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Lighting Out for the Territories

Chapter Text

August 796 U.C., Phezzan Dominion

Reinhard did not hear anything from either Fredrica or his sister for a long time, nor did he hear anything about the movements of the Sixth Fleet, or Imperial land dealings, until one morning in late August, when he purchased his usual tranche of newspapers to look over. The headline on his preferred Imperial rag read, in thick bold font, “Iserlohn Stationed Fleet Repels Invasion, Deals Heavy Blow to Rebel Fleet.”

The paper went on to describe how a small detachment from the Iserlohn fleet, under the command of Rear Admiral Mittermeyer— a name that made Reinhard inhale sharply— had defeated a much larger Alliance force before they even made it to Iserlohn. Absolutely no mention was made of Cahokia, though Reinhard knew that this was the confrontation that he had been desperately trying to warn Fredrica about. It was interesting to note, as well, that the number of ships the paper claimed were in the Alliance fleet was far exaggerated from what Reinhard knew the size of the Sixth Fleet to be. Perhaps this was to add to the illusion that this was an attempt to overtake Iserlohn fortress itself, or to simply make the Imperial victory seem more impressive.

His analytical mind chewed all this over, while his emotional mind was barely coherent, wondering if Annerose and Fredrica had survived this encounter. If Annerose was in a prisoner of war camp on the frontier of the Empire right now, Reinhard was already thinking over a plan to hitch a ride on, and then commandeer, a merchant ship heading from Phezzan into the Empire, and then lead a charge to break her out.

When he arrived at work, he marched himself into Commodore Blackwell’s office and asked, “Sir, have you seen this?” holding up the paper.

“You have a letter,” Blackwell said, reaching into his drawer and pulling out a folded piece of paper without even glancing at the headlines. “And can you give a call to our papers on Phezzan and make sure that the headline reads something slightly more flattering for us in today’s edition?”

“Did we hold Cahokia?”

“Of course not,” Blackwell said. “But they did us the favor of not mentioning it, so we won’t either.”

He was looking at the letter that Blackwell had handed him; the letterhead was from the desk of the Chief of Staff to the Space Fleet Commander, Admiral Greenhill. Blackwell was silent as Reinhard read the first few lines. Greenhill first thanked him for his assistance with alerting the admiralty that the Imperial forces were aware of Cahokia, and then finished with letting him know that Fredrica and Annerose were both accounted for. Reinhard nodded, relieved.

“I’ll get those headlines written, sir,” he said.

“Quickly, or you’ll miss the afternoon publishing window,” Blackwell said, and shooed him out of his office.

It took another two weeks before he got letters from Annerose and Fredrica. Both of them arrived at once, and, unsurprisingly, both had very little to say aside from the expected reassurances of their good health. One line in Annerose’s letter stuck out.

 

You will have to forgive me for keeping this very brief. I hope that we can see each other sooner, rather than later, because I’m sure there is much for us to discuss. Perhaps we’ll be together by the New Year, and you can give me a birthday gift in person. :)

 

He interpreted this, as he was sure she had intended, that there was some kind of vital information that she couldn’t write in a letter. This annoyed him, because he hated the feeling of not knowing something, but he didn’t have a choice but to wait. He would have leave in a few months, and he could make the trip back to Heinessen then. 

The act of waiting was not something that Reinhard had ever been particularly good at, but it turned out that he didn’t have to wait as long as he was thinking he might.

One of the nicest minor benefits of being stationed on Phezzan, Reinhard had found after living there for a while, were the huge number of open-air markets that sprung up in every empty lot in the city, and especially farmers markets that descended on various parks on certain days of the week. This part of Phezzan, being equatorial to accommodate the space elevator, always had an abundance and astounding variety of very fresh fruit, available for relatively cheap, if one was good at haggling. Reinhard was good at haggling, and he had developed a taste for such treats. It was a far cry from anything that could be had in the windy city of Wrightsville in his adolescence, and the Empire had not been the most adventurous when it came to dietary choices.

So, on a relatively frequent basis, Reinhard found himself wandering through the market stalls, picking up mangosteins and peaches and telling the vendor that only an idiot would pay that much for half a kilo of grapes. He was just concluding one such transaction, under a green-striped awning where huge bunches of fingerling bananas dangled from hooks on the ceiling, when someone he recognized sidled up next to him.

Reinhard stiffened immediately as Muller, dressed in plain clothes and speaking in the Phezzani argot, said, “Been a while, Mr. Kircheis.”

“What do you want?” Reinhard asked. He wasn’t particularly worried about Muller, but he couldn’t help but do the standard glance-around to see if anyone else was watching, and think closely about the feeling of his sidearm, tucked up against his back. 

Muller jerked his head, indicating that Reinhard should follow him. Reinhard did, somewhat warily, and they ended up in the rear of the crowded market, behind the last row of stalls, leaning up against a brick building. The only person who seemed to notice them was a nearby vendor, who gave them a look that warned them thoroughly not to shoplift, and then turned back to her wares. 

“What is it you wanted?” Reinhard asked again.

“You’re not the only one who’s allowed to pay visits, or do grocery shopping,” Muller said. He held up his own shopping bag, which was filled with a head of cabbage. “I’ve been looking for a chance to talk to you.”

“About what?”

“Couple things,” Muller said. “Mostly, I’m playing messenger here.”

“For whom?”

“First of all, Leigh says to tell your sister—“

“What about my sister?” Reinhard asked, tone suddenly venomous. 

Muller held up his hands. “All I was going to say was ‘hello,’” Muller said.

“Why does Leigh have anything to say to her?”

“You didn’t know?”

“Know what?”

“They met each other,” Muller said. “In August.”

“I didn’t know that,” Reinhard said.

“Apparently, it was a whole thing.” Muller shrugged. “Your sister made it back alright, didn’t she?”

Reinhard considered what Muller might be able to do with that information, decided it wasn’t much, then nodded.

