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Jane Lindskold

Gone. Her child was gone.

Frantically, Judith Newland searched the small apartment she shared with her two-year-old daughter, Ruth.

Bedroom. Bathroom. Living area.

When she started opening cabinet doors and bending double so that she could look all the way to the back, Judith admitted to herself what she had known all along.

Somehow, during the short time she had stepped out into the hall to talk to that new woman from Human Services, little Ruth had completely and utterly disappeared.

A momentary urge to scream, to panic, filled Judith’s heart. For all that her nineteen years had included kidnapping, rape, murder, piracy, and countless other horrific experiences, these last two years had been relatively peaceful. Almost without her noticing, Judith had allowed herself to be lulled into accepting peace—rather than all the rest—as normal.

Now the steel at the core of Judith’s soul, the quality that had permitted her not only to survive her long captivity on Masada, but to prosper and grow, met the urge to panic and pushed it back.

Judith closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

Ruth wasn’t in the apartment. Very well. Where might she be? The apartment had only one exit, but there was a safety escape outside the bedroom window. There had been a drill just a few days before. Ruth had been fascinated by how the grav tube had appeared at the touch of a button concealed in the programmable nanotech “wallpaper.”

Judith didn’t think Ruth could have reached the button and activated it, but then again, Judith was the last person to underestimate someone merely on the basis of age. If her former husband had not underestimated Judith…

But, no. She wasn’t going to think about that. That, at least, was done.

Already Judith’s feet were hurrying her down the hall to the bedroom. A quick glance was all she needed to see that the grav tube remained undeployed. Ruth hadn’t left that way.

Panic was trying to rise again, but Judith ignored it. Grabbing her apartment keys, she hurried out to check if any of her neighbors had seen anything.

The residential tower where Judith and Ruth lived was unique even among Manticore’s eclectic society, for it housed most of the four hundred or so refugees who had fled in a body from the planet Masada something over two and a half years before. This alone would have made the complex peculiar, but since those refugees had been nearly all female—the males had been small children, usually under five years of age—the dynamic was skewed again. Add to this that most of the women had been accustomed to life in communal harems. They continued to find privacy, rather than the lack thereof, unsettling. Therefore, the three floors of the tower they occupied more resembled a beehive than a modern residential community.

Judith herself was one of the few who treasured privacy and hadn’t chosen to reside in a larger apartment with two or more adults and any associated children. But then Judith was different from her fellow Sisters of Barbara in many ways, including her birthplace, level of education, and complete lack of the faith that—although modified—continued to be a dominant influence in the spiritual lives of her associates.

However, Judith still felt closer to her fellow refugees than she did to almost any Manticoran. She was especially attached to the woman to whom she now fled with her problem.

“Dinah!” Judith said, rushing in past Dinah and closing the door behind her. “Ruth is gone from our apartment, vanished completely.”

The tale poured from Judith’s lips, how the doorbell had rung, how the new woman from Human Services had asked if she could speak to Judith. How Ruth had been napping, so they had stepped out into the hallway.

Dinah listened without interrupting, her gray eyes hardening to steel as the import of what Judith was telling her went home. Too old to be given the Manticoran’s anti-aging prolong therapies, nonetheless, Dinah had benefitted from the Manticoran’s advanced medical science. The heart condition that had nearly killed her during the escape from Masada had been completely reversed. Without a weak heart subtly undermining her strength, Dinah now appeared a decade or more younger—a gray-haired, gray-eyed, round-figured dove rather than the haggard old woman her thirty-eight years of marriage to Ephraim Templeton had created.

“I wasn’t gone more than five minutes,” Judith concluded. “When I went back in, something seemed a little off. I went to see if Ruth had climbed out of her crib—she’s getting better and better at that—and she wasn’t there.”

“You checked everywhere.” Dinah’s words were a comment, not a question. She knew Judith better than most, and knew she was thorough, often to the point of obsession. It was a trait that had served them both well in the past.

“I did.”

“But you wouldn’t be offended if I checked again?”


“Good. I’ll do that. You go and speak with our neighbors. Ask if they saw Ruth. Ask about that woman from Human Services, too.”

Judith was thrusting her keys into Dinah’s hands when the oddity of that last statement caught her.

“Her? Why?”

“From what you told me about the questions she was asking you, I find it peculiar that she didn’t come and speak with me. I have been home for the last several hours, preparing texts for tomorrow’s service.”

Judith frowned. That omission was odd. Although Judith’s skills had made the escape from Masada possible, there was no doubt who was the leader of their community—and who had been the head of the Sisterhood of Barbara before they had ever left Masada. The new woman should at least have introduced herself to Dinah.

“I’ll ask,” Judith promised. She hadn’t thought she could be any more afraid, but Dinah’s words had crystalized a fear that had been budding in her heart.

She didn’t wait for the lift, but ran for the stairs.

* * *

“Oh, Michael!”

The speaker’s voice was feminine, high pitched yet musical. It held a distinctly lilting note of welcome and invitation. Even so, rather than slowing at the sound, Michael Winton, lieutenant, senior grade, serving in Her Majesty’s ship Diadem, picked up his pace.

Michael tried to act as if the call might be meant for another Michael, not him, but although the name and its variants were very common in the Star Kingdom, his appearance was not. Michael’s skin was the dark brown of the Wintons, rather than one of the more ethnically blended mixes more common in the realm. Although Michael had been away from home over the last two years, there was no reason for him to believe his slight increase in height, and slightly more mature muscular development was adequate disguise. For one thing, he looked far too much like his father—and the late Roger Winton’s portrait still hung in many a public place, never mind that the king had been dead for over nine T-years.

Michael’s companion, a young man with dark blond hair and laughing, light brown eyes, hissed under his breath.

“Michael, what’s your problem? She’s waving at you! Since when did you start running away from pretty girls?”

Square-jawed and handsome, Todd Liatt, one of Michael’s closest friends, was always trying to get his more retiring friend to join him in his leave-time pursuit of the fair.

Michael glanced side to side, looking for a route of escape, but although he knew both the public and private areas of Mount Royal Palace as well as he knew his own cubby aboard the Diadem, he knew he was couldn’t get away without being obviously rude—and pure rudeness was a tactic denied to him.

He slowed his pace and swallowed a sigh. Then he schooled his dark, boyishly handsome features into a polite smile as he turned to face the young lady who was hurrying down the wide corridor toward him.

She had skin the color of coffee with lots of cream. The freckles Michael remembered from when they had been children had faded, but she still wore her dark honey-colored hair loose, the thick, tightly curled mass falling past her shoulders to the middle of her back. She’d been cute as a child, but now Michael had to admit Todd was right, she was decidedly pretty, maybe even almost beautiful.

“Alice! What a surprise to find you here.”

“Daddy’s attending a meeting of some committee or other,” Alice said, clasping the hand Michael politely offered to her between two of her own. Her amber-flecked golden eyes danced with mischief. “His secretary is on holiday, and I’m filling in. What luck he told me he didn’t need me just when you were going by!”

Alice released Michael’s hand and stepped back a pace, looking up at Michael admiringly. “I thought it was you, but I wasn’t sure. You’re so much taller, and that uniform is so dignified.”

Given that they hadn’t seen much of each other since Michael had switched his study program at the age of thirteen T-years, when he began seriously preparing to attend the Naval Academy, Michael thought Alice’s comment about his height idiotic. However, his training in not saying what he thought pre-dated his Academy education by many years.

“I would have known you,” he said. “You still wear your hair the same way.”

Alice laughed delightedly. “And you used to love to pull it. I remember you saying you liked how the curls bounced like springs.”

She shook her head just a little, as if inviting Michael to take a tug, but he felt no such temptation. A slight motion at his side reminded Michael that his social duties were not concluded.

“Alice, let me present my friend, Todd Liatt. Todd was my roommate at the Academy, and now we’re bunking together in Diadem. Lieutenant Liatt, this is Alice Ramsbottom. As you must have gathered, we went to school together.”

Alice offered Todd a slim hand and a polite smile. Todd was generally thought the more attractive of the two men, but Alice’s attention didn’t stray from Michael. She gave a light laugh.

“Ah, good old school days,” she said in a deliberately affected manner. “You were Mikey, then, but someone told me that you go by ‘Michael’ now.”

Alice paused, and Michael observed with slow horror that she was actually simpering at him.

“Of course,” Alice went on, “I realize I should have addressed you as Crown Prince Michael or Your Highness, but I was so thrilled when I saw you, I didn’t think. I hope you don’t mind…”

She fluttered long lashes at him, and Michael felt relieved—not for the first time—that his dark skin prevented anyone from seeing him blush.

“No. Sure. I mean, we’ve known each other since we were kids. Anyhow,” Michael realized that he was babbling, but the combination of Alice’s flirtatious manner and Todd’s poorly concealed amusement were too much. “I mean, the ‘Crown’ bit is really a formality now that my nephew Roger is showing himself such a promising young man.”

“Prince Roger is a darling boy,” Alice agreed. “I’ve seen him at all sorts of receptions, so straight and manly in his formalwear, escorting little Princess Joanna so seriously. The prince is how old now?”

“Six T-years,” Michael responded promptly. “In fact, he’s almost seven now. In less than four more T-years, he’ll take his qualifying tests and be formally named heir apparent. Princess Joanna will second him in just a few years more, and the ‘Prince’ in front of my name will become in truth what it really is now—a mere courtesy title.”

“You’re so modest,” Alice said, “as if anyone could ever forget you’re Queen Elizabeth’s only brother, and a scion of the House of Winton.”

“I wish they would,” Michael muttered.

Alice’s amber-flecked golden eyes widened in surprise, but like him she had had training from the cradle on that kept her from saying the first thing that came to mind.

“Well, it’s awfully nice that you gave me permission to call you by your first name,” Alice said. “I don’t suppose you—and Lieutenant Liatt, of course—have time to go grab coffee or something?”

Michael saw Todd starting to nod agreement and cut in quickly.

“Perhaps another time. We have someplace we need to be.”

“Sure.” Alice looked disappointed, but Michael thought he caught a flicker of another emotion—relief? It was gone before he could be sure. “Anyhow, I probably should be checking in with Daddy. You’re on leave for a while?”

“A while,” Michael agreed, deliberately vague, lest he be pressed into setting up another meeting.

“Well, I’m off to Gryphon this afternoon to take care of some business for Daddy, but I’m sure we’ll see each other again. ’Bye now, Michael. A pleasure to meet you, Lieutenant Liatt.”

The two young men echoed her farewells, and turned away. As they walked down the corridor, Michael heard the soft whisper of following footsteps.

He didn’t need to turn and look to know they belonged to Lieutenant Vincent Valless, Palace Security, the crown prince’s bodyguard.

For Michael, accustomed as he had become during his time in the Navy to going where he pleased without needing to be trailed—the logic being that the entire ship’s company could be considered the crown prince’s bodyguard—Valless’s presence was disquieting.

Michael knew that most of his shipmates were looking forward to this holiday as a relief from the formalities and rituals of military service.

Why am I the only one, Michael thought with a flare of an anger he had thought long buried, who doesn’t get a holiday?

* * *

Todd held back the questions Michael knew he was aching to ask until they were in the air car Michael had been issued to use as his own during his leave and the flier had been cleared for departure from the palace grounds. The assigned sting ship followed it off the field, hovering discreetly in the background.

“Michael, why did you turn tail and run like that? You were almost rude.”

“And I’m never rude,” Michael replied seriously. “I know.”

“That isn’t an answer. We have hours before we’re due to meet up with that friend of yours. We could have had coffee or something. I thought that Alice was cute, and she clearly was glad to see you.”

“Me?” Michael retorted, feeling that familiar anger again, fighting to keep it from touching his voice. “Me or ‘Crown Prince Michael’? When I’m shipboard, I almost forget what court is like. Ever since the Masadan affair when I was a middie, most of the Navy accepts me for what I can do, not for who I was born.”

“Alice called you ‘Michael,” Todd reminded him.

“Yeah. I would have felt that was more genuine if she’d called me ‘Mikey,’ like when we were kids.”

“You weren’t crown prince then, were you?” 

“Nope. Elizabeth stood between me and responsibility,” Michael said, trying to keep his tone light. “Then our dad died, and she was queen at eighteen T-years, and I was crown prince. I’d never expected to be, you know. Dad was young enough that he’d been eligible for Prolong. I was just a kid, still trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, and suddenly I was next in line for the throne of the Star Kingdom of Manticore.”

Todd knew this, of course, but oddly enough, they’d never really talked about it. Todd’s easy acceptance that Michael Winton wanted to be treated as nothing more, nothing less, than another student at the Naval Academy had cemented their friendship, a friendship that had not weakened over the years they had been separated for their different middie cruises and junior officer assignments.

Todd heard Michael out, then said softly. “That had to have been rough. Still, you’re never going to escape that you’re Queen Elizabeth’s little brother, no matter how many others come to stand between you and the throne. Isn’t it about time you came to terms with it?”

“I thought I had,” Michael said, and Todd—who hadn’t specialized in tactics without learning a thing or two about choosing his battles—had the sense to change the subject.

“Tell me about this friend of yours we’re going to visit. You met her during that Masadan affair you mentioned, right?”

Michael nodded. “Judith was one of the ringleaders, only sixteen, about three-months pregnant, and fierce as hell.”


“No. The reverse. Calm. Controlled, but with fire in her soul. Impossible as it may seem, Judith taught herself to pilot a spaceship with nothing but virtual sims—no tutoring, no practice flights. She did so despite the likelihood that she’d be beaten or even killed if anyone found her out.”

