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The Huntress

This story originally appeared on the author's website in 2016, and was reprinted in the March/April 2017 issue.

Chapter 1

April 8, 5710 CE / 099-1192 Imperial
Spinward Marches 0927 Narsil A574A57-D Hi In Cx

Lady Helga Ostberg sat in the study alcove of her bedroom, the very picture of a beautiful young noblewoman. She was tall, graceful, fit and possessed a beautiful face with bright blue eyes and flaming red hair. Her hair, makeup, clothes all were done perfectly in the latest style. The only thing marring this vision of loveliness was the intense look of concentration on her face. This was understandable, though; she was, after all, engaged in one of her most important duties as a noblewoman: looking for a husband. Even in the fifty-eighth century, who a noblewoman married was vitally important. And since she had no sisters and her mother had died when she was young, she was on her own. Her father meant well, but this was too important to leave up to a man. Her personal assistant was only of limited value. She was a sweet girl, but her grasp of politics was limited. Helga had tried to teach her, but it never seemed to sink in. So the hunt was hers, and hers alone.

Of course, technology helped immensely. She’d created a search routine that pored over numerous public databases (and a few secure ones that she shouldn’t have been able to access) for young, single men that met her very strict requirements. The first of which was, of course, nobility, though in a society defined as a ‘feudal technocracy’ that was a bit more complicated than just having a title. Ability and ambition were everything. In an oligarchy with a hereditary nobility, blood lines and reputation were what counted most. But on Narsil—and in fact the entire Sword Worlds Confederation—titles were linked to positions of authority, which had to be earned. While there were a large number of wealthy, high status aristocrats, the people that really mattered were the ones that had earned a place in the government, with the attached titles. If a noble lost his position, he lost the title and status as well. The children of a titled noble had to either earn their own title, marry well, or face becoming an unimportant but wealthy member of the upper class. But since Helga was herself ambitious and a woman in a decidedly male-dominated society, it meant marrying well.

Her age complicated things as well. She wanted to marry someone close to her own age. Someone she could relate to, possibly even love someday. A foolish hope to be sure, but she was young enough, at eighteen, to still have that hope. So this meant that she had to find an up-and-comer, not an already established noble. And finding a young man with the potential to rise was a lot harder. After two days her search had compiled a list of one hundred names. With five worlds to choose from, that was surprisingly fast. She was concentrating on the first twenty. And a very impressive twenty young men they were! Age twenty to twenty-four, no genetic defects (the medical records were supposed to be off limits, but she was clever and highly motivated), perfect grades in school, a match to the custom personality matrix she had created, and of course, appearance. Realistically, she shouldn’t care about looks, but if she was going to marry, she wanted someone she could stand to wake up to every morning. And besides, eighteen, duh!

Helga read though all twenty, then sat back and deliberated. Part of the problem was that they were all so close to being perfect. There was one she had a question about though. Number eighteen seemed to be rated rather low. He seem like he belonged higher on the list, perhaps in the top five. She scrolled back down to his entry and looked at the red flag section. The only negative mark was a rumor that he was dating a classmate at the naval academy. Wait, what? Homosexuality was an automatic disqualification. Oh, a female classmate. In a society with such clearly defined male and female roles it was permitted, but very uncommon, for women to enter the military. “Hmm, I wonder how he would rate without this?” She typed in a few commands and watched him shoot up the list “Number one! Oh, my…” Helga’s mind went into overdrive. She followed the link for more details on the rumor. It seemed he had been spending all his off duty time with a cadet Myra Brun. They even supposedly spent several weekend leaves together. She followed the link on her and frowned. Lady Myra of Orcrist. Crap, her father was a Greve (count). Good grades, one year behind him, athletic, pretty. She would be a good match for him. So why nothing official?

“Hmm, maybe he thinks his family won’t approve of a woman in a man’s job. They probably want him to marry a traditional woman like me.”

Helga decided to let that one go for now and turned her attention back to the others. But her mind kept coming back to number eighteen. After a wasted hour she gave up and brought his profile up again.

“Damn, it’s his eyes. And I’ll bet the picture doesn’t even do them justice.”

As the holographic image of Eric Dalgaard, second son of a Jarl (Earl) of the planet Excalibur, floated before her, she sighed deeply. He was tall, athletic, with piercing grey eyes, gorgeous face. Then she brought up the image of the other girl.

“Sorry, hon; I hope you can forgive me someday.” She sat there for a moment, then started to work. Her prey was in sight; now to lay her trap.

Helga was a computer major in college. It was an odd thing for a traditional Sword Worlder woman to study. It also wasn’t usual for traditional woman to be hackers, but times were changing. And Helga had a knack for it. She also had a plan for her life. After she married she would help manage her husband’s career. She would use her computer skills to this end, working behind the scenes. Now they were helping her to get that husband. She started to use her search routine’s secondary features to learn all she could about him. And her competition. Their schedules, and plans as well. Several days later, she had her plan. A time was set. Her outfit was carefully chosen and arrangements made. She would catch her man or at least get her foot in the door. Provided she wasn’t arrested for computer crimes first!