“Oh, good.” He laughed a little, ruefully. “I’m glad everyone I know got out of there unscathed.”

“You do not know her.”

“Well, you’d be pissed at me if she died or whatever,” Muller said, rather defensively. “I’m just trying to be friendly.”

“There was something about us being enemies, last time we spoke.”

“Look, you sneak up on me when I’m in the middle of eating dinner, I’m allowed to be defensive. I sneak up on you while you’re buying bananas, I won’t hold you being snippy against me.”

Reinhard had to admit that Muller was right, though he didn’t like it. “And the other things you’re playing messenger about?”

“Leigh made some sort of remark about Baroness Westpfale crying about your guest on Heinessen, but I don’t really know if he meant for me to pass that along,” Muller said. “She’s doing alright, isn’t she?”

“As far as I’m aware.”

“Good.”

“And anything else?”

“Oh,” Muller said. “I think you’re right about that whole Castrop affair.”

“In what sense?”

“It hasn’t hit the news yet, but I’m told Castrop has taken the Imperial envoy sent to talk with him prisoner. Leigh is torn up about it. They’re friends, apparently.”

“So, what, the Kaiser’s going to send in a fleet?”

“I have no idea,” Muller said. “Above my pay grade, out of my jurisdiction, et cetera. But there is a possibility that if Castrop flees, he’ll be bringing the envoy along with him as a shield.”

“Would that work?”

“Yes, I expect it would,” Muller said. “I’d personally be hesitant to shoot down a ship on which a count— and the Kaiser’s loyal servant— is being held prisoner. Otherwise we would, probably before he got to the corridor.”

Reinhard nodded. “So, what are you planning?”

“I don’t know,” Muller said. “It’s too early to really say.” He frowned. “I don’t personally care if Castrop himself lives or dies or gets to your side of the galaxy or not at this point, but I’m sure you can find a way to separate Count Mariendorf from the rest of them. He’ll come back to the Empire willingly.”

“Yeah,” Reinhard said. “I can do that.”

Muller let out a relieved rush of breath. “Great. Thank you.”

Reinhard held up one hand. “Just as long as you don’t send anyone chasing Castrop into our side of the corridor.”

“No,” Muller said. “I think he’s a relatively small problem.” The contemplative tone in Muller’s voice gave Reinhard pause for a second, but he didn’t think Muller was lying to him. A disgraced noble was less important than the mother of a potential heir to the throne, and they had been able to manipulate that situation in a mutually beneficial way.

“Good. Out of curiosity, who will the Kaiser give Castrop’s planet to, once he flees?”

“Eh, the crown might absorb it. Traitors’ property is forfeit, and the people there might do better under direct rule than under some vassal. Either that, or whoever the Kaiser is feeling generous to on that day. Could be anyone.” Muller shrugged. “Why do you ask?”

“No real reason. Curiosity, I suppose. They’re a big wine producer, aren’t they?”

“Oh, yeah, real good stuff,” Muller said. “I’d bet money that that’s why Castrop thinks he can get away with anything. Probably spends most of his time extremely drunk.”

“Maybe,” Reinhard said. “I’ll have to write a treatise on alcohol production on your side of the galaxy.”

Muller chuckled. “I look forward to it. All your rebel drinks are cheap and disgusting.”

“They get the job done,” Reinhard said. “Besides, lots of things sold on Phezzan are actually Phezzani products under different branding, and the other way around.”

“So every time I’ve gone to a bar and a girl has asked me to buy her a Heinessen Ale she’s asking for a Phezzani knockoff of whatever passes for real beer?”

“For the most part, yes.”

“Is it that different?”

“No,” Reinhard admitted.

“Pity,” Muller said. “A whole half of the galaxy, consigned to drinking terrible booze.”

 


 

October 796 U.C., Phezzan Dominion

In early October, the Castrop affair came home to roost. Reinhard learned about it without the newspapers, and without Muller: their eyes on the navigation office noticed a request for a direct route from Castrop’s planet to Phezzan. This matter appeared on Reinhard’s desk, and he escalated it up the chain to Blackwell.

“We’re going to want to search this ship,” he said, presenting his dossier on Castrop to the commodore. “A man like that is definitely bringing along taxable income stashed underneath the floorboards.”

“The ship itself is worth more than any jewels he could be hiding,” Blackwell replied, looking at the picture that accompanied the nav office filing. “At least the engine. Sell that to a merchant and you’re set for life.”

“I don’t know about that. Set for life I’m sure means something different for me and you than it does to a man who’s in trouble for not rendering unto the Kaiser that which is the Kaiser’s.”

“He’s coming to the wrong side of the galaxy if he hopes to have a whole planet to himself,” Blackwell said with a yawn. “We can only hope he doesn’t make trouble. The rich ones always do.”

“That’s why I’d like to search his ship, sir,” Reinhard said. “Make sure there’s nothing on it that could be troublesome.”

“Such as?”

“There are things worth more by weight than gold and jewels,” Reinhard said. “He could have information that he’ll try to sell.”

Blackwell considered this. “He’s a man who lives in the relative boonies, with his claim to money being agriculture. I don’t know if he’d have military secrets, or whathaveyou.”

“Still, sir,” Reinhard said. “I just have a feeling that there’s more going on with him than meets the eye.”

Blackwell drummed his fingers on his desk. The goldfish swam placidly around in the tank behind him. Reinhard waited. “It costs us goodwill with Phezzan when we want to use their ports for searching vessels, you know. Can it really not wait until he arrives on Heinessen, or wherever he’s headed?”

“I really don’t think it should, sir.”

“All this effort for a two-bit noble,” Blackwell muttered. “It was one thing for Ms. Roscher, this is—“ He shook his head. “You file the request with the Phezzan Port Authority, then. I’ll clear it with our immigration and import office.”

“Thank you, sir,” Reinhard said, relieved.

“Yeah, yeah,” Blackwell said.