“Those Masadans are savages,” Todd said. “I’m glad the government has decided to throw in their lot with the Graysons. Your friend wasn’t the only one who escaped Masada at that time, was she? I seem to remember there was a whole shipload.”

Michael grinned at the memory, although he’d felt like anything but smiling at the time.

“Somewhere around four hundred women and children. Only a few of them had skills beyond borderline literacy or maybe some simple mathematics. Even those who had learned some technical skills found them antiquated by our standards.”

“So, what did they do?” Todd asked.

“They were given asylum by the Star Kingdom, and when the ship they’d made their get-away on was sold…”

“I bet that was one ship that didn’t go to a scrapper,” Todd said, “bet Intelligence couldn’t wait to get their hands on it.”

“For more reasons than one,” Michael agreed, relaxed now and cheerful. “Turns out Judith’s kidnapper—I refuse to call him her husband—was a pirate as well as a merchant. That ship and its computers solved more than a few ‘missing vessel’ reports.”

“So what do Judith and her associates do now?” Todd asked.

“They were settled in a nice community here on Manticore. A lot of people don’t realize that Human Services has an entire division that specializes in integrating refugees into the population, but Dad organized it very quietly when we started getting so many of them from worlds the Peeps had conquered. HS has had a lot of experience dealing with culture shock, and they recommended we find a place far enough from the big cities that the Masadans wouldn’t be overwhelmed—Masadan society is highly anti-tech, remember. Of course, even one of our ‘small-town’ towers was pretty overwhelming anyway, when they first saw it, but at least Friedman’s Valley is a lot slower-paced and more laid-back than someplace in downtown Landing.

“Since then, Judith and her associates have been getting educated and more integrated into our society. A few of them continue as consultants for Intelligence. They’re not a burden on the taxpayer, in case you’re wondering. The money from their ship, even when split, gave them all a stake. After what they did to escape Masada, they’re eager not to be dependent.”

“I’d guess not,” Todd said. “After all, if they wanted to stay barefoot and pregnant, they would never have left Masada. You know, I’m looking forward to meeting this Judith of yours.”

“Not mine,” Michael said, maybe a little too quickly. “Very much her own. If she belongs to anyone, it’s to her daughter, Ruth. You’ll like Ruth, cute as a button, and smart…”

Michael glanced at the air car’s chronometer and shrugged.

“We’ll be a little early, but not too much. Why don’t we go on ahead?” He glanced back at Valless. “Any problem with that, Vincent?”

“None, sir.”


“If you think we’ll be welcome,” Todd said. “Absolutely. Like I said, I’m looking forward to meeting this Judith.”

* * *

As outsiders saw them, George and Babette Ramsbottom were a highly unlikely couple.

George was a staunch Conservative. Babette was an outspoken Liberal. Although neither was a noble, both were something more important—rich and influential members of the most active and important levels of the Star Kingdom’s society.

George spent all his free time—when he was not serving in one senior ministry post or another or appearing before Parliament as an “expert witness” in favor of some bit of legislation—focusing on his many and lucrative business interests.

Babette, on the other hand, had run for office several times with the support of her party. She’d won against her husband’s favored candidate more than once, and, like him, she had also served in appointed posts that had somewhat less public visibility, but no less opportunity for influence. When she was not involved in politics, Babette was a highly visible socialite, seemingly as devoted to spending her husband’s money as he was to making it.

They had been witnessed arguing both in public and when they believed themselves in private. Enemies wondered why they didn’t simply get divorced. Friends of one or the other—they shared few in common—had other theories.

George and Babette stayed together because neither wished to risk losing contact with their children. George didn’t want to settle any money on Babette. Babette didn’t want to lose access to the money George made with such seeming lack of effort. Another popular theory was that neither would budge on who received custody of the sizeable and historic Ramsbottom estate—an estate where both, despite their apparent acrimony, continued to reside.

Oddly enough, for the amount of gossip and outright snooping expended on the effort, none of these speculations was correct, for all of those doing the speculating lacked a key piece of information.

Far from being each other’s most violent adversaries, George and Babette Ramsbottom were each other’s nearest and dearest friend and ally. They managed to hide this even from their three children—largely by sending the children away to boarding schools and expensive educational camps, and making their frequent and attentive parental visits separately.

The Ramsbottom estate did have servants, but George and Babette took care to maintain their charade even in front of these. And if the estate—and most especially the private offices and conjugal suites—were as heavily shielded as the most secure areas of Mount Royal Palace, what of it? George had been heard to say frequently and loudly that he wasn’t going to let Babette snoop on his business, and she to retort that she certainly didn’t trust him with her private matters.

If everyone overlooked that the same shielding protected George and Babette from being detected in their private conferences, that could certainly be excused. No one knew better than George and Babette Ramsbottom that people love a flamboyantly fighting couple. Moreover, no one ever looks for what could not possibly be there.

“When do we place the call?” Babette asked.

“Three more minutes,” George replied.

“And if Judith Newland isn’t there?”

“She’ll have a comlink with her.”

George spoke with the confidence that had closed many a business deal, but when three minutes had passed and they placed their call, there was no answer.

“So she didn’t take her comlink,” Babette said with just a touch of the acid she used so well in public. “Remember, she’s a primitive, probably never thought of it.”

George scowled. He took his comlink with him even into the shower. The idea that someone—especially someone in a crisis—wouldn’t take her link was alien to him.

Babette softened. “Don’t worry. She’ll think of checking her phone before long.”

“But I want her to get the call before Prince Michael arrives…”

“Don’t worry.”

The next time George placed the call, a female voice, quite familiar to them from the surveillance tapes they’d viewed, answered. A moment later, an image appeared on their screen.

It was of a young woman, slim and graceful, her thick, dark auburn hair pulled back from her face. Even if her features had not been tight and stern from worry, no one would have thought Judith Newland pretty, but hers was a face that many would turn to look at twice, and then a third time, after prettier faces had been forgotten.

The eyes were what would bring a person back—green eyes, ringed with brown, not blended as with more traditional hazel. Their expression was as fierce and focused as that of a bird of prey.

Babette found herself pulling back when that gaze was directed to the screen, even though she knew the dummy program George had set up displayed a crowd of sexless, featureless wraiths. Their shadowed forms overlapped, creating an image far more ominous than a mere blacked out screen could ever have been.


“Are you alone?”

Babette heard George’s words twice: once as spoken, once in the whispery voices supplied by the avatar program.

“I am. Is this call to do with my missing daughter?”

Despite the research that had told them Judith Newland was a tough young woman, Babette was surprised by this composure. That same research had told them that if there was one person in this universe that Judith loved without reserve it was her young daughter, Ruth. Babette had expected crying and wailing, at least those green eyes flooding with tears, not this iron control.

But George had permitted himself a chuckle. Without speaking, he pointed to a line of figures streaming across the bottom of the screen. Using infrared scanners and some very sensitive analysis programs, the computer gave lie to Judith’s apparent calm. Her pulse rate was elevated, and George tapped an overlay where green and black patterns showed hot spots beneath Judith’s skin, hot spots that revealed just how upset that composed young woman really was.

Babette relaxed. George spoke.

“We are. Here are our terms. Ruth is alive and intact—for now.”

At that cue, a picture of Ruth, the date/time stamp showing it was concurrent with the transmission (although that stamp was a forgery) appeared on the screen for a tantalizing half-second. The little girl was curled on her side, wrapped in a pale pink blanket, sound asleep. Her balled fist was snuggled close to the rosebud of her cupid’s bow lips.

Even Babette, who normally preferred almost anything to small children, had to admit Ruth looked adorable.

George continued to speak.

“If you wish Ruth returned in that state, you must convince your friend Michael Winton to publicly and openly behave in a fashion unbecoming his rank and station. Public lewdness would be an admirable choice. If he is asked about his behavior…”

As we will make certain he is, Babette thought smugly. She already had the newsie picked out and primed.

“…then he is to comment that he is a Winton, and that the Wintons have always done what they desired—and that nothing, especially not the reaction of a bunch of superstitious, prudish primitives even if they are the residents of a newly allied world makes the least difference to him.”

For a moment, the wooden expression on Judith’s face changed to one of confusion.

“Why do you think he’d listen to me?”

“Just do it,” George said sternly, his avatar voices hissing and echoing in a truly frightening fashion. “And remember, mentioning to anyone that Ruth is missing would do at least as much damage as anything Prince Michael might say. After all, if the Wintons cannot protect those who live on their own home world, what can they do to protect those who live in distant systems?”

Judith’s face again became carved wood. “And if I do as you wish?”

“Within a day of Prince Michael’s announcement, you will be told where Ruth can be found.”

“And if I refuse?”

“Then Ruth will be returned to someone who wants her very, very much—her father, Ephraim Templeton.”

This time Judith’s composure broke completely.

“You wouldn’t!”

“Return a daughter to the father who has never had the privilege of holding her in his arms, of stroking her soft, fair hair… Why, I think that would be a wonderful thing. Don’t take too long, Mrs. Templeton. I get teary at the thought of such a wonderful family reunion.”

Judith was stammering something incoherent, but George cut the transmission.

“There,” he said with satisfaction. “Message delivered. I was a bit concerned by Judith’s reaction when I indicated that she could influence Prince Michael to behave in a fashion so out of character—and so contrary to his sister’s policies. We couldn’t possibly be wrong…”

“About how close she and Prince Michael are?” Babette concluded. She shook her head decisively. “Not in the least. Remember, this whole idea came to me when I happened to see them together a year ago. He tried to hide it, but it was very apparent to me that the sun and moon rose and set in that unattractive primitive’s green eyes.”

Babette stretched catlike, and continued, “And I’ve done quite a bit of research since. They write each other regularly. He sends little presents. She sends photos of the kid. I managed some rather adroit questioning of the social secretary who handles Prince Michael’s appointments those rare times when he’s in-system and off-duty. She was quite amused that the first—and only—thing Prince Michael always insists on is time to visit with Judith Newland.

“More importantly, although there was every evidence before he met Judith Newland that Prince Michael was a perfectly active heterosexual young male. Since he met her, he has had no serious relationships—not even flirtations. I couldn’t even get any solid evidence that he has frequented pleasure parlors—and what sailor on leave does not?”

“One,” said George, who truly was more conservative and straightlaced than his wife, “who values his reputation, and that of his family.”

“True, true,” Babette said, leaning forward to kiss George on the tip of his nose. “All the more reason why Prince Michael’s lack of public restraint will be such a shock. He’s always been such a good boy…”

“But what if he refuses?”

“He won’t,” Babette said with certainty. “He loves Judith—and the brat, too. Even if Prince Michael doesn’t react as I’ve calculated, we still have the child. Then our assistants hand little Ruthie over to Ephraim Templeton and record the exchange on video. It should be quite ugly. Templeton hates the mother. Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if he gives the kid a wallop or two as soon as he has her in his hands…”

“And that behavior,” George said, “can certainly be turned to our advantage. Not only will the Star Kingdom’s residents see once again what brutes the Masadans are, but the Graysons can be made to understand that a Star Kingdom that cannot protect a single child is a weak ally indeed.”

“And then,” Babette concluded, her face suddenly serious, her eyes shining with the fervor of a reformer, “we can get the Star Kingdom back on track, stop concentrating on making alliances with foreign powers, stop exhausting our resources propping up their primitive technology.”

“That’s right,” George said. “For the price of a little nasty gossip little Ruth will be home with her mama, and the Star Kingdom’s policy will be refocused on our domestic needs.”

* * *

Until the air car settled on the tower landing and Michael got out, Judith had been so overwhelmed by the events of the past hour or so that she had completely forgotten that her first and best Manticoran friend was scheduled to visit that day.

For a moment Judith marveled at the coincidence. Then something hard and cold whispered ice through her soul. They’d known. The kidnappers had known, and they’d timed both Ruth’s kidnapping and that horrible call to take advantage of Michael’s visit.

Judith glanced at her chronometer. Michael was at least half an hour early. Depending on just how much information the kidnappers possessed, his early arrival might spoke their wheels.

Judith advanced toward the air car, not bothering to hide her eagerness, hoping her desperation didn’t show. She slowed slightly when a second young man got out of the passenger side. She recognized him from pictures Michael had sent her as Todd Liatt, one of Michael’s best friends. She wondered what Todd would think when she asked Michael to betray his queen and her interstellar policy to save one small girl.

And why do the kidnappers think Michael would do such a thing? He’s a military man. There must have been dozens of times when he or his commanders have had to make the decision to let some die so others might live. If we lose our alliance with Grayson, it tears a hole in a critical part of our coverage against the People’s Republic. 

Judith actually stopped walking forward as the significance of that “we” hit her. The Star Kingdom wasn’t just Michael’s responsibility. It was hers as well, hers as a citizen. She might not command starships or gun batteries or hold political office, but she felt a responsibility nonetheless.

I can’t ask Michael to betray his people—our people. Not even for Ruth. But I can’t let Ruth be returned to Ephraim.

Michael Winton had come up to Judith as she stood caught in this revelation. Todd Liatt stood to one side about a pace back. A thickset, dark-haired man with “bodyguard” so written into his watchful posture that his Palace Security uniform was hardly necessary stood three paces behind the crown prince.

Crown Prince, Judith thought, glancing away from the security man to the small dot of the sting ship hovering overhead even now. Not just Lieutenant Michael Winton.

She reached out one hand and took Michael’s dark one in her own.

“Michael, I can’t say how glad I am to see you.” Judith was relieved that her voice didn’t quaver. “This must be Todd—excuse me, Lieutenant Liatt. I feel as if I know you from Michael’s correspondence.”

