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Inside Deal

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Liz left the tunnels and made her way to the palace offices. She'd soon know just how much she dared trust the second captain.

She found him sitting at a desk that could have fallen straight from a 1940's detective novel, if Philip Marlowe had worked at a desk constructed entirely of glowing purple panels. The captain looked up from his inlaid computer screen. "My goodness, Princess Vilandra! A bit early for shopping, isn't it?"

"Far too early," she agreed. "But something troubles me, so I thought it best I come to you."

"I will serve you in any way I can, Your Highness."

"My handmaiden, Prill, told me she found a note in my bedchambers," Liz said. She watched the captain's face for any clues. "I find it troubling that anyone could gain such access, and I'm afraid my imagination has run wild as to the contents. Am I in danger?"

"You might know better than I, Princess Vilandra." The second captain glanced toward his nearest workmate. "Any spurned suitors in your past?"

"Rath is dead," Liz said.

"Of course," he said. "Death makes a good alibi, although you sit before me now."

"Are you telling me Rath has somehow returned?"

"Oh, certainly not, Princess. But in my line of work, we never rule out any possibility without proof of a better explanation. Rath is an unlikely suspect, but not an impossible one."

"I see. Who are the suspects?"

"That I cannot answer, not having seen the note."

"Oh," Liz said. "Well, then, would you please fetch it for me? We can read it together."

"I can try, Your Highness," he said. "Will you wait while I ask my colleagues?"

Liz fretted in silence at the captain's desk, her eyes darting to the tall shelves full of data discs. She'd love an hour alone in this office, with its dragon's hoard of useful secrets.

The captain returned, and laid a battered letter on his desk. "I'm told it arrived in better condition," he said. "They sampled its fibers for DNA, and when it came up clean, they kept right on sampling."

"It's the words, not the paper, that might hold meaningful clues," Liz said. "Unless the culprit is particularly sloppy."

"Of course, Your Highness."

She took the paper, and scanned it.

If your great romance has not lived up to expectations, might you consider other options? To learn of them, spill your soup at dinner.

"We had soup last night," Liz said. "Did this person watch us eat?"

"This person knew of the menu before your dinner," the captain pointed out. "Otherwise, why the instruction to spill it?"

"Right," Liz said. "Only I didn't receive the instruction in time. Prill found it first."

"Do you regret your unspilled soup, Princess?"

Liz snapped her gaze to the captain. "I don't believe this a joking matter, Captain."

"Of course, begging your pardon, Your Highness."

"You have it," Liz assured him. "But without receiving the desired signal, what might this person do now? Have I made an enemy?"

"It seems more likely they will try again. No spy worth his salt would take a single missed drop as a definite signal."

"Spy?" Liz exclaimed with as much surprise as she could muster. "But I thought we suspected a spurned suitor!"

"Rath is dead, Your Highness."

"So he is, Captain." Liz took a gamble. "This alleged spy, will you come to me if someone apprehends him? I'd hate for some lovesick fool's shenanigans to be mistaken for espionage. Kivar has such a temper when it comes to such things."

"Your soft heart puts you at peril, Your Highness."

"Does it?" She looked around pointedly. "Who here could condemn me for mercy?"

"Surely not I," the captain said. "But some might . . . misinterpret such intentions."

"Of course, Captain." Liz stood. "I would like to go shopping again, after breakfast. You will accompany me?"

"I wouldn't miss it for all the five worlds, Princess Vilandra."


The theory of Occam's Razor sent Liz to the kitchen in pursuit of suspects. Palace menus weren't exactly secret, but the cook and her staff would have the earliest access to them.

"Princess Vilandra, Your Highness!" The cook fell to her knees.

Liz shook off her discomfort at the gesture. This time, at least it didn't endanger anyone. "Please rise."

"How may we serve you, Your Highness?"

"Last night, one of the courses consisted of a delicious soup," Liz said. "I quite enjoyed it."

"Why thank you for the compliment, Your Highness! It pleases me greatly."

"Might there be any left?" Liz asked.

"Oh dear me, I'm not certain," the cook said. "I will check, if Your Highness has the patience to wait."

"I'm not known for my patience," Liz said. "But I will give it a try, for the sake of the soup."

"Your Highness, my apologies!" The woman fell again to her knees. "I did not mean to question your virtue, Princess Vilandra, of course your patience is beyond question. I beg your forgiveness."

