Uoy. Torin is likewise a Uoy sympathizer. Earth—let us say that Earth was not at all saddened by Dorhath’s untimely passing. Nor is Earth upset by Rigel’s very legitimate claim to the Sri’Quisian throne. Earth is content to let Torin squirm for now, knowing that his mother has substantial support for her claim to his throne. O me, with what strict patience have I sat, to see a king transformed to a gnat!”
“Love’s Labor’s Lost, Act IV. Scene III,” Mary observed. “Your knowledge of Shakespeare is impressive, considering that your dual doctorates are in forensic medicine and the culinary arts.” She paused. “I suppose Earth has plausible deniability with regards to Dorhath’s passing.”
“Torin is an ambitious young man,” Aize’Rcul replied. “Perhaps Torin desired to accelerate his father’s mortality so that he himself would become king?”
“Torin fears he may find himself to be the next monarch who perishes unexpectedly in his sleep.”
“He has lost his soul for his crown; he now rightfully fears that he may lose his life for it, as well,” Aize’Rcul noted.
“Sri’Quisian Royal Family intrigue notwithstanding, I have a situation. Oirin will try to kill Rigel again. It is my duty to prevent that. However, Rigel trusts Oirin implicitly and he is the only one here she has known for decades. She will defend him and protect him. That makes my job more difficult to perform.”
“I think you will find your problem already solved,” Aize’Rcul comforted. “Oirin uses an imported wax to make that bald head of his shine. He claims that his shiny dome slays the ladies. He’ll be partially validated. About the slaying part, at least. I think he is about to discover that his grooming regime will be the death of him.”
“Is there no place safe from you?” Mary asked. “We don’t even know where you are, yet you can eliminate this threat?”
“How could any calamity on Lough Derg possibly be ascribed to me? I’m just a pirate, Special Agent Cecil. Just as you are merely a bodyguard. Both of us worthy of trust and confidence, in our own ways.” Mary could hear the sly smile on Dr. Ursula Manning’s lips. It sent a chill up her spine.
“Enjoy your tour on Lough Derg,” Aize’Rcul continued, “I always like the fresh cod they fish from the deep blue ocean there. The local chefs serve it with a delicious savory sauce containing just the right amount of Meyer lemon juice. The lemons are grown from Earth stock, on the western end of the Patrician Island. And you really should sit by the water’s edge on the south-western edge of the Patrician Palace grounds. It is very soothing to the mind. And the position gives you a commanding view across the bay at the one and only road leading onto the palace grounds. By the way, do check the last two windows flanking the great hall in the palace itself—the ones on the left. You will find that they appear locked and armed, but have been rigged to be opened without setting off any alarms.”
Aize’Rcul closed down the communication unceremoniously.
Mary Osprey looked out of her windows, gazing over the glorious deep blue waters of Lough Derg, noting that one lonely road that led to the palace grounds. She sensed their isolation—and their vulnerability—in this exile. She was on a planet, deep in country, waiting to deflect any implement of possible harm aimed towards an old woman who had once been queen.
And most likely would be again.
Mary considered that the cold vacuum of space seemed so much safer than the solid ground of Lough Derg.
The palace alarms were activated.
Undoubtedly, Oirin’s body had been found.
“And now, Lady Rigel, it is just you and me,” Mary thought. “But rest assured, I will serve unwaveringly.”