Todd grinned and politely shook the hand she now extended to him. “ ‘Todd’ is fine. Just don’t call me ‘Toad Breath’ as our mutual friend has been known to do.”

Michael turned to indicate the bodyguard, “And this is Lieutenant Vincent Valless.”

Judith did not offer Valless her hand—she still found associating with strange men took a real effort—but she forced herself to give him a warm smile.

“Won’t you all come to my apartment? I have some refreshments.”

Michael looked around. “Where’s Ruth? You wrote that she’s gone from toddling to running. I expected to get tackled.”

“I’m sure we’ll find her,” Judith said, and hoped the words would be prophetic.

* * *

Michael didn’t bother to hide his surprise when Dinah—with no trace of Ruth in sight—greeted them at the door to Judith’s apartment. The older woman’s face was seamed with worry, and Michael sensed some unspoken communication between the two.

Judith drew Michael to one side.

“I need to speak with you,” she said. “Can I do so without him,” she glanced over at Vincent Valless, “listening to every word?”

Michael’s heart skipped a beat. “I’m not sure. If we were at Mount Royal Palace, but this is an unsecured area…”

Judith gave a deep sigh, not of exasperation, but of despair. She glanced at her chronometer.

“We can’t wait. I can’t wait. I’m just going to have to trust… Michael, can you at least ask him and Todd not to interfere?”

“If you’re not planning to overthrow the government,” Michael replied, trying to make his voice light. 

To his utter astonishment, Judith’s eyes flooded with tears. He’d been present when she’d been interrogated about the deaths of her parents, about her own capture by the Masadans, about the brutal treatment she had received while in Ephraim Templeton’s custody. She’d never shed a tear. In fact, as far as he could remember, the only time he’d ever seen Judith cry was when she believed Dinah was dying.

Michael didn’t reach to brush away the tear that now trickled down her check, knowing that even now Judith found all but the most impersonal physical contact distasteful, but he moved to shield her from view while she got herself under control.

It didn’t take long. In three deep breaths, the tears had vanished, and Judith, with another glance at her chronometer, turned to face the other three.

Todd and Dinah had been exchanging awkward introductions, pretending they were not aware of the tension between the other two. Vincent Valless was outwardly impassive—a benefit of his extensive training—but Michael had no doubt that the bodyguard was also puzzled by this strange turn of events.

Judith motioned toward the round table that stood to one side of the immaculate, if sparsely furnished, apartment. 

“Please, be seated. I did get some refreshments, but while I pull them out, I’m going to start talking. I have a feeling that time may matter.”

Dinah, Todd, and Michael moved to the seats indicated. Valless stood where he could watch both window and door. Judith stepped into the small kitchen, and while she got out a plate of little sandwiches and some sweets, she started talking.

“Ruth has been kidnapped,” she began, then held up one hand to still the gasps of protest. “Yes. I’m certain. I had just come up from asking my downstairs neighbors if they’d seen her, when I was called by the kidnappers.”

Dinah nodded. “Judith is not hysterical. I was here when the com chimed the first time, but didn’t pick up. When Judith returned and took the call, they asked if she was alone.”

“I lied,” Judith said. “I wanted someone else present in case there was any detail I forgot.”

“Odd that they’d trust such a call to a public com,” Michael said, “and asking you if there were witnesses and then trusting you…”

Despair filled Judith’s green eyes. “Actually, I don’t think they really would have minded witnesses. I think they would have preferred them. I think you’ll see why when I tell you what they said.”

She reported the call in clinical detail, but her cheeks blushed dark rose as she stated the conditions for Ruth’s return.

“I’ll do it,” Michael said, instantly.

Two voices overrode his words before he could clarify.

Todd said, his voice alive with horror. “Michael, you can’t!”

And Judith said even more firmly, “I won’t let you.”

Michael stared at her.

“I won’t,” Judith repeated. “I have no idea why they think they can use me to manipulate you, but I’m not going to let someone destroy both a key alliance and your reputation.”

Michael thought. You have no idea, do you? I do. Looking at Todd, he does. Dinah does. I bet even Vincent has a pretty good guess. I guess I’ve been better at hiding my feelings, at least from you, than I thought.

But he didn’t say this. Instead, he said incredulously, “You’re not going to let them hand Ruth over to Ephraim Templeton, are you?”

Judith shook her head, the dark auburn hair cascading around her shoulders in a silken fall.

“I am not. I’m going to find her and I’m going to get her back. Then when I have her back, I’m going to blow them all so high that they’ll never do anything like that again.”

Michael wasn’t in the least surprised, but he doubted that Judith had the skill necessary to find Ruth, and he wasn’t about to let her destroy herself and her child when he could help. He could also tell that arguing further would be a waste of valuable time.

“If you’re going after her, I’m helping.” Michael turned and looked at his bodyguard. “And you’re going to have to trust me, Vincent. There’s a little girl’s life at stake, and from the demands Judith says they’re making, this has ‘political motives’ written all over it. But we don’t know a damned thing—yet—about who these people are. Until we know more about the situation we can’t risk any communication outside of this immediate group.”

“The entire Masadan exile community here may suspect Miss Ruth is missing,” Vincent reminded the prince delicately.

“I know,” Michael said, “but other than Judith and Dinah, no one knows Ruth has been kidnapped.”

“Actually,” Judith said, “Dinah was suspicious before I was. Something she said made me very careful when I went down to check with my neighbors. When they said Ruth wasn’t with them, I said that I guessed that Ruth must have gone across to Dinah’s apartment, and I’d check there. When I came back up here to report to Dinah, that’s when the call came.”

Dinah smiled and pushed herself back from the table. “But I’ll wander downstairs with the excuse that you forgot to get milk for the tea. While I’m there, I’ll mention how excited Ruth was to see her ‘Uncle Michael.’ ”

When Dinah had left, Judith motioned everyone to seats around the round table that dominated one end of the room.

Michael returned his attention to Vincent Valless.

“Vincent, I know your job is to keep me out of physical danger. If I promise to duck if you say duck, retreat if you say retreat, will you work with me on this?”

“If I have your word,” Vincent said. “I would be more comfortable, however, if I could report the changed situation—especially one so charged with political implications—to my superiors.”

“I know,” Michael said. “So would I. There’s just one problem. Until we know who took Ruth, no avenue of communication is safe. For example, while I’m certain Elizabeth isn’t involved—”

“I should hope you would be certain, sir!” Vincent looked shocked at even the implication that the Queen might be so accused.

“Right. But I don’t know if someone close to her might be involved. Someone might have a tap on Mount Royal communications. Or it might be something simpler, someone near at hand, nearly omnipresent—a servant, say—paid to report if certain matters are discussed or even if I call Elizabeth within the next few hours.”

“I understand,” Vincent admitted. “I don’t like the implications, but I understand.”

“I thought you would,” Michael said. “I wouldn’t need you to be my second skin if people were honest and the world was a safe place. Very well. You have my word that I won’t put myself in physical danger or go against your direct command if you decide I’m in such danger.”

Todd, whose alert silence had reminded Michael that his friend was training in Tactics with every intention of winning a command of his own someday, now spoke directly to Judith. “Count me in. I’ve been security checked this way and that, I’ll bet, since I’ve been Michael’s roommate not once, but twice. You can trust me.”

“I do,” Michael said. “Even without the checks.”

“And I will,” Judith said, “if Michael says so.”

Vincent Valless cleared his throat and said, “I have seen those reports. You are wise where you trust.”

Todd flushed in pleased embarrassment, but Michael had returned his attention to Judith. “Thanks for your patience. I realize you must be aching to get a move on.”

“I would be,” she replied, “except that we don’t have the least idea where to make that move. Running about aimlessly would do neither Ruth nor our cause any good.”

Michael saw Vincent shake his head in admiration for this display of self-control.

You should see her on the bridge of a starship under fire, Michael thought.

Judith, apparently unaware of these reactions, had continued speaking. “Obviously, the place to start is that woman from Human Services who came to talk to me. She gave me a name: Dulcis McKinley.”

“Probably an alias,” Todd said. “Still, it’s something.”

“What did this Dulcis McKinley look like?” Michael asked.

“She was about a handspan taller than I am,” Judith said, gesturing, “and very slim. Fair hair, pale skin, light eyes—blue or gray, I think. She wore her hair short, almost shaved at the back of her neck. In spite of this, there was nothing at all mannish about her appearance. Her lips were full, and I remember admiring her cheekbones. Very high and elegant.”

“Short hair isn’t exactly in fashion right now,” Todd said with the air of one who had been using his leave to make a detailed examination of women who were not Navy personnel. “The one set of professions where short hair remains perennially popular are those where you regularly don a vac suit or related gear. Hair gets in the way.”

Michael nodded, running a hand over his own tightly curled crop. “Okay. So possible space-side service.”

He’d carried in his minicomp, since he’d been planning to show Judith and Ruth pictures of some of the places he’d been since he sent his last letter. Now he pulled it out. “I’m going to check on that name,” he said.

“Is that wise?” Judith asked. “Someone might have set telltales to warn them of just such an inquiry.”

“Actually,” Michael said, “given the situation, it would make less sense if you didn’t make just such a query. Let me use your comp. They may not bother to check registration numbers, but I would…”

The search did not lead them to their target, but it did turn up an interesting bit of trivia. Dulcis McKinley was the name of a secondary character in Hearts Aloft, a romantic comedy that had been popular about fifteen T-years before.

“That’s why the name sounded familiar!” Todd said. “My sister had a crush on the male lead and for weeks she kept downloading the damn thing and watching it on the biggest display we had. I think I knew every line.”

“Not useful now,” Michael said, “but it might turn out to be. Now…”

He turned to Judith. “Why don’t you and Todd see if you can generate a computer reconstruction of Dulcis McKinley?”

“And you?” Todd said.

“First, I’m going to set up some jamming fields so no one can tell what we’re doing here.”

“Won’t someone notice?” Judith said anxiously.

“Not if I’m careful,” Michael said. “The Navy has been training me to be extraordinarily good at getting information out of both people and machines without their being aware of my interest. The same goes for setting up diversions. If someone snoops here, they’ll find about the right level of jamming. Beneath that they’ll get traces of agitated talking, weeping, et cetera.”

“Vincent, I want you to see what you can do about tracking vehicles,” Michael went on, “the woman from Human Services got here somehow, and Ruth didn’t leave here by magic. I know you have access to satellite records of traffic patterns. Can you make an excuse to look at those that surround this area?”

Vincent was looking almost animated. “I can do better than that. I can get records for this entire tower and both of its neighbors. This entire neighborhood is under full-time surveillance.”

Michael cocked an eyebrow, and his bodyguard shook his head. “We didn’t have anything to do with it, Your Highness. I only know because it’s part of my job to check about things like that before I let you go somewhere, but they’re there, all right.”

Dinah was letting herself in as he spoke, a cup of milk in one hand. She shut the door carefully behind her and said, as if answering a question, “That’s right. When we first came here, many of the women were nervous about predatory males. That was foolishness, but we did have some problems with a few curiosity seekers. The cameras were set up then, and they’ve stayed.”

“Inertia,” Michael said, “can be useful.”

Vincent already had his minicomp out. “My request should go through without question. It’s pretty standard to check traffic patterns in an area before and during a sensitive transit situation.”

“Want to see who might have been hanging around for just a bit too long,” Michael said. “Good. Get on it.”

“What are you going to do when you’re done with the jamming field?” Todd asked.

“I’m going to take a look at the chip Judith made,” Michael said. “You recorded it, didn’t you, Judith?”

“I did, but what good will viewing it do?” Judith asked. “I told you, they used some sort of avatar program.”

“I know,” Michael said. “Trust me. I won’t be wasting our time.”

His stomach did a funny flipflop when Judith looked at him, those brown-rimmed green eyes steady. “Never doubt it, Michael. I trust you.”

* * *

Judith jumped when Vincent Valless broke the intense silence that had filled the room as each had turned to their assignment. True, she and Todd Liatt had talked a little as he helped her access and set up the right graphics program, but once that was done, and Judith focused on building up an image of Dulcis McKinley from Human Services, talk had hardly been necessary.

“Sir,” Vincent Valless said, “I have something I think you should inspect without further delay.”

He projected the data from his minicomp so everyone could see. “This is the scene immediately around this tower shortly before Ruth was taken.”

He zoomed in on a landing platform one floor below the Judith’s apartment. “This is the vehicle from Human Services. These…” He showed a line of mismatched air cars, “are all registered to residents of this complex. This one vehicle is the only anomalous one.”

He indicated a neat van bearing the logo of Anywhere Anytime, a well-known delivery company—a type of vehicle so ubiquitous that no one would give it a second glance.

“The A.A. van,” Valless went on, “arrived at approximately the same time as the air car from Human Services. The A.A. man went to a service entry. The woman from H.S. went to the public entry.”

“Surveillance cameras don’t extend beyond the entryways into the building,” Valless continued, “but those on the exterior captured the following sequence.”

The delivery man had entered the building carrying a bundle, easily recognizable as one of the unassembled shipping boxes A.A. supplied for their customer’s convenience. When he exited just a few minutes later, he was carrying a similar box, but assembled. Judith imagined Ruth tucked inside, body bent in a fetal position. She pressed her fist to her lips to keep from screaming.

The man from A.A. loaded the box into the back of the van, made certain the back was locked, got into the driver’s side, and a moment later, the vehicle pulled away from the building and left the complex.

“Judith,” Michael asked, “is there another entry into this apartment?”

“Only the windows,” she began, but Dinah interrupted.