"Oh!" Liz reached a hand toward the cook, who cringed. Crap. "You've done nothing wrong! I'm the one who should apologize. My attempt at humor failed. Kivar has been teasing me for my impatience, you see."

"Certainly, Your Highness." The woman scurried off to check on the soup, leaving Liz to wonder what she planned to do with it.

"I found some!" The cook placed a bowl before her. "We can heat it up for your breakfast, if you'd like it now."

"I'd like that very much," Liz said. "I wanted a second bowl last night, but Kivar was so eager for the next course, you see."

"Yes, Your Highness."

Liz glanced around at the other kitchen workers, several of whom where watching her curiously. She dipped a finger into the pot of soup, and using her powers, levitated a mouthful. In the process she very carefully dribbled it carelessly across the counter. "Oh goodness," Liz said, a bit louder than necessary. "Now I've spilled some."

Nobody reacted. She picked up the bowl of soup and strolled out of the kitchen again.

Of course Liz had no way of knowing whether her performance in the kitchen even mattered. The spy might not work in the kitchen, and even if he did, he might not have been present just before breakfast. And even if he got her message, she had to wait for contact. She just hoped he wouldn't put himself in too much danger. She doubted Kivar would spare a second life for her, because from his perspective, his need for any sort of apology had expired with her brainwashing.

Liz ate soup for breakfast, and if anyone found it odd, they didn't say. "It was the best course last night," she told Prill. "Not only is it tasty, but it's a lot more fun than most food."

"Fun?" Prill asked. It was not the first time Liz had caught the young woman questioning the concept of fun.

"Like this," she said. She waved her foodstick at the dish, and floated the soup upward in bubbles. "See? Fun."

"Of course, Your Highness," Prill said.

Liz found herself torn about her handmaiden's nature. She still didn't trust her, but she was also bothered by any thought of the young woman's discomfort. Not to mention her future, should blame for any of Liz's plans fall upon the innocent servant.

Political machinations sure came with a lot of guilt.

Dammit Jim, she thought to herself. I'm a scientist, not a revolutionary.


After breakfast, Liz returned to her room. She wanted to do some reading before embarking on yet another shopping trip. When she turned on the computer, it provided her with the latest news updates. She nearly cried when she saw the increased price on little Zan's innocent head. Not only did she fear for the child, but it also made her doubt her position with Kivar. Did he think she wouldn't notice the hunt for her "nephew" if he kept advertising the bounty? Or did he simply not care about his future bride's feelings, so long as she cooperated with his demands.

Cruel, arrogant, and foolish described Kivar in equal measure.

Or perhaps it was a test of Doctor Gafer's brainwashing. Would a Vilandra who never experienced the palace coup think to question Kivar's motives, or even read the news at all?

A history of the political parties on Antar, if the term even fit, proved elusive. She hoped for a chance to question Doctor Gafer's wife, because the computer offered her no answers. The best course would be to pay the woman a visit. She'd need an excuse, of course. She couldn't just call on seemingly random citizens without arousing suspicion.

Maybe she could just forego the security detail, and sneak out of the palace herself. How had Vilandra done it, during her famous affair with Kivar? Well for one thing, Zan's household had valued freedom and privacy over paranoid security protocols. But even so, she'd been accountable for her time. Liz strained against the limitations of her borrowed memory. Aside from her interests in geology, politics, and fashion, did Vilandra have any hobbies?

She'd arranged the same sorts of social events that high society ladies were known for in Liz's own culture. Dinners and dances meant to raise money for charities and museums. Museums!

That's where she could find at least some of her answers. And if Doctor Gafer's wife was an historian, she might be just the one to help with a little fundraising.

Liz visited the lab yet again, despite the risk. She did take one precaution -- a witness to confirm the innocence of the meeting. She brought the second captain along with her, pretending to remember the errand just before the planned shopping trip. "I almost forgot," she told him. "This trip is about more than shopping today, but I won't get far without the correct address. Do you mind?"

He tailed her obediently, and she stuck her head into the lab. "Hello? Doctor Gafer?"

"Your Highness," the physician bowed. "Captain. How may I serve you?"

"A quick favor," she said. "I want to plan a fundraiser for one of the museums. Something to remind people of my return to society. Do you think I could recruit your wife for such an event?"

"Oh, I am certain she'd be delighted," he said. "I suspect she even has a project that needs funding. There are drawings of a potential exhibit scattered all over my house."