 


 

Castrop’s ship was huge, opulent, and garishly yellow. It sat unassumingly in the docks at the top of the elevator. Reinhard had gone up to meet it as it came in, accompanied by staff from the High Commissioner’s office who would be checking the ship from top to bottom. The ship had arrived ahead of schedule, which meant that Reinhard was late when he reached the top of the elevator, and it had been up to a few rather put-out Phezzan Port Authority workers to explain to Castrop that all his passengers would need to exit the ship so that it could be searched. Castrop, predictably, had not taken this well, and so when Reinhard arrived, there was an argument in progress between the disgruntled port chief and one of Castrop’s retainers, a cowed looking man whose fashion looked out of place despite the outlandishness of some Phezzani garb: he was wearing a toga.

“You can either stay and wait for clearance, and comply with the Alliance import control, or you can apply for a permanent station permit and remain on Phezzan, or you can turn around and go back the way you came,” the port chief was saying. “Those are your choices. I’m sorry if you don’t like them, but the Alliance has requested an injunction against your travel permit until your ship is searched.”

“This is an outrage,” the retainer said. “I’ve never heard of such a thing before.”

“It’s part of our route issuing contract with—“ the port chief began.

Reinhard interrupted the conversation. “Pardon me,” he said. The port chief, who was relieved to have the appropriate person come deal with the problem, left. “You’ve arrived ahead of schedule, Herr…?”

“Pfeffer,” the retainer said, looking at Reinhard’s alliance uniform, and the lieutenant commander’s pin on his collar. “You’re the one who’s going to search the ship?”

“Are you the ship’s captain?” Reinhard asked.

“No, that’s Captain Reiber; he’s still inside. Lord Castrop wanted me to inform you that he does not consent to his ship being searched.”

Honey, rather than vinegar, Reinhard thought, and bit down the reply that was on his tongue. “It would please me greatly to speak with Lord Castrop myself,” Reinhard said. “Perhaps we can work something out.”

Pfeffer sighed. “I can tell him you said that, but he’s not—“

“I would simply like to welcome him to our side of the galaxy,” Reinhard said. Pfeiffer nodded, then headed back inside the ship. Reinhard turned to his group. “When Castrop comes out, I’ll talk to him, you get consent from Captain Reiber to search the ship. Understood? I want every passenger pulled out to interview them individually, and to make sure that no one is hiding anything. And I want to take a sweep through the ship myself once it’s empty.”

There were nods of assent from his soldiers, and Reinhard waited for a few minutes, looking out the wide port window at the fabulously gaudy ship that Castrop had arrived in. For Reinhard, who was used to the sparse utilitarianism of Alliance military ships, and the functional with an aesthetic veneer of Imperial fleet ships, this pleasure cruiser was garish in the extreme. He was sure that, no matter what the exterior looked like, the interior was worse by far.

Castrop emerged from his ship into the busy port, and was directed to where Reinhard was waiting. Reinhard thought that Castrop gave off the air of being an extremely overgrown baby, in the way that his skin was sleek and smooth like an infant who had not yet been exposed to any of the harshness of the world, with fair hair so fine and wispy that it threatened to float away in just the gentle HVAC of the port at the top of the space elevator. 

“Lord Castrop,” Reinhard said. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Castrop looked at Reinhard with an expression that put Reinhard immediately on edge. It was disdain mixed with something else— an immediate expectation that Reinhard was there just to serve him. It reminded him most closely of the feeling he had when he remembered the last days he had spent in the Empire— it was the type of expression he imagined would have been on the Kaiser’s face had Annerose been presented to him. Of all the flaws of the Alliance, this specific expression of entitlement that Reinhard realized must grace the faces of most nobles was one that his side of the galaxy was mercifully free of.

“The port order we received was signed by a Commodore Blackwell,” Castrop said. “You do not look like a commodore.”

“No, sir,” Reinhard said, false deference in his voice. “I’m Lieutenant Commander von Müsel. The Commodore sent me in his stead, as my Imperial is better than his. He thought it would be a more pleasant welcome.” This was, of course, a complete lie. Reinhard was good at lying, though, and it was easier to lie in Imperial than it was to lie in the Alliance language.

“And are you going to release my ship?” Castrop asked. “I warn you, you will regret not allowing me to pass through unhindered.”

“Sir, I will be happy to discuss this with you further. If you’ll come with me, please,” Reihard said. “I’m sure this will all become much clearer over a drink. Perhaps some of Heinessen’s finest?”

Castrop’s lip curled up. “I urgently need to speak to your government on Heinessen,” he said. “I trust that they will be able to clear up this misunderstanding better than you can.”

“Of course, sir,” Reinhard said. “I’m sure I can arrange an ansible call for you, if you’ll come with me…” He just wanted to get Castrop away from his ship, so that the captain, who assuredly had more sense, could consent to the search. If that meant letting Castrop wade through the endless layers of bureaucracy before getting to talk to anyone in the Alliance government who wanted anything to do with him, Reinhard was happy to waste his time like that. 

Castrop followed Reinhard away, and Reinhard jerked his head for two of his subordinates to accompany him. The Alliance had an office in the upper section of the elevator, and Reinhard led Castrop there. He had been allocated a small staging area from which to conduct his investigation, and Reinhard cleared the room of curious Alliance export control workers and got Castrop set up with an ansible connection to the immigration authority on Heinessen. Castrop complained the whole time about how long the process was taking.

“I don’t want you listening in on this conversation,” Castrop said. “It’s highly confidential.”

“I’ll just step out so you can conduct your business in private, sir,” Reinhard said. Although he was getting quite the bad impression of Castrop, this allowed him the chance to go inspect the ship for himself. “If you need anything, don’t hesitate to let one of my men know.”

Castrop gave a grunt of acknowledgement as the dial tone on his call to Heinessenpolis went through. Reinhard stepped out of the small office. 