“There is,” she said. “There’s a conduit from which pipes and other such things can be serviced without the need to cut holes in the walls. Technically, the conduit doesn’t ‘enter’ the apartment as such, but if someone entered the conduit and knew the layout of the building, they could get into any apartment.”

Todd was nodding. “They’d need to remove a couple of wall or ceiling panels, but if they had the right tools, it would be easy. I worked summers for a company that did repairs, and I always felt a bit like a burglar. Of course, entering that way without permission is highly illegal…”

“But so is kidnapping,” Judith said sharply. “Lieutenant Valless, where did that A.A. van go?”

Valless snapped his head in a curt, military nod. “I tracked it, and I believe you’ll find the following sequence quite informative.”

In her impatience, Judith appreciated that Valless had set his record to run slightly faster than real-time, but seeing the van speed away made her heart beat faster, as if Valless was causing Ruth to vanish more quickly.

Valless had highlighted the A.A. van in pale turquoise, so it was quite easy to track. He pulled back the perspective, and directed their attention back to the tower.

“Less than thirty seconds later, the ostensible Human Service’s representative also took her leave.”

This vehicle was highlighted in a bright violet. Although air traffic did not follow roads as such, traffic patterns created the illusion of them in the trackless sky. It became rapidly evident that the two vehicles were following the same route.

“Where do they end up, Vincent?” Michael said. “I’m assuming they end up at the same place?”

“Yes, sir. At the Colonial Memorial Spaceport.”

“No!” Judith gasped, but she was already on her feet, heading for the door.

Dinah grabbed her. “Judith, this was twenty minutes ago. Nothing can be gained by blindly following them.”

Reluctantly, Judith slowed. She looked at Michael. He was looking at Valless.

“Yes, sir,” Valless said in answer to an unasked question. “I’ve accessed the records from the cameras inside the spaceport. However, no one matching our two alleged kidnappers has left the parking facility and entered the port.”

“Aren’t there cameras in the garage?” Todd asked indignantly.

“There are, Lieutenant Liatt,” Valless said, “but they don’t provide a hundred percent coverage. My assessment of the situation is that the kidnappers had located one or more of these blind spots in advance, and made their arrangements accordingly.”

“Reasonable,” Todd said, “but where did they go? Did they go into the port, or did they merely use the garage as somewhere to change vehicles?”

Judith felt that urge to scream again, to remind them all that this was no intellectual puzzle, but her living breathing daughter they were discussing. Dinah’s hand tightened on her arm, and Judith nodded. Screaming would not help, any more than tears and protests had stopped Ephraim Templeton from raping his twelve-year-old “wife.” 

I must think, she thought. I must put aside that this is Ruth, and think.

“Lieutenant Valless,” she said, “did you get a good image of the woman from Human Services?”

“Not a very good one,” he admitted. “I believe she’d studied where the cameras were, and did her best to assure that her hand or hair would ‘accidentally’ block her face from view. You will note that the man from A.A. managed something similar between his uniform cap and the boxes he was carrying.”

“Not a trick,” Michael said, “that would work at Mount Royal, but perfectly fine for an apartment building. Still, Vincent, pull me what you can. Judith, how did your image come out?”

“Fairly well,” she said. “I think.”

“Feed it to me as well,” Michael said, “and I’ll combine it with what Vincent has. I have some video feed of Ruth in here already.”

He made a few adjustments with his minicomp as the data came in, then nodded to Valless.

“All right, Vincent. Access images of the incoming traffic from the garage into the spaceport—foot traffic, arriving passengers, and the like. I’ve set up a program to search for any one of our three targets, separately or in combination. We’ll see what comes up.”

“Separately?” Dinah asked.

“That’s right. We don’t know that the same kidnappers will be operating at all stages. The woman from H.S. and the A.A. man might have handed Ruth over to someone else.”

“You say ‘Ruth,’ ” Todd said curiously. “Don’t you mean the box?”

“I don’t,” Michael said. “You’ve been in the Navy too long, bud. Routine security scans quite likely would find a child in a packing crate. My guess is that they’ve done a few things to change her appearance, and will bring her through as a sleepy little girl. No bored security officer would look twice except to be grateful that she’s not screaming or whining.”

“Maybe,” Judith said eagerly, “we should call the space port, ask…”

She stopped herself, shook her head. “I forgot. That would start questions, and while our enemies might like questions and the scandal they might generate, that’s the last thing we want.”

Michael nodded. His dark brown gaze was abstracted, watching the datafeed, but his voice was perfectly alert.

“Judith, I don’t care about the scandal, neither will Elizabeth when she understands why I did it. Just let me…”

“No!” Judith said firmly. “I’m glad you and the Queen would be so willing to accept disgrace, but disgrace is the least of this. If the alliance with Grayson is disrupted, lives will be lost. How can I sacrifice someone else—many someone elses—for anyone, even my own daughter?”

And, she thought to herself, how can I sacrifice you, who have been my friend? I know I should care more about Ruth, and I do care more about Ruth, but I care about you, too, Michael Winton. I care…

“Judith,” Michael said quietly, “if it comes down to a choice between letting them get away with Ruth and our calling in reinforcements, I’m calling in the reinforcements.” He looked up from his display for a moment. “If we get her back, the scandal will be survivable, trust me, and I am not losing your daughter.”

“Michael—” she began, then stopped herself.

What am I going to say to him? How noble can I be? This is my child. The trigger for our entire escape was to save her from being aborted by Ephraim, murdered before she was even born! God only knows what he’ll do to her now, if only to punish me. I can’t let her be handed back over to him, but I can’t hurt Michael, either, so—

She forced her mind away from those uncomfortable thoughts and said aloud, “I’m tired of being used. Even if permitting someone to use you shamefully would get Ruth back, how could I ever feel safe again? No. I’ll get her back. We’ll get her back, without giving them any of the scandals they want, and then…”

The words trailed off into inarticulate fury, but Judith was saved from having to explain what one lone refugee could do against those who had orchestrated this kidnapping by a sharp beep from Michael’s minicomp.

“Match!” he said. “I’ll bring up the image.”

He did. It showed a delightfully domestic unit. A man, a woman, and a sleepy little boy in a pram. The man was guiding along a trunk that hovered on anti-grav skids. The woman pushed the pram. Both looked peaceful as they turned to follow signs directing them to “private vessels.”

“That woman doesn’t look anything like the one Judith was designing,” Todd said dubiously. “The H.S. lady looked like a Valkyrie turned executive secretary. This one is almost dumpy.”

“Near perfect match,” Michael said satisfied. “The program ignores the things that have distracted you like hair color, weight, and attire. It focuses on subtleties like posture, shape of the eye, bone structure.”

“Is that little boy…” Judith asked.

“Even a closer match,” Michael said. “They’ve cut her hair and darkened it, changed her clothes. With her asleep, she’s not going to be talking and giving anything away. And—” he smiled thinly “—they lost time doing it, too.”

He shook his head to dissuade further conversation. “I want to track where they’re headed.”

No one spoke as the images zipped down corridors, through tubes, and down underpasses. The little family never paused, but they never hurried either. They acted like what they seemed: a moderately well-off family, heading back to their ship.

Perhaps the father worked for a company located on Sphinx or Gryphon, and had brought the family to the city with him for the day. A nice outing. Now they’d take the company ship back home.

Or perhaps they were wealthy enough to own a ship of their own. Interplanetary vessels were not as expensive as hyper capable. As the Star Kingdom became more prosperous, such “commuter ships” didn’t turn a head, and could even be considered economical if the time savings aspects were computed into the equation.

Michael was slowing down the image. “Shuttle pad twenty-seven. And the shuttle on it was registered to Banshee out of Sphinx. Vincent can—”

“I’m already on it, sir.”

The words were polite as ever, but Judith was pleased by the thrill of excitement that underlay them. Vincent Valless was completely committed to their mission.

“It’s registered to Highland Mining Associates of Gryphon. They have interests all over the binary system, sir, including corporate offices and subsidiaries on all three planets. I fear we won’t be able to use that to anticipate Banshee’s ultimate destination. The flight plan they filed with Astro Control doesn’t state more than Sphinx as a destination.”

Michael nodded, but he was now pushing himself to his feet.

“Right. That’s at least a four-hour trip, and that shuttle only left the pad three minutes ago. Time for us to get moving. My air car will hold all of us.”

He looked at Dinah, but the older woman only shook her head.

“No. I’m not coming. I’ll remain here and defuse any interest that arises. No one will be surprised if Judith goes off with her friends.”

“Even if she goes without her daughter?” Valless asked. “We don’t want to trigger any alerts, and I know local law enforcement does keep an eye on this area.”

Dinah shook her head, and it seemed to Judith that the older woman was trying to conceal what—given the circumstances—seemed like a wholly inappropriate smile.

“No, I don’t think anyone will think it strange if Judith goes out without Ruth, especially if I lead them to believe the child is with me. Go with God, my friends, and bring back our lost lamb safe and sound. I will pray for you.”

Michael Winton gave the older woman a slight bow. “Thank you, Dinah. We’ll need every prayer you can spare. I’m going to leave you with two very important things. One is a priority code that will enable you to contact us if there are any difficulties. The other is a short report I’ve dictated explaining to my sister why I’ve made the choices I did. If anything happens so that I’m not in a position to explain, I want you to get this to her.”

Dinah accepted the information, shooing them out of Judith’s apartment as if they were wayward schoolchildren.

“I’ll take care of it. Now, go. And hurry.”

* * *

Michael was glad Judith hadn’t broken down. He thought she’d been close, but she’d managed to collect herself. That was a relief, because if she’d started crying, then he wasn’t sure he’d have been able to keep from gathering her up in his arms, and that would almost certainly have made matters worse.

Even though Michael had started falling in love with Judith on the bridge of her embattled ship, he had never spoken of his feelings—not only refusing to speak to her of his love, but to anyone else. He wanted no pressure, no matter how subtle or well-meaning, put on her. These last two and a half years had been the closest Judith had ever had to a life of her own, and he wanted her to have a sense of her own self before he tried to convince her to join her life with his own.

Michael thought Todd knew how he felt about Judith, and he was beginning to think Dinah did as well. He wondered how many other people had read significance into what he thought was his very guarded, very proper behavior around the lady.

Certainly at least one person has, Michael thought grimly as he settled himself into the back seat of the air car and let Todd handle the driving. Or they wouldn’t have thought they could use Judith to manipulate me.

After giving Todd instructions and warning air-traffic control that he intended to exercise the royal family’s priority clearance, Michael pulled out his minicomp. The ride wouldn’t be overly long at the speed his clearance would permit, but he had an idea or two. Hopefully, before long, he’d have narrowed the field regarding precisely who the kidnappers might be.

* * *

“Mount Royal spaceport,” Judith repeated when Michael announced their destination. “We are going after them.”

“That’s right,” Michael reassured her, his fingers still busy with the minicomp balanced between his hands. “I’ve already requested flight clearance for one of the ships that was set aside for me when I came home on holiday.”

Judith now understood the flurry of quiet activity that had held Vincent Valless since they had entered the air car. Without ever losing his attitude of quiet alertness, Valless’s fingers had been skittering over his own minicomp, doubtless handling the security arrangements that would make the crown prince’s arrival and departure so fluid as to almost create the impression Michael Winton was an ordinary person, who could come and go as he chose.

Michael touched a send icon on his minicomp and looked up at her, his dark brown eyes holding an expression both serious and reassuring.

Banshee,” he explained, “is a Pryderi-class ship. It’s a nice little runabout—bigger than a standard cargo shuttle, but not a lot—and it’s got some fairly comfortable passenger accommodations. But it’s an off-the-shelf civilian design, and it’s way too small to be hyper-capable. That means they aren’t getting out of the system without our being able to track them. And anything we can track, we can chase. 

“And, speaking of chasing,” he smiled that thin smile again, “Ogapoge, the ship I’ve arranged for us to take, is an Arrow-class. The Pryderis aren’t bad, but they use standard civilian components because they were designed for economic maintenance and extended service life. The Arrows, on the other hand, use Navy components. BuShips designed to them as high-speed intrasystem VIP transports, and they’re a little smaller than the Pryderis, which gives them a higher acceleration rate. And Ogapoge’s one of the Arrow-Alphas. That means she’s armed.”

Ruth’s eyes widened, and he shook his head.

“Don’t be thinking they’re any sort of warship, Ruth. They’ve basically got the same weapons fit as a standard assault shuttle, but they were intended from the beginning for really important VIPs.” This time, his smile was more than a little crooked. “Vincent’s people will actually let me fly around in one of these without insisting that an entire destroyer follow me around ‘just in case.’ ”

Judith nodded in understanding, and he shrugged.

Banshee’s acceleration rate is going to be somewhere around four or five percent lower than ours, but their particle screening is just as good, so we won’t be any faster than they are once we’re both up to maximum safe cruising speed. Still, we’ll reach max speed faster than they will, and we’ll decelerate faster, too, so it’s probable we’ll make up time in pursuit. But,” he looked at Judith, offering her the honesty she deserved, “it won’t be a lot, I’m afraid.”

“How long will it take us to get there?” Judith asked.

“If they’re going to Sphinx?” Michael replied. “I’ve run the numbers, and a Pryderi should do it in roughly four hours and fifty minutes. We can only shave about seven or eight minutes off of their time, and they’ll have a good twenty-minute head start. That means we aren’t going to catch them short of the planet, but we’ll be right on their heels, certainly close enough to see where they go, and I can com ahead to have a shuttle waiting for us when we make orbit. I expect we’ll have just a few advantages when it comes to getting Astro Control to clear us to planet, too. We may actually be on the ground before they are—assuming they’re headed for the surface, and not one of the orbital habitats. If we don’t beat them down, it’ll be neck-and-neck, at the very worst.”