"How fortuitous," Liz said. "Think she could squeeze me into her schedule?"

He gave her the address, and promised to give his wife a call. "She'll clear her schedule for you, Princess Vilandra. No need to worry."


Historian Mascusda received them in her cramped and cluttered office. She waved Princess Vilandra into the best chair, and cleared piles of books from a pair of stools for the others. Her project turned out to involve a collection of antique children's toys, recently donated by the estate of a wealthy former patron. She thought the people of Antar would enjoy an exhibit dedicated to the simple pleasures of youth.

"Everyone enjoys a bit of nostalgia," Historian Mascusda explained. "History often teaches uncomfortable lessons, which I think keeps some people away. Our museum would benefit from a wing that spreads joy."

"I agree," Liz said. "Everyone deserves a share of happiness. I would love to help provide some."

"Excellent! Would you like a preview of the items?"

"I would love to see them," Liz said. "If you can spare the time."

"Time is no object for me today, Princess Vilandra." Historian Mascusda hurried to open the first box, and handed Liz a doll. "From the time of your father's rule, I believe."

Liz studied the carefully crafted figure. Vilandra had owned a similar toy, and the memories related to it arose in her mind. Zan liked to use it as a high value hostage in his war games with Rath, when they were all young. What seemed like boyish hijinks on the surface held deeper meaning, though. Using hostages to manipulate battle strategy was a popular military tactic, something the future king had studied from a young age. Several key turning points in Antarian history had hinged upon the solutions -- or lack thereof -- crafted by leaders to combat this particular problem.

A teacher had presented young Zan with one such theoretical situation. The future leader needed to find a solution before he could move on to the next lesson. Zan had labored for weeks over increasingly elaborate rescue plans, only to have each one shot down by the teacher. "Hard choices, Zan," he'd said. "Sometimes your responsibility to your people requires sacrifice."

Zan had eventually surrendered, presenting a plan with the required sacrifice. His imaginary troops had squashed the attack at the price of that one life. But it haunted the young boy, that someday it might be his sister's life who hung in the balance. Vilandra had tried to comfort him, insisting she'd never need such a rescue anyway, because she'd defeat her own attackers.

But Zan continued to replay the scenario, searching for the exact heroics necessary to avoid any loss of life at all.

Liz put down the doll, her hands shaking as she realized Zan had watched Ava die in his final moments. He'd died thinking his sister still a captive of Kivar's forces.

"Princess Vilandra?"

"I'm sorry," Liz said. "Memories. You're right about nostalgia."

Historian Mascusda continued to show off the collection. Some toys looked similar to the things children played with on Earth. Others baffled Liz, and even with Vilandra's childhood memories swirling in her head, she failed to recognize many of them. Historian Mascusda eagerly explained their various histories, and Liz hung on every word.

Eventually, she turned to Prill and the captain. "Would you two be so kind as to go fetch the dresses for the Night of Three Moons. I'm having too much fun here to bother with that errand myself."

The shop had promised to deliver the gowns, but if either Prill or the captain remembered, they kept it to themselves.

"Good," Liz said, once her entourage left. "We're alone. I'd like to hear your opinion of my plans."

"I must say I'm delighted, Princess Vilandra," Historian Mascusda said. "Fundraisers are always fun, and the museum could use the attention."

"And my other plans?"

"Ah, my husband hinted at your, shall we just say ambition? Delightful as well, Your Highness, although I'm not sure what help I can provide in that area."

"I hope you can arrange a meeting with one of Rath's supporters."

"Cultists, rather."

"Regardless. I believe our causes share a few similarities."

"Princess Vilandra, I do hope you appreciate the danger you bring upon yourself with such an interest."

"I do, and I regret the danger I bring to you and yours with this request. If anyone asks, I extracted this favor against your will."

"I have encountered some people sympathetic with Rath's supporters," Historian Mascusda said. "The work I do sometimes involves people who witnessed certain historical events. Their viewpoints are often valuable, even if they dabble in treasonous thoughts."

"Would there be any chance such a person might stop by here today?" Liz asked. "Perhaps an artifact once belonging to Rath's family has crossed your path, and you need it authenticated?"

Historian Mascusda picked up a toy sword with elaborate carvings on its hilt. "This looks like Rath's family crest, does it not?"

Liz wouldn't recognize Rath's family crest, but that was hardly the point. "It certainly does."

"I'll make the call."