“Don’t let him leave,” he said to the soldiers waiting outside. “Keep him occupied if he finishes his call. Find him some paperwork to declare all his imports and make him sign it or something, if you need to. If he causes trouble, call me.”

“Yes, sir.”

As Reinhard walked back through the rather labyrinthine Phezzani port, he felt observed, in a way that set him on edge. It was the kind of observation he had gotten used to, mainly from Phezzan’s own voyeurism of the High Commissioner’s Office’s staff, and from the mutual spying that they engaged in with the imperial embassy. He had gotten very good at noticing the careful half-glances that followed him through a crowded market, and though he didn’t see Muller today, he was sure that Muller was somehow watching him.

“I’m not going to kidnap your count,” Reinhard muttered under his breath as he watched someone follow him down the hallway out of the corner of his eye. “Don’t worry about that, Muller. I’m sure I don’t want him.”

He arrived back at Castrop’s ship, and found that the captain had indeed given them permission to search the ship, as all the passengers were exiting in a rather chaotic fashion. There were many women, all dressed in togas, emerging confused into the harsh port lights. Reinhard pulled one of his soldiers aside and said, “Did the men come out first?”

“No, sir, this is just it. Mostly women.”

They were clustering together in groups, looking around warily, watching the male retainers with suspicion. The men were watching the group as well, though some of them were eyeing the market stalls that set up throughout the port, probably wondering what things they were going to have a last chance to buy before heading into the Alliance.

“When you interview them,” Reinhard said, voice low, “make sure you interview the women alone, and take Rackham in there with you, to make them feel safer. Ask them where they actually want to go, and if they do want to go to the Alliance, ask them if they want to go with Castrop or by some other route. I don’t want this man’s harem— or whatever this is— being dragged along with him unwillingly.”

These instructions delivered, Reinhard briefly spoke to the captain of the vessel, thanked him for his cooperation, and then boarded the ship to search it. His subordinates were already hard at work marking down various valuables that were in the hold, but Reinhard, who had not seen Count Mariendorf’s name on the passenger list that had been handed to him, was intent on finding the prisoner— or the remains of the prisoner, if Castrop had already decided that he had served his purpose.

The interior of the ship was just as garish and opulent as Reinhard had expected from a man who had no taste, less sense, and far too much money. It was clear that the pseudo-Roman aesthetic of marble columns and heavy velvet drapes meant to muffle sound and obscure lines of sight had been tacked on to the existing, more functional, structure of the ship beneath, and some of the workmanship was shoddy. Reinhard could see that the mosaics on the floor didn’t quite extend all the way to the edges of the hallways in every place, revealing traces of the more sturdy floor paneling beneath. The mosaics themselves mostly depicted dancing nude women. Reinhard ignored them, making his way through the ship, opening every door.

As Reinhard walked through the ship’s hallways, he began to develop the sense that there was something not-quite-right, beyond just the decor. Like the hallways didn’t seem to match up with the rooms. He wished, not for the first time, that he had Fredrica was here with him; he was sure that if she had been creating a mental model of the ship as they walked through it, she would immediately intuit what was the usual mismatch of pipes being routed through walls versus what Reinhard suspected were hidden caches.

He started pulling back the drapes from the walls, especially as he neared the ship’s hold, and though mostly this revealed maintenance closets that opened without any trouble, at one point he found a locked door. He asked if there was a keycard that could be used to open the door and was told that there was not, though Castrop himself would have access to everything. Considering that Castrop was not currently aware that Reinhard was going over his ship from top to bottom, it did not seem prudent to ask him for access to his locked room in the hold.

Luckily, the lack of a key had never once stopped Reinhard, and so one member of his team brought out a standard tool that was used to break the seals on spaceship doors. Reinhard adeptly rammed it through the pressure seal, then was able to saw through the lock with the cutter. 

The smell was the first thing that hit them, after Reinhard cracked the second layer of the pressure seal, allowing gas to escape. It wasn’t a corpse smell, which was a good sign, but it was stale and filthy nonetheless. The soldier next to Reinhard wrinkled his nose as the door swung open.

The man inside lunged out, and it was unclear if he was attempting to punch Reinhard or not, but he slammed into Reinhard’s shoulder with his arm, a wild expression on his face. Reinhard stumbled, caught off guard, but was able to react, grabbing the man’s arm and pinning him to the wall. It was easier than he expected, and he perhaps overreacted, as the man slammed weakly into the purple drapes, the wild look on his face fading as he processed who was surrounding him. Reinhard’s assistant had whipped out his sidearm and was training it on the man.

“Put that down,” Reinhard said. “Not necessary.”

“Yes, sir,” the soldier said, and he slowly put his gun away, though he still looked at the man with some suspicion. 

Reinhard released the man, slowly. He didn’t make any further attempt to move, and Reinhard could see now that he was in fairly bad condition: so dehydrated that his lips were cracking open and his eyes were sunk deep into his face. He was middle aged, probably in his late forties or early fifties, and he had blond hair streaked with grey, above a face that would have probably been handsome in better conditions. He was wearing the standard Imperial fashion, unlike most of the other passengers of the ship, albeit a filthy, bloodied version.

“Are we on Heinessen?” the man rasped, speaking clumsily in the Alliance language.

Reinhard answered in the Imperial language. “This is the port of Phezzan,” he said. “What’s your name?” He suspected this was Count Mariendorf, but he had to confirm.

“My daughter— where’s Hilde?”

“Daughter?” Reinhard asked.

The man’s expression was sinking into despair. “Please— Hildegarde— is she alive?”

“Did we have a Hildegarde on the passenger list?” Reinhard asked his assistant.

“No, sir.”

“What’s your name?” Reinhard asked again, trying to keep his tone even to calm the man.

“Franz,” he said. “Franz von Mariendorf.”

“Herr Mariendorf—I’m Lieutenant Commander Reinhard von Müsel, of the Free Planets’ Alliance. We’re searching this ship as part of normal import control. Could you please tell me why you were locked in here?”