“And Ogapoge is large enough to fit us all?” Judith asked.

“More than,” Michael said. “I’d hoped…”

A funny note came into his voice and he cleared his throat and started over again.

“I’d hoped to take some friends out to see more of the other planets in-system, but I wasn’t sure just how large our party might end up being.”

Judith blinked. He means me. I’m sure he means he wanted to take me and Ruth out. And he prepared from the start not only for the two of us, but whoever I might want with us so I wouldn’t think the worst of him… And bodyguards. Always bodyguards.

She sat mulling over this, thinking that the only time a young man worries about a young woman thinking the worst of him is when he thinks of her as more than a friend.

Or maybe when he doesn’t want her to get any ideas that he thinks of her as more than a friend?

She lowered her face into her hands and rubbed her forehead and temples, trying to clear the confusing maelstrom of thoughts before they overwhelmed her. Her muddled thoughts wove and interwove with her worry for Ruth until Todd gently brought the air car to rest at the berth that had been reserved for it.

Vincent Valless was first out, and he spoke with the several security types who immediately bustled over. Their expressions were relaxed and easy beneath the formality that came from their all too great awareness that the young man swinging his legs out of the back seat of the air car was the current crown prince and their reigning queen’s only brother.

Judith guessed that Valless had used Michael’s original explanation as to why he had reserved Ogapoge for his own use. Prince Michael was taking a few friends on an outing. That was all.

I wish, Judith thought as she hurried after the others to the pad where the shuttle which would ferry them up to where Ogapoge waited, that this truly was all, that Ruth and I were going out with Uncle Michael, perhaps to visit the treecat preserves on Sphinx or go snow skiing at one of the resorts on Gryphon. God willing, this will be so, someday. Someday soon.

When the shuttle reached Ogapoge, Judith realized that the little vessel’s armament was almost as well concealed as the guns of Ephraim Templeton’s privateers had been. Then she shook herself. Of course Security wouldn’t want to casually advertise the fact that the crown prince’s runabout was armed. Or, for that matter, draw any untoward attention to it in the first place. After all, concealment and surprise were weapons in their own right, and often decisive ones. That sleek hull probably concealed a deceptive amount of armor as well.

For related reasons, the ship was not adorned with the Winton colors. The shining ice blue of the hull was attractive and expensive, but told nothing of the ship’s occupant.

As soon as they cleared the boarding tube from the shuttle, they discovered that the ship was already occupied. A woman and two men sat in the seats closest to the back of the vessel. They wore the uniforms of Palace Security and the very neutral expressions of people who know their presence may cause someone important to lose his temper.

Indeed, Judith saw the storm that swept across Michael’s dark features when he saw the three additional security operatives. She also saw the sigh he swallowed as he turned to Vincent Valless.

“I called ahead, Prince Michael,” Valless said without waiting to be asked. “My duty requires that you be properly protected. Since we’re leaving the planet, and in pursuit of potentially dangerous people, I couldn’t take the responsibility for your safety wholly upon myself.”

“Understood, Vincent,” Michael said. “Do they know of our mission?”

“I haven’t told them,” Valless replied. “They’re part of the detail already assigned to your protection, so I could alert them without any need for explanations.”

“Fine. Explain now, making clear—very clear—why we’re not giving advance notice for what we’re doing.”

“Yes, Prince Michael. As I’m the senior member of this detail, they’ll obey my decision.”

And that means, Judith thought, that Vincent Valless is taking a lot on his own head. If something goes wrong, he could find himself being tried or court-martialed or whatever they do to security officers who let their subjects put themselves at risk.

Well, she thought, taking the seat Michael indicated was hers and strapping herself in, I’ll just have to do my best to make sure that no one has anything to regret.

An eighth person, this one a regular Navy master chief, stepped into the passenger cabin through a small hatch, then paused, raising one eyebrow as he saw Judith and Todd.

“Your Highness,” he said in an admirably calm tone, and Michael grimaced.

“Master Chief,” he replied, then looked at the others. “Master Chief Lawrence is Ogapoge’s flight engineer. He’s been my keeper on these little jaunts for the last year or so. Master Chief, Lieutenant Liatt and Ms. Judith Newland. I believe you know the rest of our little crew?”

“Yes, Sir,” Lawrence replied, nodding respectfully to Todd and Judith.

“We’re going on a slightly different excursion, Chief,” Michael continued. “And I’m going to want everything the compensator can give us.” His eyes met Lawrence’s levelly. “And I do mean everything, Chief. We’re going to redline her.”

“Your Highness,” Lawrence began, “I—”

He paused, looking into the prince’s eyes, then glanced once at Lieutenant Valles and the other Palace Security personnel.

“Yes, Sir,” he said instead, and Michael gave him a tight nod before turning back to Todd.

“Todd, you take the helm. You always scored higher than I did when it came to piloting small craft.”

“In any sort of piloting,” Todd cheerfully reminded him.

“Whatever,” Michael said, a small smile quirking one corner of his mouth. “I’ve got some research I want to take care of while we’re in transit. I can’t do that and handle the ship.”

Todd nodded, solemn for a moment as Ruth’s predicament once again came to the fore. Then his usual high spirits surfaced and he grinned with pleasure.

“I’ll be happy to take her up, Michael. Besides this is the only way I’m likely to fly one of these darlings.”

“Good,” Michael said. “Now, hurry up and get acquainted with your own true love, will you, Toad Breath? We need to break orbit the instant Astro Control clears us.”

“I’ll be ready for it,” Todd said, turning to head for the fleet little vessel’s compact flight deck. “You just figure out where we’re supposed to be going once we get to Sphinx.”

“That,” Michael said, settling in to the seat next to Judith and pulling out his minicomp, “is precisely what I’m hoping to do.”

* * *

“They’re not,” Babette said, mild disbelief in her voice, “going to give in to our demands.”

George grunted reluctant agreement as he examined the information feed they had pulled in from various satellites.

“I thought,” he said, “when they stayed in that Judith’s apartment for so long, that they were going to knuckle under, that they were waiting for a reasonable hour for the prince to go clubbing.”

Babette nodded. “I know. When they headed toward Mount Royal, I wasn’t worried. After all, there are many more highly visible night spots near the palace than there are out in the sticks where Human Services settled those Masadans.”

George pushed his chair back. The holofeed showed Ogapoge already heading out of orbit, and despite their surprise, neither of them really doubted where the fleet little runabout was headed.

“Dulcis McKinley and Wallace Ward have two definite advantages. They have a solid lead, and they have the child. There is another factor in our advantage.”

“Which is?”

“Prince Michael may suspect they are being observed,” George said, “but he cannot be certain.”

“How can we take advantage of that?”

“I think we should switch to our second plan,” George said.

“So soon? Before they have a chance to come through?” Babette frowned. “Manticoran reactions to turning the child over to her Masadan father have always been harder to calculate.”

“As far as Manticoran reactions go, yes,” George agreed. “But we can be certain how the Graysons will react. There is a high probability that proof of how little the Star Kingdom could do to protect one child—and having that child turned over to their hated enemies—will tilt the balance of public opinion so far that the Grayson government will be forced by an angry public to renounce their alliance with the Star Kingdom.”

“True,” Babette said. “After all the treaty nearly didn’t happen. If the Navy hadn’t interfered in what was a purely local political situation, I think it’s likely the Grayson government would have decided against the alliance. You’re right. First goal has always been to achieve a termination of that treaty. Discrediting the Royal family has always been a bonus.”

George hadn’t waited for his wife’s agreement. He’d already reached for his com unit and was coding in a call for Banshee. The call took somewhat longer than usual to place because of the numerous layers of security screening he had in place, not to mention the fact that Banshee had been underway and accelerating at 5.491 KPS2 for almost thirty-six minutes. She was already over 12.8 million kilometers away from Manticore, moving at 11,860 kilometers per second. At only three percent of light-speed, the time dilation effect wasn’t noticeable, but the forty-two-second light-speed communications lag certainly was.

As with the call to Judith, neither George’s face nor his voice would be in the final feed. Anonymity was everything, after all, and when he’d established initial contact with Dulcis McKinley and Wallace Ward, the professional criminals who were the Ramsbottoms’ hands and feet for this job, George had represented himself as a revolutionary fanatic.

Precisely what he—or she, for George had chosen to represent himself as an androgynous creature, rather like a winged angel in his contact with the criminals—was fanatical about had been left deliberately unclear. A liberal scattering of phrases such as “The Will of God” and “Divine Revelation” had been included to give the impression that the fanatic was not a mainstream member of the Star Kingdom, most of whom were pragmatic rather than otherwise in their political dealings, no matter how religious they might be in private.

“We are switching to Plan B,” George announced without preamble. “Instead of delivering the child to Choire Ghlais, make rendezvous with Kwahe’e.”

He waited patiently for the transmission to catch Banshee and Banshee’s reply to reach him. Eighty-four seconds later, it did.

“Rendezvous with Kwahe’e?” Wallace Ward’s voice said. “Why?”

He sounded both unhappy and suspicious, George noted. It wasn’t a surprise. The man was a professional, and he didn’t like unexpected changes.

“It was always a possibility,” George reminded him. “That’s why we set up the rendezvous in advance. Now the good Lord wills that we use it. And you should know that it is possible you are being pursued.”

“Unlikely,” Ward said hotly, a minute and a half later.

“All things are possible,” George rebuked sternly, “and only the Lord is infallible. As an added safeguard, you are to go to Aslan Station and exchange Banshee for Cormorant to change your transponder code. They are both Pryderi class ships, so you should have no difficulties. Take Cormorant for your rendezvous with Kwahe’e.”

“We will do as you command,” the other man said after the unavoidable, lengthy, and very irritating transmission delay, “when our bank balance shows that the added deposit has been made.”

“Done,” George said. “The additional deposit has been made to your account. When you transfer the child to the custody of Kwahe’e’s captain, your final payment will be authorized. The crew of Kwahe’e will take over from that point.”

George recited the coordinates where Kwahe’e, a hyper-capable ship belonging (through several shell corporations) to the Ramsbottoms, would be waiting. In order to not attract undue attention, Kwahe’e was in a distant parking orbit, listed with Astro Control as awaiting parts and supplies.

And so they are, Babette thought as George alerted Kwahe’e to expect Cormorant and to accept consignment of her rather unusual cargo.

One reason Kwahe’e was owned by a shell corporation was that it tended to be given jobs that fell rather into the legal gray areas. Returning a child to her father, and recording the reunion might be peculiar, but it was far more legitimate—at least superficially—than many other jobs Kwahe’e’s captain and crew had performed.

Neither George nor Babette expected any difficulty.

After George had signed off, Babette rose and stretched.

“I must be going,” she said. “I’ve promised to go out with some of my friends tonight. I had hoped we would witness Prince Michael’s disgrace, but it seems I shall have to settle for an evening of dancing and fine food instead.”

George rose and embraced Babette with a fervor she returned. After Babette broke from his kiss she said thoughtfully, “I do have one regret that we were forced to go with our second plan. I had so looked forward to Michael Winton becoming disillusioned with his Masadan lady, then putting our Alice in his way. I really think she could have been the one to soothe his broken heart. I thought their meeting at Mount Royal earlier was very promising.”

“I agree,” George said. “I took some infrared readings, and his surface skin temperature rose quite a bit when he was talking with Alice. I don’t believe he is at all indifferent to her.”

“We don’t need to give up,” Babette said, reaching for her cosmetic case and touching up her lips. “After all, when this attempt to rescue Ruth fails, I doubt the relationship between Michael and Judith will survive.”

George gave a deep sigh, as of one who sees a wonderful banquet set up just out of reach. “That would be splendid. We have the Liberal and Conservative parties covered, but Alice could be our conduit into the inner workings of the Crown Loyalists. It would be lovely to have our daughter as the one who rehabilitates Prince Michael in the eyes of his peers.”

“Who knows?” Babette said, turning to go with a swirl of her skirts, “we may yet hear our grandchildren call our reigning queen ‘Auntie Liz.’ ”

* * *

“Choire Ghlais.” Michael looked up from his minicomp. “That’s our destination,” he said into the silence that had settled over the passenger compartment of Ogapoge. 

Three hours and forty minutes had passed since they had cleared Manticore orbit, and they were just over fifty-five and a half million kilometers short of Sphinx, decelerating hard. Banshee was twenty million kilometers ahead of them, also decelerating. The other runabout would enter Sphinx orbit in another fifty-nine minutes; Ogapoge was fourteen minutes behind her. 

“Choire Ghlais?” Judith said. “What is that? A city?”

“A private estate,” Michael said. He heard the tension in his own voice and forced himself to calm as he explained. “There is a town associated with the estate, and some nice hotels. The area is owned by a wealthy businessman, a major landholder. They say he has aspirations toward a title.”

“Who?” Judith asked, when Todd poked his head back into the passenger compartment from the flight deck.

“Sorry if I’m interrupting anything,” he said, “but it’s pretty obvious these people are going to make orbit before we do, and I don’t really recall anyone explaining just what it is we’re going to do when that happens.”

He looked back and forth between Michael and Lieutenant Valles.

“They’re only going to be fourteen minutes ahead of us,” Michael pointed out, “and it’s going to take at least a few minutes for them to get a shuttle up from the planet to meet them. So, for all intents and purposes, we’ll actually be in a dead heat.”

“And we’re going to do precisely what after this ‘dead heat’ arrival?” Todd inquired politely.