Lunchtime found Liz perched on a park bench a block from the museum. She'd slipped out for a breath of air before her reduced entourage could return from their errand. Then she'd put in her own call, so to speak. Once Dremea recovered from the shock of telepathic communication, she promised to meet her.

"I'm planning to hold a meeting tomorrow," Liz explained. "I'd like your organization to be represented."

"Such a meeting -- "

"Yes, I realize the danger."

"Traedon almost didn't allow this meeting, Your Highness."

"A sentiment I understand," Liz said. "But while I cannot promise safety, I can promise my good intentions."

"Good intentions don't always accomplish favorable results."

"Ah, then perhaps I should say my intentions are treasonous. Interested?"

The poor girl fell silent.

"I intend to take Kivar's throne," Liz said. "I need help. Not in the actual deed, but in controlling the aftermath."

"How -- "

"The people on this planet require strong leaders. It seems to me that those brave enough to plot against the current monarchy have what it takes to serve in such a capacity."

"Someone will attend," Dremea promised. "Is Queen Ava included in your invitation?"

"If she wishes," Liz said. "I would value her attendance. She may offer some insight I lack."

Liz gave Dremea the time and place, and the two parted.

Liz slipped back into the history museum through a delivery door and returned to Historian Mascusda's office.

"Good nap, Princess?" Historian Mascusda asked.

"Yes," Liz answered. "Thank you for the use of that lounge. I'm not sure what came over me. Perhaps my new medication does not agree with me."

"Perhaps," said a doubtful captain.

Prill, however, agreed immediately. "My sister could hardly keep her eyes open the first week she took birth control."

The captain squirmed in the universal way all males did when such topics arose. Wimps, the lot of them.

"Oh, begging pardon, Princess."

"No matter," Liz said. "I'm glad to learn it's not just me."

"Definitely not, Your Highness," Historian Mascusda said.

"This sword is lovely." Liz picked up the toy and pretended to examine it.

"A gentleman is coming by shortly to authenticate it for me," Historian Mascusda said. "I'm surprised he has not already arrived."

"How interesting," Liz said. "Is he an expert on weaponry?"

"Not weaponry. But he has extensive knowledge of the elite families on Antar, particularly the one who had this made. I want to know if it was for a particular child. It's always interesting to see what influenced people who later proved influential to history."

"I see." She turned to Prill. "Handmaiden Prill, did you encounter any trouble fetching those gowns?"

"They'd already sent them to the palace, Your Highness."

"Oh, I'd forgotten they offered that service."

The captain shot her a look of clear warning. Did he disapprove of her actions, or just her sloppy lie?

"That covers the shoes and the gown," Liz said. "But you still need jewelry, do you not?"

"I thought you might loan me some pieces," Prill said. "I mean, if you don't mind, Your Highness. I could always wear the jewels I wore to my sister's wedding."

"Would they match the dress?" Liz didn't wait for an answer. She dumped some coins into Prill's lap. "Go out and buy yourself something appropriate."

Prill stared at the coins, perhaps taken aback at the extravagant amount, but she dared not argue. "Thank you, Princess Vilandra."

"Captain, I'd hate to bore you with museum talk. Feel free to accompany her, or stay, as you wish."

"Oh, Princess Vilandra, I think I'd better accompany Handmaiden Prill. Don't you?"

The toy sword appraiser arrived so promptly he passed Prill and the captain in the entryway. Like so many others on Antar, he fell to his knees at Liz's feet. "Your Highness."

"Arise," Liz said. "There is business to discuss."

Historian Mascusda handed over the sword.

The confused man gave it a quick look. "This was almost certainly manufactured as part of a festival costume."

"Clearly," Historian Mascusda agreed. "But I'm certain it belonged to the famous Rath, and is therefore infinitely valuable."

"Infinitely," Liz agreed. "I believe it's about to gain historical significance well beyond what its humble origins might suggest."


"I'll fetch us some refreshment," Historian Mascusda said.

"Forget the sword," Liz said as their hostess left. "I've been led to believe you have a special interest in my former betrothed?"

"I followed him politically," the man admitted. "Before King Kivar's reign, of course."

"Might you rekindle your interest?"

"Your Highness?"

"Perhaps once Kivar's reign comes to an end," Liz said. "Perhaps then, you might rekindle your former interests."

"What are you suggesting, Princess Vilandra?"

"Planning, actually." She watched his eyes go wide. "I ask no treason of you."

"Yet you seem to hint at it."