Chapter 2

May 6, 5710 CE / 127-1192 Imperial
Spinward Marches 0927 Narsil A574A57-D Hi In Cx
In orbit, aboard the main civilian Spaceport

Leutnant im Raum (Ensign, literally ‘lieutenant in space’) Eric Dalgaard was feeling mighty pleased with himself as he walked down the corridor of the massive space station. He had just completed his first deployment in the navy. And he thought it had gone rather well. Now he was on his way home to Excalibur to spend a week with his family. Of course, the trip there would take a week. But he had four weeks of leave, and planned to take it all at once. When he got home he was planning on telling his father about Myra. It was high time to tell the family about her. She was still on her final training cruise. When she got back to the academy on Narsil in three weeks he wanted to surprise her with the news that he had told his family about them. He never doubted their reaction. Granted she wasn’t exactly a traditional woman, but she came from a good family and well, how could they not love her? She was amazing! Smart, pretty, fearless, plus they worked so well together. They had even gotten to the point of finishing each other’s sentences. They would make a perfect couple. As he walked to the dock where the liner to Excalibur was he checked his comm again. He had only arrived on the station a few hours ago and he wanted to check his mail. Since instantaneous communications across the stars was still science fiction, mail had to be delivered by ship. When you arrived at a starport, you checked if you had any mail waiting for you. Eric knew he had mail here, but it was taking forever to download for some reason. The system must be on the fritz, he thought. As he came to the dock for the ship home he walked up to the gate and handed over the overnight bag he had been carrying, his ID and the ticket to the attendant. The rest of his luggage had already been checked and loaded. The attendant checked his ticket and ID, then waved him through with a smile. Eric returned the smile, then headed down the docking tube to the ship. It was a typical small passenger liner, copied from an old Imperial design. It could take as many as forty people, in relative comfort, the three parsecs to Excalibur in one jump. The ship would be leaving soon, so most of the other passengers should be aboard already.

His first stop was his cabin to drop off his bag and check out the accommodations. After four years in the academy and one year stationed on a light cruiser the cabin seemed immense. And it has its own shower, such luxury! From there he decided to head to the forward passenger lounge. Hopefully, he would be able to get a good spot to watch the ship’s departure. Plus, he might as well start meeting his fellow passengers. He shouldn’t have been worried. The passenger lounge was a large circular room, ringed by windows, with chairs arranged around the outer edge to look out. In the center were tables and more chairs, with built in video screens, so there really were no bad seats. A steward was at the bar taking orders. And it seemed all his fellow passengers were already there. Most were comfortably spread out in singles or pairs. But off to one side was a group of seven, apparently a nobleman, his family and a small staff. One of the group, a beautiful young woman appeared to be arguing with the noble (her father?). Eric took no particular notice of them as he headed to the bar. The steward smiled and tipped his head as Eric approached.

“What would you like, herre lieutenant?”

Eric smiled back, “Vodka martini, please.”

Over the centuries since man went to the stars, many things had changed. But vodka was still vodka. Vermouth and olives, not so much, but still the martini endured. Once he had his drink he decided to find a seat away from the nobleman and his group so he could watch the ship depart in peace. After finding a quiet spot he settled in and tried his drink. Perfect!

Drink in hand Eric looked out at the station and the stars beyond it. So far everything was working out today. Well, except for his mail. He decided to try it again. At a touch his wrist comm brought up the virtual keyboard and screen. The images were projected directly onto his retina and sensors registered his key strokes and gestures. Finally his mail had downloaded. But as he was about to start going through it he noticed a figure pass before him. He looked up to see the young woman that had been arguing with the nobleman. It registered that the noise from the small group behind him had died down. That made sense if she was the source of the disturbance. Now she was standing just to his right, leaning on the windows frame. She had flaming red hair, worn flowing gracefully down to the middle of her back. He thought it looked pretty, but it was definitely not the usual way upper-class women did their hair, in an elaborate ‘up’ hairdo. Now that he was looking, he could see that her dress was similar. Instead of the fancy monstrosities that were typical of traditional ladies’ fashion, she was wearing a simple, elegant blue dress that hugged her rather luscious figure closely. He would be enjoying the view if she wasn’t obviously crying softly.

Eric sighed to himself and closed his wrist comm. The mail could wait. A damsel in distress took precedence any day. He took a handkerchief out of his breast pocket and rose from his chair and walked beside her, holding out the handkerchief as he did. “My lady, can I be of assistance?”

The girl turned around quickly at the sound of his voice and looked up at him. Her crystal blue eyes filled with tears. With the tear streaked cheeks and smudged make up she should have looked a wreck. But instead, all he could see was her beauty and pain. She seemed so vulnerable to him. She took the offered hanky and dabbed her eyes.

“Th…thank you. I…um, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bother anyone.”

He smiled softly at her, “It’s no bother, really, what seems to be the matter? Maybe I can help?”

If Eric could see inside the girl’s head, he would have seem the image of an iron trap closing on him. Instead he saw a sad smile cross the girls face.