“I’ve been thinking about that, Toad Breath,” Michael replied. “I’ve pulled the stats on Banshee from her last safety inspection, and she’s completely unarmed. So one possibility is to make orbit right behind her, then use Ogapoge’s guns to prevent the landing shuttle from docking with her. They may not even have realized we’re back here, and even if they have, there wouldn’t be a lot they could do about it.”

“And then? Threaten to fire on Banshee if they don’t surrender and hand Ruth over?”

“Tempting, Toad Breath. Very tempting. And it would probably work, assuming these people are as professional as I think they are. On the other hand, they’d know we were basically bluffing. There’s no way we’re going to fire on them when they’ve got Ruth on board.”

“So once they know we’ve got them and their shuttle can’t get to them, we call in the cops?”

“If we have to,” Michael agreed. “I’d really rather not do that, though. If they really are professionals, they’re probably smart enough to hand Ruth over unharmed when they realize they’re trapped. Certainly no professional criminal is going to risk making things even worse by harming her at that point! But if we do it that way, the kidnapping, at least, comes out into the open, and I doubt we’ll ever have any hard proof of who was really behind it.”

“I know you, Michael,” Todd said, watching him narrowly. “And I know that tone of voice. So since it’s obvious you don’t want to do it ‘that way,’ suppose you tell us just what you do have in mind?”

“What I’d really like to do is to let them land—with Ruth,” Michael said, looking squarely at Judith. “I’m pretty sure I know where they’re headed, and if I’m right, and if Vincent can whistle up a couple of sting ships from the Sphinx detachment, we could use them to cover the estate and prevent anyone from smuggling her out while I confront the estate’s owners over the com.” He smiled thinly. “Believe me. Once they know that we know who they are and can prove their involvement if we have to, they’ll hand Ruth back so fast her head will spin! We may not want this to come out into the open, but neither will they…especially with the possibility of prison hovering in the background. But only if you trust me enough to do it that way, Judith. Otherwise, we hold them here in orbit, call the cops, and get Ruth back now, and the hell with the scandal or nailing the people behind it.”

Judith looked back at him levelly. Her face looked thin and pinched with worry, but his heart swelled at what he saw in her extraordinary eyes.

“I trust you,” she said simply. “But I would like to know what makes you so confident that you know where they’re heading and who’s responsible for all this, Michael.”

“Of course,” he said. “Let me show you what I’ve been working on.” He turned his minicomp so she could see the display and started tapping keys. 

“I was fascinated by the software the kidnappers used when they contacted you,” he began. “Eventually, I want to go into research and design for the Navy. So while Todd has been reading spaceship ’zines, I’ve been keeping up with the latest in technology—especially electronics and communications.”

Judith was nodding, her expression relaxing a touch. Michael couldn’t help but remember how she hadn’t drawn her hand back when he’d squeezed it, and he longed to reach out again.

But enough is enough, he cautioned himself, and returned to his explanation.

“What struck me right off was that the software being used to generate that particular avatar simulation was a very new design.” Seeing a wrinkle of protest shaping around her mouth, he hastened to continue. “Really. I realize to you it probably didn’t look any different from the programs kids use to play games, but I assure you, it was cutting edge. That particular program is very, very expensive, and so I figured that relatively few copies would have been sold at this point. I contacted the company and requested a list of purchasers—hinting I was interested in buying a copy myself, and wanted to check with others who were using the program.”

Judith managed a smile—a very small one, but the bravery of it wrung Michael’s heart.

“And the opportunity of being able to say ‘as used by Crown Prince Michael’ was such a tremendous temptation that I bet they overcame any qualms they had about customer confidentiality.”

“That’s right,” Michael said. “But I wasn’t pinning all my hopes on that one angle. I also put in a request for information about Banshee. Vincent helped there. Between his sources and mine, we came up with the owner of the ship.”

Judith frowned. “Wouldn’t that be a matter of public registration?”

“Oh, absolutely,” Michael agreed, “and learning the ship was owned by Starflight Rentals told us less than nothing. However, Starflight Rentals is a franchise, and this particular franchise is run by Timberlake Incorporated of Sphinx, and Timberlake Incorporated of Sphinx is owned by Mountain Holding Trust, and Mountain Holding Trust is wholly owned by one George Ramsbottom—who also happens to be on the very short list of people who bought the security software package in question.”

“And Banshee is heading toward Sphinx,” Judith said.

“Michael,” Todd said, his voice puzzled, “wasn’t the young lady—the one we met today—wasn’t her name…”

“Alice Ramsbottom,” Michael said with deep satisfaction. “Alice Ramsbottom who ‘just happened’ to show up when we were leaving Mount Royal today. I wonder if she was checking our timetable, making sure we would arrive at Judith’s apartment at the right psychological moment.”

“But,” Todd protested, “Alice asked us if we could stop and have a coffee or something.”

“I am willing to bet,” Michael said, “that if we had accepted, she would have ‘just happened’ to be called back to work in time for us to make our timely departure. As it was, we were a little early, but that worked to our advantage.”

“She seemed like such a nice girl,” Todd said, disbelief and a mournful note coloring his words.

“I liked her, too, when we were kids,” Michael admitted. “But a lot of years have passed. Alice said she was working as her father’s secretary. George Ramsbottom is an outspoken Conservative. Like most Conservatives, he is adamantly against our alliance with Grayson. Come to think of it, Babette Ramsbottom, Alice’s mother, has also spoken against it—but from the Liberal position. Isolationism’s probably the only point where the Liberals and the Conservative Association actually agree. So Alice could have been scouting for either of her folks.”

“And she seemed like such a nice girl,” Todd repeated.

“Prisons are full of people who seemed like ‘nice girls,’ Lieutenant Liatt,” Vincent observed sourly. “And I’d have to say, your Highness,” he continued, turning to Michael, “that I think your reasoning is sound.”

“And can the Sphinx detachment rustle up the sting ships for us?” Michael asked.

“There will probably be some questions asked,” Vincent replied with what Michael recognized as massive understatement. “The fact that I’m assigned directly to you should mean that they only get asked afterward, however. In fact, I can probably arrange to have an entire company ready to move in on the ground to tighten the perimeter, if you wish.”

“I wish,” Michael said grimly, and Vincent bent his head in brief, formal acknowledgment of his prince’s order.

“In that case, Your Highness, I should probably get busy on the com.”

* * *

“Michael, I don’t think Banshee is heading for a standard orbit after all,” Todd Liatt said. “Look at this.”

Michael poked his head into the flight deck and frowned. Todd was right. Rather than settling into one of the low orbits small ships like Banshee and Ogapoge would normally use to rendezvous with passenger shuttles, the other runabout was obviously bound for a much higher orbit.

“They’re headed for that freight platform,” Todd said, indicating the transponder beacon. “Aslan Station,” he added.

“Vincent,” Michael called over his shoulder, “I think something new has been added.”

“Were we wrong about the Ramsbottoms?” Judith asked, her voice tense, and Michael spared her a small smile. How many anxious mothers would have said “we” in a case like this instead of “you,” he wondered.

“I don’t think so,” he replied. “Aslan Station is a freight and passenger transfer platform that just happens to be operated by Timberlake Incorporated under a long-term lease from Astro Control.”

Her expression lightened, and he looked at Valles.

“I think we’re going to need docking clearance, Vincent. Can you arrange it without bringing me into the equation? Just a nice, simple little civilian docking request?”

“I believe I can manage that, Your Highness,” Vincent agreed, and bent over the com again while Banshee headed directly towards the platform. The other ship was obviously expected and precleared to dock, and Michael frowned as Banshee settled into the platform’s docking arms and the personnel tube ran out to her.

“Problems, Vincent?” he asked quietly while Todd brought Ogapoge smoothly to rest relative to the platform. There seemed to be a lot of small craft and heavy-lift shuttles in the vicinity, but no one seemed in any hurry to insert Ogapoge into the approach pattern.

“I’m afraid so, Your Highness,” Vincent admitted. “The station seems to be very busy at this time of day.”

The lieutenant’s eyes met Michael’s and the prince frowned.

“You think they’re really that busy?” he asked. “Or is it just a trick to keep us floating around out here?”

“I don’t know,” Vincent said slowly. “I’m inclined to think it’s genuine, judging by the traffic we’re observing. Of course, they knew where they were going before we did. If they also knew how busy Aslan was going to be, they may have deliberately factored that into their planning. Preclearing Banshee would be one way to let them get back a bit of their lead on any pursuers.”

“Can we do anything to hold Banshee?”

“We could,” Vincent hesitated. “I’m in touch with the platform Customs detachment, and I’m sure I could convince them to take a special interest in her. But interfering that openly might have severe ramifications for Miss Ruth.”

“You’re right,” Michael said. “We’re just going to have to get aboard ourselves.”

Time passed with aching slowness as they waited to be cleared to approach the orbital station. Vincent had contnued his communication with the station’s Customs and Astro Control detachments while they waited. Now he spoke with a degree of hesitation unusual for him.

“Prince Michael, I think we have a problem. Banshee has been docked for over forty minutes now, but according to the senior Customs officer, she’s more or less sitting there abandoned. Her passengers apparently debarked immediately and headed for another ship, Cormorant, which arrived in from Manticore just a short time ago. Both of them boarded Cormorant and have already departed the station.”

“Course?” Michael said.

“They requested clearance for out-system. That’s all. Space is a big place. We could search for hours and not find them, even though they don’t have a very big head start.”

“Crew?” Judith interrupted before Michael could ask for more details. “Did they see Ruth?”

Vincent shook his head. “The pair had with them several pieces of luggage. I asked a few discreet questions, and there were two trunks of a size that could have held your daughter. I’m sorry, ma’am.”

Michael slammed his fist into his palm. “Damn!”

“We’ve got clearance—finally,” Todd put in from the flight deck. “Do you want me to go ahead and dock? Or do we track Cormorant?”

“Take us in,” Michael said. “We’re going to have to check to make sure they weren’t just cutting their losses. They could have left Ruth behind on Banshee. Or they could have traded her to someone else and she could be on station. And maybe we can get some better information as to Cormorant’s destination.”

“Right,” Todd said. 

“Vincent,” Michael said. “I want everything you can get me about Cormorant. There must be in-station cameras. Get us pictures of her crew. Bend rules. Go ahead and throw my name around with the people you’re already talking to. I also want a full list of ships that leave that station after Banshee’s arrival, their destinations, everything, just in case there was an exchange.”

“Yes, sir.”

Michael reached over and squeezed Judith’s hand. “Let me see what I can learn about Cormorant. That’s still our most likely target.”

He took out his minicomp, logged into the Sphinx planetary data system, and started requesting information. Fortunately, he was requesting information on a civilian ship, so he did not run into any of the difficulties he might have had he been making the same requests about a military vessel.

The results came in just as Todd was bringing them into dock.

“I found out a few things,” Michael said. He felt a vicious smile twist his face. “Cormorant arrived in dock only a few hours ago. She’s also owned by Starflight Rentals. By odd coincidence she included among its incoming passengers someone I would very much like to speak with, someone who I believe is still on station.”

“You don’t mean…” Todd said, swinging around to look at Michael.

“That’s right, Alice Ramsbottom.”

* * *

“Alice Ramsbottom,” Judith repeated. “So we have confirmation of your suspicions that one of her parents is involved in Ruth’s kidnapping. How can we use that? Kidnap her, perhaps? Arrange for an exchange?”

“Your Majesty…” Vincent Valless began, but Michael cut him off with a wave of one hand.

“Don’t worry, Vincent. We’re not going to do anything so very illegal.”

Michael reached out and took one of Judith’s hands, cradling it between his broad, brown hands.

“Judith, I can do a good many things, but I can’t do that. I’d rather go to a nightclub and dance naked on a table while making outrageous pronouncements about the stupidity of my sister’s public policy. That would only damage my reputation. Kidnapping, though, that’s nasty stuff—not only illegal, but flat out wrong.”

Despite her fear for Ruth, Judith felt herself smiling at the image of Michael dancing on a table. Instantly, she became serious again. 

“Michael, I don’t want you to do anything that would hurt you or Queen Elizabeth. But I want my baby back.”

“So do I,” Michael said. “Let’s find Alice Ramsbottom. Let’s talk to her.”

“And then?” Judith asked.

“We improvise.”

* * *

They found Alice Ramsbottom over at Banshee’s berth.

The inboard end of the ship’s boarding tube was open when they arrived, and so was the hatch at its outboard end. Vincent Valless insisted on boarding first, and Judith saw Michael’s fist open and close in a gesture of concealed frustration, but he didn’t protest.

Poor man. He may be a prince, but in some ways his life is as restricted as that of any Masadan wife. Unlike me, he can’t run away and make a new life for himself without hurting those he loves and respects.

Michael boarded close behind Vincent. As they entered the vessel, Alice could be seen through the flight deck hatch, intent on the control panel, apparently running a pre-flight check. She was concentrating on her task too intently to notice their arrival until Michael spoke in a soft but firm voice.

“Alice, it’s me. Michael Winton. I need to talk to you.”

Judith was just a few paces behind Michael, almost treading on his heels, and she saw Alice’s expression. There was surprise there, mild shock when she saw the pulser on which Vincent’s hand rested, but no guilt.

What if she doesn’t know anything? What if we’re just wasting time? Oh, God—I’ll believe in you again—just give me back my baby. Alive. Happy. Unhurt.

“Mikey?” Alice looked at the prince. Her hands remained on the control panel, but she didn’t move. It wouldn’t have mattered if she had. Before they had come to Banshee’s berth, Michael had done some tech wizardry that cut the ship off from outside contact while creating a data loop to hide the fact. 