“I need to find Hilde,” he said, and took a weak step forward, as if he was going to head down the hall. Reinhard caught his arm.

“We’ll find your daughter, sir, don’t worry.” Mariendorf’s sunken eyes were flicking back and forth down the hallway. “But could you tell me why Lord Castrop had you locked in here?”

“He was using me—“ Mariendorf said. “Leigh— he wouldn’t fire on the ship if I was on it…” He answered distractedly, still trying to pull away from Reinhard’s gentle grip, though he was in such bad condition that his attempts weren’t much.

“Leigh?” Reinhard asked.

“Captain von Leigh,” Mariendorf said. “He’s a friend of mine, was sent to get me, or get Castrop, I don’t know what his orders were. Please, I need to find Hilde.”

“Sir, you’re not really in much condition to be making a search. And I don’t really understand why you were taken prisoner?”

“I work for the ministry of the interior,” Mariendorf said. “I was sent to negotiate with Castrop about his duties to the crown— it doesn’t matter. Please let me go.”

“Herr Mariendorf, please calm down,” Reinhard said. “If your daughter is on this ship, I give you my word that we will find her.” He turned to his assistant again. “Could you get this man some water?”

“Yes, sir.” His assistant nodded and headed out around the corner. 

As soon as he was out of earshot, Reinhard, still gripping Mariendorf’s arm, said, “Herr Mariendorf, if you need any further assurances of my goodwill towards you, your Captain Leigh and I know each other, though we’ve never met.”

This brought Mariendorf up short. “You know Hank?”

“It’s a long story, sir,” Reinhard said. “And I would like to finish searching this ship before Castrop realizes that’s what’s happening. Aside from your daughter, are there other people being kept prisoner here?”

Mariendorf shook his head. “Not that I know of.”

It had only taken a moment for Reinhard’s assistant to go get a bottle of water, and he returned. Mariendorf took it appreciatively and drank. “Thank you,” he said.

“Do you have any idea where your daughter is being kept?”

“No,” he said. “She was in here with me, but…”

“Castrop took her out?”

“No, she escaped. I assume they caught her and put her somewhere else.”

Reinhard nodded. “I assume I would not be able to convince you to go see a doctor while we finish searching the ship.”

“You would be correct about that, Lieutenant Commander,” Mariendorf said. Reinhard couldn’t precisely blame him for not trusting him completely, but it did make the rest of the journey through the hallways of the ship slower. Reinhard ordered the rest of his team to temporarily put aside their inventorying of the ship’s hold, and focus on finding other concealed rooms. They scoured the main areas of the ship from stem to stern, pulling back all the drapery and opening every closet, but they didn’t find any other locked doors like the one that the count had been trapped inside. Mariendorf grew more agitated the further they went.

When all of the visible doors had been exhausted, Reinhard asked if there was any way they could get a thermal camera, to see behind walls. One of his team was saying that probably they could, when Reinhard’s phone rang.

The caller ID was Commodore Blackwell. Reinhard picked up immediately. Blackwell never called anyone unless it was a complete emergency.

“Müsel,” Blackwell said, sounding very unhappy. “What are you doing?”

“Searching Castrop’s ship, sir,” Reinhard said. “As we discussed.”

“Stop doing that right now,” Blackwell said. “The Secretary of Defense is breathing down my neck, telling me to let them through ‘unmolested’— that was the word he used.”

“Sir, there’s some extenuating—“

“I don’t care, Müsel. I’m sorry. Get yourself off that ship, get the passengers back on, and let them go.”

“May I ask why the situation has changed, sir?”

“Castrop says that he has vital information related to the security of Heinessen, and he fears that he’ll be assassinated on Phezzan before he can deliver it to us.”

“I see,” Reinhard said.

“You can say ‘I told you so’ all you want later, but I don’t want anything happening to Castrop to be on my head. This just became bigger than whatever intuition you managed to get.”

“Sir, there is one other thing that I really need to deal with, that I’m sure will make Castrop unhappy when he finds out about it.”

“What is it?”

“I’ll tell you when I’m back on the ground,” Reinhard said. “But trust me when I say it needs to be done.”

“Christ in heaven, Müsel. Is it going to delay you getting off that ship?”

“Not really, sir, no.”

Blackwell was audibly frustrated, and couldn’t give a clear yes or no over the phone, but he said, “If this all comes down on us, it’ll be you going to the court martial, not me.”

“Thank you, sir,” Reinhard said. He hung up before Blackwell could say anything else. He turned to Mariendorf. “We have about five minutes to find your daughter, before I really can’t disobey Commodore Blackwell any further. Pick one room on this ship for us to give a more thorough search to.” Although it was cruel, this seemed like the only way to not let Mariendof completely blame him if they couldn’t find his daughter before Reinhard was forced to leave the ship. She would probably appear once Castrop arrived at Heinessen, anyway. Blackwell might be able to talk somebody there into doing a more thorough search at that time.

Mariendorf closed his eyes in stifled anguish. “Lord Castrop’s suite,” he said.

It was a good choice, Reinhard thought, and they walked as quickly as they could through the hallways. Reinhard hadn’t been in the bedroom suite before, but another member of his team had, so the door was open. It was a set of a few rooms, larger than any of the other passenger areas by far, with the same over-the-top aesthetic as the rest of the ship, though combined with Castrop’s most personal tastes. The entertaining area’s most interesting features were a recessed pit in the floor, lined with plush cushions; and one entire wall that was a fountain, the sound of trickling water echoing through the room.

Reinhard began pulling back the drapes and looking carefully at the wall panels for any hint of a hidden door. Mariendorf did the same, growing more and more frantic with every passing second, his motions erratic as he ripped the velvet fabric back.

Five minutes elapsed. Reinhard felt sympathetic as he announced this fact to Mariendorf, whose face fell.

“Hilde!” he yelled, voice muffled by the drapes. “Hilde!”

Reinhard stood there in silence for a moment.