"Treason, after all, is all in the eye of the beholder. Should the throne change hands, so would the viewpoint."

"I suspect Kivar's forces would feel differently. This meeting alone -- "

"This is not the meeting," Liz said. "You are merely here to evaluate an artifact of possible historical significance."

"Of course, Your Highness."

"However . . . "

"Yes, Your Highness?"

"If you, or a trusted acquaintance of yours, might have input to offer regarding the future of this planet, let me know. It just so happens that I know of a meeting on that very topic."

"Why me? I'm insignificant."

"I've never met an insignificant person before," Liz said. "Certainly not among the citizenry of Antar. Attend, and the people of this planet will feel your significance for years to come."


Dremea returned to the safehouse to find Traedon pacing the floor.

"I'm glad you're back," he said with uncharacteristic emotion. "After what I learned, I was sure it was a trap."

"No trap," Dremea said. Then she paused, as she reconsidered the situation in light of the look on Traedon's face. "Or, at least not yet. What have you learned?"

"I've called a meeting. The situation with Princess Vilandra requires reviewing."

Dremea hurried to follow him into their meeting room. Three other members of the Inwallers sat around the table, serious looks on all their faces.

"You met with Princess Vilandra again, Dremea. Tell us, what is your opinion of her?"

"She seems sincere in her desire to remove Kivar from the throne. She's brave, too, moving around the city without security."

"You move around the city without security every day of your life."

"I'm invisible to my enemies. Everyone on Antar knows Vilandra's face."

"Fair point."

"Just because she seems to move about without security does not mean the security is not just out of sight."

"Fair point."

Traedon turned to the spy. "Let's start with your report. It's unfair to ask Dremea for an evaluation if she lacks the facts."

"I thought her impression might prove more valuable before it's swayed by new information."

"What new information?" Dremea asked.

"I sent Princess Vilandra a message," the spy explained. "She failed to respond to the simple signal I requested, even though she had every opportunity to do so."

"You're sure she had opportunity?"

"I instructed her to spill her soup at dinner," the spy said. "Not a single drop hit the floor, and she even went so far as to levitate her soup by the mouthful, spinning it in the air, flaunting it!"

"That's . . . disappointing," Dremea admitted.

"Furthermore, she came into the kitchen this morning," the spy continued. "Now, I was not in a position to hear what she said, but judging from our poor cook's reaction . . . let's just say the rumors of kind-hearted Princess Vilandra handing out gifts to commoners fail to mesh with her behavior."

"Don't be vague."

"She berated that poor woman until she fell to her knees and begged forgiveness."

"For what offense?"

"Questioning her patience, I'm told."

"You were told, or you heard?" Traedon asked.

"I was told. As I said, I was not in a good position. Shaving fresh spice requires standing behind a force field to prevent contamination. I never expected the princess to actually wander into the kitchen. When she did, I could hardly shirk my duties without drawing attention to myself."

"So we have one story of berating the help, and several stories of kind deeds."

"All of the supposed kindness occurred in public, with witnesses. The kitchen, however, is hardly public. It's how one behaves in private that reveals one's true nature."

"Fair point."

"So the acts of kindness are an act. Why is she slinking around calling meetings in public parks?"

"I thought it might prove a trap," Traedon said. "But then Dremea returned unscathed. Are you quite certain you were not followed?"

"I took every precaution," Dremea said. "The meeting place itself was not at all secure, so I took the most circuitous route home possible. I watched so carefully I can probably recall every face I saw all day. If someone followed me, they managed it no further than the central marketplace."

"I posted lookouts on the top of the next building," Traedon said. "They have not reported anything suspicious. At least, not yet. What did Princess Vilandra want?"

"A meeting," Dremea said. "With several trusted members of our organization."

"So, the trap is yet to spring? How many brave souls would she like us to sacrifice?"

"Three or four," Dremea said. "She's also invited Queen Ava."

"Ah, so quite the prize. Does she intend to wrap us all in bows as her wedding gift to Kivar?"

"It's possible," Dremea said. "If she's a spy, she's quite good."

"If she's a spy, she enabled a coup against her own brother. Yes, she's quite good."

"We'd be fools to walk into this trap."

"We'd be fools to avoid it," Traedon said. "It's the perfect opportunity to spring a trap of our own."


"If it comes to that," Traedon said. "But she'd make a better hostage than Ava. Kivar might actually risk himself for Princess Vilandra."