Judith didn’t have the least idea how Michael had done it, but she took his word that for the moment at least Alice was isolated.

“Is anyone else aboard?” Michael asked.

The video images Vincent had been tracking even as they moved through the station had shown Alice alone, Judith knew, but it never hurt to check.

“No,” Alice replied, her voice puzzled. “Mikey? What’s going on? Who is that woman? Why does your guard have his hand on his weapon? What are you doing here?”

The three had all entered the ship’s roomy cabin by now. Banshee was a bit larger than Ogapoge, but otherwise, the two little runabouts were much alike. A few rows of comfortable seats stretched back from the flight deck, sandwiched between its hatch and the equally cramped engineering section aft. There was a small cargo area between the passenger seats and engineering, but its hatch was open and it was obviously empty. Judith glanced around anyway, looking for any sign Ruth had been here. There was nothing.

“The woman is my good friend, Judith Newland,” Michael said. “We’re here because her daughter, Ruth, is missing, and we have reason to believe Ruth left Manticore on this ship.”

“What? How…” Alice let her hands drop to her lap, and stared up at Michael, her momentary expression of incredulity fading, colored with something else. “Go on. Tell me. Fast.”

Michael did. Judith knew he had various holo files ready to show if Alice demanded evidence, but the young woman only listened, her intelligent eyes narrowing.

“Search,” she said, waving her hand back, “but you won’t find anything.”

“Do you believe me?” Michael asked.

Judith listened as she moved among the rows of seats.

“I do,” Alice said. “My parents have been behaving strangely lately. My dad insisted that I come to Mount Royal with him today. He sent me into the corridor, flat out telling me he’d seen my old schoolmate the prince in the hall, and wouldn’t it be nice if I made myself really friendly. He even reminded me you didn’t go by ‘Mikey’ anymore. Then he sent me off in Cormorant, only to tell me to leave her in dock and get Banshee down to Choire Ghlais. No reason, no explanation—just do it. It was pretty obvious he was busy with some scheme, but I never expected something like this.”

“So you believe he’d plan a kidnapping?”

“If he could make himself believe it was for the greater good, yes,” Alice said. “Helping get the Star Kingdom back on track. Reuniting a daughter with her father. Yes, I do. It’s obvious they’ve managed to misread the Grayson mindset badly, if they expect this to have the effect they obviously want, but that doesn’t really surprise me. They’re very good at maneuvering within their own political and power circles, but outside that, they both tend to see what they want to see. I don’t doubt that they could convince themselves to believe this would all work out ‘for the best,’ and Daddy is particularly good at distancing himself from the human aspect… Look at his relationship with my mother.”

Michael nodded. “Yes. Married enemies. That can’t be easy on anyone, but…”

Alice shook her head. “There’s more to it than that, but now’s not the time to talk. You say the people who took Banshee here to Aslan Station transferred to Cormorant. Any idea of their course?”

Vincent cut in. “Lieutenant Liatt just commed me. He’s been tracing various out-system vessels. He thinks he has Cormorant. It took him a while to sort her transponder out from all the surrounding traffic.”

“And?” Michael said.

“She’s heading out-system, but since she’s not hyper-capable, she’s probably heading for a rendezvous of some sort.”

Alice nodded sharply. “Kwahe’e. I’ll bet anything she’s going to meet Kwahe’e.”

Kwahe’e?” Judith asked.

Alice swivelled her chair so she could look directly at Judith. “Parents never think their kids notice things. I’ve noticed a lot of things—like Kwahe’e. It’s a hyper-capable vessel, not large. Technically, she’s a small, fast interstellar transport for corporate VIPs, but she’s large enough to transport small, valuable cargos, too. In fact, that’s what she spends most of her time doing. Those cargos aren’t precisely illegal—at least I don’t think so—but they aren’t exactly the sort you want other people to connect to a prominent politician and business executive.”

“So they’ll transfer Ruth to Kwahe’e,” Judith said. “And Kwahe’e will be the ship that meets with Ephraim.”

“That’s how I see it,” Alice said. “Now what do you plan to do? You can’t chase them down and shoot at them—for one thing, there’s too much chance the little girl will get hurt. What was your plan once you located them?”

* * *

Michael was momentarily stunned, especially when he saw the confident look Judith turned toward him. He’d never expected a chase out-system. He’d thought the kidnappers would go to another planet—probably Sphinx—and once downside he and Vincent would be able to recruit help from the local Palace Security detachments. They would have helped and kept their silence afterwards. Now, this…

Alice came to his rescue. “I have an idea. Let me in on this. We’ll do a two-ship approach. I’ll com Cormorant, make some excuse for us meeting up: additional supplies probably. That should slow them. Then I’ll take Banshee out to intercept.”

“What if they contact whoever hired them?” Judith asked, “and find out there are no such supplies.”

Alice smiled sadly. “I’m willing to bet that they were never given a contact number. Too dangerous.”

“I agree,” Michael said. “Why use a cutting edge avatar program and then create such an easy avenue for tracing? Okay. But I’m not sure I like the idea of your taking Banshee out.”

Alice flared. “Don’t you trust me, Mikey? Do you think I’d condone kidnapping a small child? Or do you think I’m not capable of handling my own company’s ship?”

Michael held up both hands in a gesture half-surrender, half-self-defense.

“Easy! I wasn’t thinking either. I was thinking about you. You’re going to be in serious trouble with your parents as it is. If you don’t participate any further, you’ll be able to cover yourself: say we put pressure on you; say we lied and told you that we were authorized to take Banshee.”

Unspoken in this was what they all knew. Even if—when—Ruth was recovered, the Ramsbottoms would go unpunished. The kidnappers themselves might stand trial, but they would know nothing about their principles. Even if they did, actually proving the connection to the Ramsbottoms would probably be difficult…not to mention providing the very scandal they were trying to prevent occur. Therefore, Alice would have to deal with the wrath of whichever parent was behind this plot.

Alice shook her head, anger gone, a curious sadness taking its place.

“Michael, if either of my parents is involved in this, I don’t care how much trouble I get into with them. Let me help. Let me prove to you that not all the Ramsbottoms are so given to ambition as to forget basic human decency.”

Judith spoke before Michael could frame an appropriate reply. “I’ll trust you. Now, we’re wasting time. I’ll go with you, since Banshee is likely to be the ship to make actual physical contact with Cormorant.”

Vincent Valless turned to Michael. “I’m sorry, Your Highness, but I cannot permit you to make contact with the kidnappers’ vessel. It would be too dangerous. However, if you will agree to go back to Ogapoge without protest, then I will join Banshee’s crew and provide some protection.”

Michael wanted to scream, to protest: “It’s my job to protect her!” But he knew he didn’t have that choice. He tried to keep his voice level as he replied.

“Very well, Vincent. I’d like someone else to go with them, as well.”

“I have already arranged for that,” Vincent said, a ghost of a smile touching his lips. “Todd Liatt and another member of your security force will be joining us momentarily. That will provide firepower and back-up piloting, should they be needed.”

Michael nodded. “Thank you for your foresight and initiative, Vincent.”

He tried to make his words gracious, but he knew his tone failed to keep up the illusion. Fine. He would accept his exile, but there was nothing in the rules of etiquette that said he had to be happy about it.

Michael turned to Judith and forced a smile. “At least those of us on Ogapoge can trail you and provide pressure to cooperate if that becomes necessary. Even if they spotted us on the way out from Manticore, they’ve ony got civilian instruments. They won’t be able to identify us without our transponder code, and I can disable that once we’re out of the press of near-planet traffic.”

Vincent Valless coughed softly. “We can even do one better, sir. Ships carrying members of the royal family have some flexibility in regard to supplying precisely accurate identification.”

“Brilliant!” Michael said. “We’ll do that then. Reset the transponder to show us as an ore freighter or a tourist barge, whichever is more appropriate for the area.”

At that moment, Todd and the female security officer came around the corner into Banshee’s berth. Michael knew without being told that another of the operatives waited in the corridor to escort him back to Ogapoge.

Behind him, Michael could hear Alice making contact with Cormorant. She’d refused visual contact, and was telling whoever had answered the call she had added supplies they were to take with them. Something in how she inflected her words implied a reward or bonus. Michael was impressed.

Todd and his companion needed no additional instructions. Further chat would only slow their mission. Since neither Banshee nor Ogapoge was hyper-capable, it was crucial that they intercept Cormorant before she met Kwahe’e.

As Todd passed Michael, he reached out and clasped his friend firmly on one shoulder. “Don’t worry, roomie. I’ll look out for her.”

His words were almost inaudible. Michael was grateful. He knew Todd meant what he said, and he knew, too, that Todd was admitting what Michael himself had hardly dared acknowledge.

He loved Judith Newland. If anything happened to her, the universe would go dark and all the suns at the interstellar core could not shed enough light to brighten it once more.

* * *

Judith watched Michael leave Cormorant, eagerness to find Ruth warring with a sinking sensation in her breast. Resolutely she turned away and strapped herself into one of the front row of passenger seats.

At Alice’s suggestion, Todd was taking over as pilot.

“I want to keep an eye on Cormorant’s movements. I also want to scan for Kwahe’e. Hopefully, she’s well out-system, but we can’t count on that.”

“Good,” Todd said. “You’re captain. Sing out if you need me to alter course.”

Judith had lived on Manticore for over two years now, but the easy manner in which Manticoran men worked not only with, but also for women still could astonish her. Grayson men treated their women far better than Masadans did, but even so women were considered very much the “weaker sex.”

Men should try childbirth, Judith thought with a momentary return of the hatred that had driven her to flee Masada. They should try menstrual periods. They should try chasing around day and night after squalling little children, coping with a thousand crises in a single day, solving everything from medical emergencies to diplomatic breakdowns. Let them try that for a solid week, then see if they still call women weak!

But Judith couldn’t maintain her wrath. Todd wasn’t condescending to Alice, not even with the excuse that he was a Navy officer and she a civilian. He recognized that here Alice had the expertise, and so she should be in command. Vincent Valless had introduced Galina Caruso, his female counterpart, without the least hint that she was anything but another security officer.

Get out of your own head, Judith thought, and face what’s going on. She leaned forward to better attend to the minor drama playing out between Alice and Cormorant. 

Cormorant had acknowledged Alice’s com message—not without a certain degree of suspicion. The kidnappers had seemed particularly suspicious because she was aboard the very ship they had just abandoned, but she had managed to put exactly the right note of exasperation into her own voice as she agreed that their joint employers were idiots. She had been remarkably convincing, and they had finally accepted that the “additional cargo” represented some afterthought—one that would benefit the kidnappers as much or more than anyone else.

Although the kidnappers were obviously unhappy, greed had tilted the balance. They had reduced acceleration almost to zero to allow her to catch up, and Banshee and the disguised Ogapoge overtook Cormorant rapidly. 

Judith was trying to relax in her seat when Galina moved forward and took the seat next to her.

“You’re determined to board Cormorant with Ms. Ramsbottom?”


The single word held heat and fire, and Galina nodded. If she’d ever been inclined to argue the wisdom of Judith’s decision, she gave it up now as clearly useless.

“Is it likely the kidnappers have seen you before?”

Judith blinked, a cascade of unwelcome thoughts flooding through her mind.

“Yes. One of them diverted me while the other took Ruth.” Judith’s voice broke, and she steadied herself. “But I’m still going in. It’s likely Ruth is still unconscious, but if she isn’t, she’s going to be afraid. She’s going to need me.”

“I understand.”

Galina’s tone of voice said that what she understood was that Judith needed to see Ruth—alive and well—as soon as possible.

“Sometimes,” Galina said, “a security officer can serve best by not looking like a security officer.”

“Sometimes,” Vincent Valless cut in with a wicked grin that made Judith think this tactical point had been a point of contention between them before, “it’s best if the guard dog shows his fangs. However, this time you’re right, Galina. We should take off our tunics. Without the rank and department badges, we can pass for shiphands.”

Galina Caruso nodded. “Good.”

She returned her attention to Judith. “I’ve had some training in disguise. If you’d permit me, I may be able to buy you a few necessary minutes.”

“My luggage is in the carry bay in the back,” Alice said from her post at the control console. “Help yourself. Judith and I are not exactly the same size, but there’s make-up and stuff you might find useful.”

Judith’s initial response was to protest, to remind them that the whole point of her boarding was to be able to reassure Ruth. How could she do so if she didn’t look like herself?

But her protest died unspoken. Galina was right. All it would take was one of the kidnappers recognizing her, and everything would go to hell.

While Todd brought Banshee closer and closer to Cormorant, Judith let Galina work on her. Her hair was restyled into a tight braid coiled at the back of her neck. From Alice’s personal luggage a change of clothes was selected, including a tinted hairnet that did much to dampen the distinctive auburn highlights of Judith’s hair into a muddy brown.

“I could make your face up so your own mother wouldn’t know you,” Galina said, fussing with the collar of the understatedly stylish jacket Judith now wore in place of the work shirt she’d been wearing, “but that’s hardly worthwhile since I can’t do anything about your eyes. The color is so unusual. If we were in a port, contact lenses would be an easy fix, but we can’t get them out here. You’re just going to have to keep your gaze lowered.”

That will be easy enough, Judith thought. Neither Grayson nor Masadan men like their women to be saucy. Meeting a strange man’s gaze was distinctly saucy—and so something she still found hard to do.