“Did you you hear that?” Mariendorf asked.

“No,” Reinhard said.

“Hilde!”

This time, Reinhard listened more closely. There was the rush of the water from the fountain, the sounds of their breathing, the whir of the ventilation, and— yes— a faint tapping sound, as though from a great distance away, or through heavy layers of material. He turned towards the sound.

“Fraulein Mariendorf!” he yelled. “Where are you?”

Again, the faintest drumming sound, bare fists pounding on metal, perhaps. Reinhard took a step forward, towards the fountain. The water flowed down across the stone facade undisturbed, but he stuck his hand in the water and felt at the gap between the stone and the original metal wall, feeling up and down for any kind of opening. There, his fingers caught on something almost imperceptible, an indentation that was probably a fingerprint reading device. But where there was something like that, there had to be a crack where the door opened, and there it was, cleverly hidden among the rocks. 

“The door opener,” Reinhard said. “Give it to me.”

And it was in his hands, and he was jamming it into the crack in the rocks, and the pressure seals were hissing open, causing the fountain’s water to bubble and spray all around his hands as he wedged the tool in there, and then the door was sliding open, and there, on the floor, with her hands tied to the wall and a gag tied across her face, was Hildegarde von Mariendorf. She was wearing a dirty dress, and her feet were bare— though not for lack of shoes. She had one shoe held in her toes to extend her reach with her feet slightly, and it was that that she had been using to hit the door. Her wrists were scraped bloody and raw from her restraints, and her hands were swollen.

She looked to be about Reinhard’s age, maybe a little younger, and the expression on her face was a kind of determined anger, though it lightened when her father stepped past Reinhard.

Her father rushed in with a wordless cry, falling to his knees and immediately trying to untie the gag from her face.

“Are we on Heinessen?” were the first words out of her mouth as soon as she got free enough to talk. She also could speak the Alliance language, albeit with a thick accent. Like father, like daughter, Reinhard supposed.

“Phezzan,” Reinhard and Mariendorf said at the same time.

The cords tying her to the wall were thick industrial wire rope, and so instead of trying to cut through that, Reinhard pulled his utility knife off his belt and knelt to pry apart the crimps holding it to the hooks on the wall. This took some effort, and he wrecked the blade of his knife thoroughly, but he was able to open up the fastener enough that the wire rope could be pulled apart through the loop.

She sat up, rubbing her hands and wincing. “Thanks,” she said. “Mr….?”

“Lieutenant Commander Reinhard von Müsel,” he said, switching to the Imperial language for her. “Can you stand up?”

She struggled to her feet, her father giving her a hand. “Oh, I’m dizzy,” she said, but she leaned on her father’s arm for a moment and then recovered. “Are you alright?”

“Yes,” he said, “I’m fine now. Are you?”

“Been better,” she said.

“I’m sorry to rush you,” Reinhard said, “but we really do need to get off this ship as quickly as possible. Can you walk?”

“Let me put my shoes back on,” she said. “Gods, I hate this stupid dress.” She pulled her shoes back on her feet.

Reinhard led them through the maze-like hallways of the ship. The rest of the passengers were re-entering, now, and they looked at the Mariendorfs and Reinhard with naked suspicion or fear. A glare from Reinhard usually sent most of them scurrying out of his way.

At the entrance of the ship, Reinhard summoned a few of his subordinates over. “Take the Mariendorfs down to the High Commissioner’s Office,” Reinhard said. “Get them any medical treatment that they need, and some clean clothes, and lodgings for at least the night. I’ll stay here for the moment, in case I need to deal with Castrop himself, but I want to talk to them later.”

Mariendorf had been listening to this exchange. “Am I your prisoner now, Lieutenant Commander?”

“No, sir,” Reinhard said. “This is Phezzan. I have no authority to take prisoners.”

Despite his grim condition, Mariendorf said, in a weak but dry tone, “I’ve been finding that authority to take prisoners is not something that is really necessary. Force will suffice.”

“Dad,” Hilde said. “We can cooperate.”

“Yes,” he said. “Alright.”

“Thank you,” Reinhard said. The Mariendorfs were shuffled away. Reinhard watched them go, some odd feeling in his chest when he saw the way the father wrapped his arm around his daughter’s shoulder, and she leaned onto him.

They left just in time, because Castrop returned, red faced and apoplectic. He was taller than Reinhard, and physically larger by far, so Reinhard suddenly understood why all his retainers had an air of painful deference: despite his round cheeks, Castrop was a fierce man when angry. He stormed up to Reinhard, who didn’t flinch or step back.

“I told you that there would be consequences,” he said. “You, you—“

“You are welcome to proceed to Heinessen, sir,” Reinhard said, keeping his tone even. 

“I’ll have you dismissed from your post for this,” Castrop said.

Reinhard lost his temper at that remark, finally, saying, “You will need to get used to not having your way, Herr Castrop. There are no lords in the Alliance, so do not expect your words to have as much sway there as they did in your old home.”

Castrop slapped Reinhard. The blow was undignified, and it stung, leaving a red welt across his face. A younger Reinhard might have retaliated viciously, but he stood there and took it, narrowing his eyes. 

“Do not speak to me that way,” Castrop said.

“The laws for self defense on Phezzan would have me well within my rights to shoot you for that,” Reinhard said, coldly. “And if I believed that your threat about my dismissal held any water, I would be far more willing to accept a dishonorable discharge for killing you than I would for whatever you think you could do.”

“You will regret this,” Castrop said, turning on his heel and walking away.

Reinhard felt a cold vindication at that. He had certainly won this encounter, having managed to free the captives, and he didn’t care what Castrop did after that. 

Reinhard walked over to the port window, and watched a few maintenance drones detach themselves from the side of Castrop’s ship as it prepared to depart. He wanted to make sure they were really leaving. It didn’t take long. The long docking arms that held the ship to the port fell away, and it engaged its engines and slid silently away, only vanishing out of sight when it moved ‘above’ the port window.