“Why don’t we both wear masks?” Alice suggested. “We don’t have any of the fancy nano disguise gear aboard, but a cloth over the face should be enough. Given the care that has gone into protecting the identity of the principle in this case, I think bare faces would be more suspicious than covered. I have some scarves in my luggage that should do.”

“I’ve seen them,” Galina said, pulling one out and experimenting with how to best twist it into a concealing mask.

Alice continued, “I’ve been trying to think how to justify two of us coming aboard. A bodyguard would be a direct challenge. I think we’re both going to need to carry something aboard. There are some crates in the back, but they’re not very large. If they ask about the contents, we’ll have to come up with something believable that’s also small enough to fit into a crate that size.”

“We could be bringing personal weapons,” Judith cut in. “Or high tech trinkets. For all they claim to hate technology, there is a faction on Masada that craves higher tech weaponry and ships. Ephraim Templeton—with whom Kwahe’e will be rendezvousing—is among those. If you can imply that they are to bring a present of such in addition to the child…”

Judith’s voice broke, and she couldn’t say anything further, but Alice was nodding. “That should work. I’ll carry one box. You carry another, larger one. The size will give you an excuse to focus on the box, rather than any people aboard. I won’t say exactly what the boxes contain, just hint at valuable presents. Greed should do the rest.”

“Sounds good,” Valless said. “Or at least workable.”

“We’ve been granted permission to dock Banshee to Cormorant,” Todd said. “Everybody take their places.”

They did. The two ships mated air locks and Alice Ramsbottom, her attractive face and thick honey-colored hair now concealed beneath a mask made from an artfully twisted dark blue scarf, handed Judith a large box.

“Act as if it’s heavier than it is,” she reminded, taking up her own burden. “And stay behind me.”

Judith nodded. Her heart was pounding, but she couldn’t tell whether from anticipation or fear. The box Alice had handed her was heavy enough to remind Judith to act as if it was a real burden, but not overly inconvenient—especially for a young mother who regularly slung her growing child up over her hip and carried her about.

Just on the other side of that hatch, Judith thought. Just on the other side of that hatch. Ruth is there. Ruth…

Judith stepped forward almost treading on Alice’s heels in her eagerness. Pryderi-class ships, to which the Cormorant and Banshee belonged, were not overly large. Unless the kidnappers still had her in a crate, in just a few steps, Judith was going to see her little girl, see her alive, hold her.

Voices from ahead of her forced Judith to concentrate on something other than her thudding heartbeat.

“Just hand the boxes here,” commanded a man’s voice. “We’ll take over.”

“Oh, no,” Alice said, a breezy laugh underlying her words. Judith admired her poise. “Not so easy, buster. I’ve orders to have these signed for—and I was told to direct your attention to the seals. They’re sequential. The code for opening this box,” she hefted the one in her arms, “will be released to you when the other one is delivered along with your other parcel. Until you agree, well, I can walk backwards as easily as not.”

Alice took a step back, and Judith had to scuttle to get out of her way.

There was a long pause, then the male voice spoke, “Right. Fine. This has been a bizarre job all along. Why shouldn’t it keep being weird?”

Alice strode forward. Judith followed closely, keeping her eyes downcast as if concerned about her footing. Behind her, she could sense another presence, Valless, she guessed, making sure his charges didn’t go beyond where he could help.

Alice entered Cormorant. Judith followed close behind her and couldn’t resist a glance to see if Ruth was on any of the passenger seats.

Her timing couldn’t have been worse. The woman she knew as Dulcis McKinley was standing mid-way down the aisle between the rows of seats watching as Alice set her box down on one of the seats in the front row. McKinley had glanced casually over at Judith and their eyes met.

For a moment, Judith thought that it wouldn’t matter, but McKinley was good at her chosen profession for a reason. She’d stood in an apartment hallway, holding Judith’s attention while her partner snatched Ruth. She wasn’t likely to forget those distinctive green eyes with their contrasting ring of brown—especially as the mask that hid the rest of Judith’s face accented those incredible eyes.

“You!” Dulcis McKinley said, half-gasp, half-scream. “Ward! It’s a trap!”

Her hand dropped to her waist, possibly reaching for a holstered weapon.

Judith didn’t pause. Gone was her anxious anticipation. Gone was any fear or indecision. Returned was the fierce decisiveness that had let a child of ten believe that she could steal a spaceship and escape to the stars.

Raising the box she carried in her arms, Judith threw it across the intervening rows of seats, catching McKinley firmly in the chest.

McKinley stumbled, catching herself against the nearest seat. Judith sprang onto the seat nearest to her and flung herself over, leaping with the agile accuracy of desperation.

Behind her, she was aware of the man Alice had been speaking to giving a sharp cry of pain.

Vincent Valless’s voice was saying something, but Judith didn’t hear any of the details. She had her hands on Dulcis McKinley’s throat and despite the difference in their sizes was shaking the other woman so hard the woman’s elegant head was snapped back and forth on her long neck.

“Where is she! Where is Ruth?”

* * *

Michael Winton supposed that he should be glad that maneuvering a little ship like Ogapoge, a vessel of a sub-class he hadn’t flown for quite a while, demanded a fair amount of his attention.

One of the two remaining security officers had moved up into the co-pilot’s seat and was now scanning the surrounding area.

“Sir, we have a bogie.” The man recited coordinates. “Matches the description Alice Ramsbottom gave us of Kwahe’e. It’s closing on where Banshee and Cormorant are docked.”

Michael had had Ogapoge’s weapons systems at ready, but he had dearly hoped to avoid using them.

“Have they spotted us?”

“We were scanned, but I believe our transpoder code was sufficient.” The corner of the security officer’s mouth twitched in an almost grin. “I believe they were distracted to see the ship with which they expected to make a clandestine rendezvous docked with another.”

“We’ll keep an eye on Kwahe’e,” Michael said, changing his heading slightly in case interception became necessary, “but we’re not going to do anything. Kwahe’e’s playing it safe. Let’s not force her to change her mind.”

“Aye-aye, sir.”

Michael’s hands flowed over the controls, his brain composing various messages. He couldn’t query Banshee lest the call be overheard. Little passenger ships like this didn’t always have the tightest communications systems, and this wasn’t the time to take a risk.

He’d just have to wait and watch. Wait and hope. Wait and dread.

* * *

“Ruth is in the back!” Dulcis McKinley almost screamed the words. “She’s in one of the crates. She’s fine. The crate is set up like a little bed. I was checking on her just a moment ago. She’s still sleeping.”

Vincent Valless came toward them, his bulk crowding the aisle. “I’ll take custody of this lady,” he said to Judith, “if you want to check out her story.”

Judith nodded. Galina Caruso had joined Alice in the front of the cabin, and the male kidnapper was sitting down. Judging from his artificially stiff posture, Galina must have had immobilizing restraints.

Interesting, Judith thought, what she carries around as part of her routine gear.

But the thought was just cover, empty speculation to keep her from thinking about that crate in the cargo bay at the back of the ship. There was only one large enough to carry Ruth, and it wasn’t overly large, but then a sleeping child didn’t take up that much room.

She was at the crate, checking the latches, forcing them up, feeling the lid slide up and back.

And there was Ruth, still disguised as a dark-haired little boy. She lay asleep, curled on her side, her thumb tucked in her mouth, an unfamiliar toy—a little woolly lamb—cuddled into the middle of her body.

She was breathing, and as Judith touched her, she stirred. Her sleepy sigh was the sweetest sound Judith had ever heard.

“She’s here. She’s all right. She may be coming around.”

McKinley no longer fighting, philosophically resigned to the changed situation, nodded confirmation.

“She should be. We gave her a mild sedative, just enough to be able to move her without her fussing. Even that should be wearing off within an hour. We had no desire to harm her—or even to make her uncomfortable.”

“Lucky for you,” Judith said, gathering the sleeping child to her and standing as easily as if Ruth weighed nothing at all. “So very, very lucky for you.”

* * *

Kwahe’e had peeled back into the dark anonymity of the outer system when Cormorant and Banshee had undocked and both had turned their courses to the inner system. Perhaps by then they had noticed Ogapoge hanging watchful in the fringes; certainly her captain, skilled in skulduggery as he apparently was, had known when absence was the better part of valor.

The three ships had flown in company back to Aslan Station. There Cormorant and Banshee had been tucked into their reserved berths. Ogapoge alone made the trip back to Manticore, carrying with them what Michael Winton was inclined to view as a very precious cargo.

Many of those aboard had at least some medical training, and Dulcis McKinley’s statement that Ruth had been only lightly drugged was confirmed. They had decided to let the child sleep off the drug naturally. At this point, a stimulant might be more shock than aid.

Todd piloted the ship. Alice Ramsbottom, looking very serious, acted as co-pilot. Her parents—Michael was willing to bet George Ramsbottom, rather than Babette, was behind the plot—might never come to trial. However, for Alice herself there seemed to be no doubts as to their involvement. Her world was due for some major changes.

The four security officers settled in the rear of the passenger compartment, and for the first time since his return home Michael found himself more or less alone with Judith.

She looked relaxed but tranquil. Ruth slept sprawled over both their laps, creating a curious but not in the least unpleasant intimacy.

“She’s safe,” Judith said, stroking the child’s dyed brown hair. “And you’re safe. It’s odd. I never thought of myself as a danger to you.”

Michael cleared his throat, awkward yet curiously at peace. “I guess what I thought I’d kept to myself must have been more obvious than I realized.”

“You love me,” Judith said simply. “I can see that now, and I…”

She turned and took his hand in hers, then stretched up so she could kiss him softly on one cheek, “And I love you. I never let myself realize how deeply I cared for you until that moment came when you were willing to sacrifice your honor and that of your family to save Ruth—and even though Ruth is the moon and the stars to me, I couldn’t let you do that. I couldn’t let you hurt yourself, not even to save her.”

All too aware of the array of security officers in back of them, Michael settled for sliding his arm around her shoulders.

“Thank you,” he said softly. “Thank you so very much for loving me.”

“You are very welcome.”

“I don’t suppose you’d consider marriage? My sister won’t mind. In fact, now that I think about various things she’s said to me, I think she may have suspected for a long while who held my heart.”

“Ask me.”

“Will you marry me, Judith?”

“I will.”

This time Michael did kiss her. It was a very chaste kiss by the standards of a newly engaged couple, but held a considerable amount of promise.

“There are a lot of people who aren’t going to like this,” Judith said. Then, to Michael’s delight, she laughed. “But after everything we’ve faced together, I don’t think mere disapproval is going to change a thing.”

“No,” Michael said, holding her close against his side. “It’s not going to matter at all.”

* * *

George and Babette Ramsbottom read the handwritten note together.

“Dear Mom and Dad,

“I know what you’ve been doing—about the kidnapping and how you were willing to send a small child into exile and possibly death if that would further your political aims. I know you thought you were doing the best thing for the Star Kingdom, but I’m afraid I don’t agree.

“I also know you’ve cleverly arranged matters so that the people you’ve hurt so terribly—powerful and highly placed as they are—can’t touch you without the information that would come out in a trial damaging both them and the causes they value without hurting you nearly as much.

“After all, you two only have your jobs, livelihood, and personal freedom at stake. They’d be risking the welfare of the Star Kingdom and that of her new Grayson allies. They won’t put the kingdom at risk, so you’re safe.

“Or at least you’re safe as long as I keep my mouth shut. You may have thought I never noticed just how contrived your supposed enmity is, but I’ve been aware of the deception for years. I know about your clandestine meetings. I know how you’ve manipulated your political and professional allies precisely because they believe you two are estranged, and that therefore information shared with one would never, ever be learned by the other.

“Can you imagine what would happen to you if word of your cozy arrangement was released by such an unimpeachable source as your own daughter? I think you do. You’d be ruined socially, politically, and probably financially. I suppose you’d still have each other, but not much else.

“This letter is to inform you that your freedom to act is going to be restricted from this point on. Although Prince Michael will not move against you on the matter of the kidnapping of his soon-to-be stepdaughter, Ruth, I want you to know he knows—not just suspects—that one of you was behind the kidnapping. So even though you’re getting away with this crime, you’re going to be under observation from this point on. Take care.

“Therefore, think twice or even three times before attempting anything even remotely like this again. Play your political games as you will, but leave the innocent out of it. If I even suspect you’re involved in anything in the least criminal, I’ll shout the truth about you to every newsie on the beat. And I’ll be very, very convincing. You’ll be ruined.

“Since it’s never a good idea to be the only one with a dangerous secret, I’ve confided in someone I trust completely. His name is Todd Liatt. He’s one of Prince Michael’s closest friends. Todd will be given a copy of this letter, and copies of certain other documents and holos in my possession—see attached file—and will pass them on to Prince Michael if anything happens either to me or to…well, to anyone at all. And I understand from Todd that he’s made…insurance arrangements of his own, in case you should suddenly feel particularly adventurous.

“I’m writing you this, rather than confronting you in person, because I know you for resourceful and ruthless souls. Given that you’re not likely to be overly pleased with me, I don’t think I’ll be living at home for a while.

“Don’t worry about me, though. I won’t be on the streets. Judith of Masada has invited me to come and live with her. Her new—well, new to them, anyhow—relationship with Prince Michael means Judith needs a crash course in all the social graces and political complications she’s going to face as fiancée and eventually wife to a member of the royal family. Judith has asked me if I’ll be her coach. I’ll be drawing a good salary, so don’t think threatening to cut off my allowance will have any effect.

“Why haven’t I exposed you right off? Well, you are my parents, and I do love you, strange and manipulative creatures that you are. Don’t disappoint me by suddenly getting dumb.

“Love, your daughter,

“Alice Ramsbottom.”


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