After the long journey down the elevator, Reinhard presented himself back at the High Commissioner’s Office. Blackwell was waiting for him outside his office. He pointed into a little conference room with a glass door, where the Mariendorfs were sitting by themselves, eating takeout from styrofoam containers.

“I assume this was the other issue you had to deal with,” Blackwell said.

“Yes, sir. That’s not a problem, I hope.”

“We’ll see if it becomes a problem.” He was frowning deeply. “I found out what has Heinessen all worked up, by the way.”

“What is it, sir?”

“Castrop’s planet was protected with the same Phezzani tech that protects Heinessen: the Artemis necklace. Apparently, his was destroyed with just one ship, and he wants to tell us all about it, in exchange for— well, I don’t really care what he’s trying to sell it for.”

“Every technology has weaknesses,” Reinhard said. “A good fleet stationed permanently above Heinessen is obviously—“

“Nobody wants to listen to that kind of talk,” Blackwell said. “Not when someone from Phezzan is trying to sell them a miracle.”

“Clearly,” Reinhard said, voice dry. “Castrop can sell whatever story he has. I don’t think it has anything to do with them.” He jerked his head in at the Mariendorfs, who were watching them have this conversation outside the door.

“They say they were being used as hostages. You believe that?”

“Yes,” Reinhard said. “I’m sure at least he would have been shot if they had made it into the Alliance without me finding them. Castrop might have kept the girl for his own amusements.”

Blackwell made a face. “What do you want to do with them?”

“Do with them?” Reinhard asked. “Probably just see if they have any information, which I don’t think they do, and then let them loose on Phezzan. It was a humanitarian act to get them out, if you can forgive such things.”

Blackwell chuckled. “Be careful, or you’ll get a reputation for that kind of thing. Between Ms. Roscher and this—“

“There are worse reputations to have,” Reinhard said. “Did any of the other passengers decide to disembark at Phezzan, by the way?”

“A few.”

“Good,” Reinhard said. “I expect Castrop is going to yell about this when he gets to Heinessen.”

“You stuck your neck out, and mine by extension.” He scratched his chin. “Depending on exactly how much fuss he makes, you might get pulled from this post. I don’t know if I’d have the ability to fight to keep you.”

“That’s alright, sir,” Reinhard said. “I’d rather be on the front lines, anyway.”

“You are a strange one. You wanted to talk to them?” He looked in at the Mariendorfs again.

“Yes, just for a minute.”

Blackwell nodded and walked away. Reinhard entered the conference room where the Mariendorfs were. They had gotten a chance to bathe, at some point, and someone had given them both new clothes: cheap Imperial fashion, though Hilde was wearing a man’s suit rather than a dress. They looked much better than they had just a few hours previously, the only traces of having been locked up for who knows how long being the visible wounds on Hilde’s wrists, and the still-sunken look of the count’s face. They both stood up when Reinhard came in.

“Castrop left for Heinessen,” Reinhard said. He gestured magnanimously back at the table, and both the Mariendorfs sat. He pulled out a chair across from them. “How’s your dinner?”

“Good, thank you,” Hilde said.

“Yes, I appreciate the Alliance’s hospitality very much,” the count said. Although he spoke the rest of the sentence in the Imperial language, he hesitated and said ‘Alliance’ in the Alliance language— apparently not wanting to offend and call them ‘rebel territories.’ Reinhard almost smiled at that.

“Well, you’re on Phezzan,” Reinhard said. “It’s in everyone’s best interests to be hospitable around here.”

“Will we be allowed to leave?” the count asked.

“I assume you have no desire to immigrate to the Alliance,” Reinhard said. “You’re welcome to, of course. Or you can stay on Phezzan and do as you please.”

“No, I don’t believe that would be in anyone’s best interest,” the count said. “I’m very grateful that I will have the opportunity to return to my own life, with my daughter.”

Reinhard reached across the conference room table for the sticky notes and cup of pens that sat in the middle of it. He wrote down Muller’s name and contact information on the top note.

“When you walk out of here, go see Lieutenant Commander Neidhart Muller, over in the Imperial Embassy. He’ll make sure you get where you need to go.”

Hilde took the note and looked it over. “You know him?”

“Phezzan is a very small planet,” Reinhard said. “It’s inevitable that you cross paths with your counterpart on the other side on occasion. He has a reputation for being dependable, anyway.” 

“Thank you,” the count said. “May I ask a question?”

“Of course.”

“You said you knew Captain Leigh— could you explain how?”

Hilde leaned forward. “You know Hank?”

“That’s a strong word for it. My next door neighbor, when I was a child— I fled the Empire when I was ten, with my mother and sister— was one of Captain Leigh’s students.”

“How do you know that?” Hilde asked. “Which student?”

“My daughter weaseled her way into attending some of Captain Leigh’s classes when he taught at the Imperial Officers’ Academy,” the count explained. “She might have been his classmate.”

“Hah,” Reinhard said. “Were you following the news of, not this most recent February, but the one before that, when Rear Admiral Reuenthal attacked Condor Base?”

Hilde nodded. “Yes, I knew about that.”

“I don’t believe Imperial papers carried the full story,” Reinhard said. “Rear Admiral Reuenthal took the base staff prisoner. I was stationed there at the time, and with a friend of mine, Lieutenant Commander Greenhill, we were able to commandeer a ship and rescue the prisoners. Anyway, during that process, I overheard a conversation between Rear Admiral Reuenthal and Captain Leigh, talking about his students. That’s how I knew him.”

“Oskar never told me about that,” Hilde said, leaning back in her chair. “I’ll have to beg him for the details, next time I see him.”

“I’m sure Rear Admiral Reuenthal does not want to regale you with that story,” the count said, sounding tired.

“He won the engagement,” Reinhard said.

“Wait, but who is the student of Hank’s that you know?”

Reinhard’s hand instinctively went to the locket underneath his shirt, but he didn’t pull it out. “Siegfried Kircheis,” he said. “Do you know him?”

Hilde let out a startled laugh. “Oh gods, yes, I know him. He’s my closest friend. He was just—” She cut herself off. 

“Small universe,” the count said. “Lieutenant Kircheis is a good man.”

Reinhard felt odd, suddenly jealous of this woman. “Please give him my fondest regards,” he said, voice tight. 

“I will,” she said. “I promise.”

Reinhard wanted to question her further about Kircheis, but stifled that desire. This was not the time, or the place. “What were you doing on Castrop’s planet, if I may ask?”

Hilde looked at her father. “There was the idea that I might be able to negotiate for my father’s release. Obviously, it failed.”

“And how did you end up being taken prisoner?”

“I knew Castrop was going to use my father as a bargaining chip for as long as he could,” Hilde said. “So I was attempting to free him, and I ended up trapped as well.”

“I see,” Reinhard said. “And what caused Castrop to leave his planet?”

“I don’t know,” the count said. “Neither of us were in much of a position to observe what was going on, when he finally loaded us onto his ship.”

Reinhard nodded. It was a slightly evasive answer, and he noticed that Hilde hadn’t said anything, even though she had been eager to talk before, so Reinhard decided to play his hand. “Castrop said that the Artemis Necklace that was protecting his planet— the same one that protects Heinessen— was destroyed, and that caused him to flee. Do you know anything about that?”

“If anyone could take care of something like that, it would be Hank,” Hilde said confidently, though Reinhard thought there was an air of something else underneath that confidence. Fear, maybe, and the confidence was a mask.

Reinhard nodded. “But you don’t know how he did it?”

“No,” the count said, and he seemed genuine.

“I lost contact with him, before everything went down,” Hilde said. “I don’t know what he did.”

“Alright,” he said. “I appreciate your honesty.” He stood, and the Mariendorfs did as well. He held out his hand, and they shook, first the count, then Hilde. “If you need anything else while you are on Phezzan, don’t hesitate to contact me, or anyone else at the High Commissioner’s Office.”

“Thank you,” the count said. “I owe you a great debt, for myself, and for my daughter.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Reinhard said. “I have developed something of a reputation for freeing captives, it seems.”

Hilde laughed at that. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Lieutenant Commander. I wish I could get to know you better.”

“This war won’t last forever, Fraulein Mariendorf. When it ends, perhaps we can be friends.”

She smiled. “I would like that very much.”

 


 

About two weeks later, Blackwell called Reinhard into his office. He didn’t look happy, his lips pinched in a way that Reinhard had never seen before. 

“Take a seat, Müsel,” Blackwell said, gesturing to the chair in front of his desk.

“Is there a problem, sir?”

“Yes.” As Reinhard sat, Blackwell stood, taking a few steps to look into his huge fishtank, watching the fat goldfish hide behind some aquatic plants. “I was worried that this Castrop affair would cause you trouble.”

“What’s happened?”

“Castrop never made it to Heinessen,” Blackwell said. “His ship was destroyed en route.”

Reinhard raised his eyebrows. “How?”

“Analysis of the wreckage is ongoing.”

“There weren’t any ships we’ve identified as imperial agents that followed him,” Reinhard said. And he had gotten Muller to promise that there wouldn’t be. “Was it pirates?”

“Pirates would take the ship whole, so they could sell the engine. There’s a few possibilities, none of them are good.”

“What do you think it was, then, sir?”

“I don’t know,” Blackwell said. “I’m not an explosives forensics expert. But—“ he turned back towards Reinhard and pulled out a letter from his desk, passing it to him— “There are certain parties on Heinessen who believe that your delay of Castrop was specifically to allow an agent to plant a timed explosive on the ship.”

Reinhard stood, his chair scraping across the floor. His face was red, infuriated. “I am not a traitor,” he said.

“I told you this would come down on your head,” Blackwell said. He continued to hold out the envelope, which Reinhard had not yet taken. “That’s an inquest summons. You’re going to have to explain your case.”

“What case?” Reinhard spat. “I was well within my rights to request that we search that ship; you know that. And every procedure was followed. And we were right to do it!”

“Castrop apparently sent a scathing message to Heinessen about you,” Blackwell said. “If he had arrived safely, it probably would have been forgotten. But he didn’t, so your name is the last one that anyone’s heard.”

“This is ridiculous,” Reinhard said. He took the letter. “Am I being discharged? Court martialed?”

“There’s at least one person on Heinessen who thinks this is as ridiculous as I do. That’s why it’s an inquest, and not a court martial.”

“What’s the difference?”

“I don’t know,” Blackwell said. “But maybe you can avoid it going on your permanent record.”

“If they’re looking for someone to blame, and they’re picking me as their victim—“

“You wanted to go to the front lines anyway,” Blackwell said. “If they punish you by saying you’re not fit to work on Phezzan anymore, that’s where they’ll send you. Just cooperate, and it will probably be less painful.”

“And if I don’t?”

“Müsel, if you go in there yelling and biting, that will only make you look worse, and make it easier to blame you.”

“There’s nothing I can do, then. I’m some sort of sacrificial victim to make Heinessen politicians feel good about themselves.”

“That’s the way it is, sometimes,” Blackwell said. “You could resign instead.”

Reinhard scowled. “No.”

“Then you’ll go to Heinessen, play polite, and hopefully this will all be smoothed over somehow. Or at least forgotten about.”

“It’s absurd,” Reinhard said.

“I’ll prepare a written testimony in support of you,” Blackwell said, “though I don’t know how much it will help.”

Reinhard tried to relax his shoulders. “Thank you, sir,” he said through gritted teeth.

“You have been a very valuable member of my staff here, and I will be unhappy to lose you, if you are reassigned. I can hope that it won’t go that way, but hoping for the best is a way to make yourself unhappy.”

“When do I leave?”

“The merchant ship Belorussia is departing in three days. I’ll arrange your passage.”