“Oh, thank you for the offer, but it’s a family matter. I’m afraid there’s nothing anyone can do to help me now.” As she spoke her smile faded and she started to get choked up. She buried she face in the hanky and started to sob.

Eric didn’t know what to do. He wasn’t much for dealing with strong emotions. It was one of the things he loved about Myra—she was always so in control. He couldn’t imagine her crying in public, whatever was bothering her.

He couldn’t just leave the girl like this though, but what to do? He hesitated for a moment, then put his arm around her shoulder. “Ah, um, please, it can’t be that bad, can it?”

As he held the crying girl, a scent of orange blossoms drifted up from her hair. It reminded him of the orange trees in the gardens back home. Despite himself he smiled at the memory of home it triggered.

She looked up at him again and returned his smile softly. “You’re right. It’s not that bad I suppose. I really should be happy. My family is taking me to meet a prospective husband. It’s what every noble girl is supposed to want. A marriage to a handsome prince. Well, I don’t know what he actually looks like. But I’ve been told he’s very handsome. I just wish I at least knew the man.”

Eric’s thoughts raced, he knew all the single nobles on Excalibur. He was one of them after all. And there weren’t all that many of them. Who was she talking about? “Ah, I’m sure your family knows best. You, uh, wouldn’t happen to know the man’s name would you?”

Now comes the tricky part, thought Helga. Getting her father to think a political marriage to the Dalgaard family of Excalibur was a good idea had been easy. Getting him to think it was his idea had been only slightly more difficult. Helga’s father was only a baron. But their family was immensely wealthy. It wasn’t hard for the jarl on Excalibur to see the advantage in the match either. However, Eric’s father insisted that the two young people meet first. He wouldn’t force his son into a marriage to someone he didn’t care for. The rest had been timing. And a computer virus that had prevented Eric’s mail from downloading till she was ready to make her move. But now she had to play this next part perfectly…

Chapter 3

June 3, 5710 CE / 155-1192 Imperial
Spinward Marches 0927 Narsil A574A57-D Hi In Cx

Myra was enjoying her moment of triumph. Well, technically it wasn’t just her moment of triumph. It belonged to the entire graduating class of the Danisov Naval Academy, class of 5710. The ceremony had been flawless. The weather was perfect. Her entire family had attended. Her three brothers had even behaved themselves, a minor miracle. The only negative was Eric wasn’t there. He must have been held up on Excalibur. She had rather hoped to be able to introduce him to her family. Well, show him off might have been a better way to put it. Everything was going perfectly aside from that.

She had even been able to impress her brothers and father with the tale of her first battle out in the wilds. Seeing the four of them, three in their army mess dress uniforms and the other in the dress uniform of the marines, gape when she told the part where she called orbital artillery fire down on her own position had been priceless. Mother looked like she was going to pass out at that, but she held firm for her obviously insane daughter. Now, with the ceremony over, the newly commissioned ensigns were talking to each other, their families, various guests and the faculty. People were only just starting to leave. In fact it was about time she thought about getting her father to stop networking and head out. They had dinner plans at the best restaurant in the capital in a few hours.

She looked down at her wrist comm, thinking of the message she had received from Eric. A ship from Excalibur had arrived today. She had hoped he would be on it, he wasn’t. But he had written her. It had taken a few hours for the mail to be scanned for virus, then distributed. By the time it had reached her, she was too busy to read it. Well she had a few moments now. She was about to open it when she heard the sound of running feet headed her way.

She looked up to see Agata Lager, her academy roommate—ex-roommate—rushing towards her with a horrified expression on her face. The girl ran up to her and threw her arms around her and hugged her fiercely. “Myra! are you alright ?”

Myra pulled back and gave her a confused look. Agata was usually a very even keeled sort; this was not like her. “What’s wrong? Did something happen?”

The girl’s eyes widened. “Oh, god, you haven’t heard! Here, see for yourself.” Agata brought up her own wrist comm and displayed for Myra a news article from the society column from Excalibur. It was an announcement of an engagement between the Dalgaard family’s youngest son and the only child of Baron Ostberg of Narsil.

Myra felt as if an ice cold hand had gripped her heart and was squeezing the life out of her. She looked down at her own wrist and the message from Eric waiting there. “Wait, he couldn’t. He…” Myra’s head snapped up and she gave Agata’s arm a light squeeze “Thank you for telling me, Agata. I…” She felt her eyes sting as tears began to form. “I have to check something. Excuse me.” Then she stood back and wiped her hand over her eyes. She looked over to her family, all of whom were looking at her with concerned expressions now. “Excuse me for a moment,” then she turned and walked away from the crowd. They could see her bring her comm up. Then after several minutes her shoulders slumped.

Slowly she straightened up, then reached to the back of her neck and appeared to unlatch a necklace, pull it from around her neck, then stuff it into a pocket. She wiped at her eyes again, turned and walked back. A smile on her face. A smile that didn’t reach her eyes. On what should have been one of the greatest days of her life, something inside of ensign Myra Stevdatter Brun died. Those that knew her said she was never the same after that day. Some said that she replaced a broken heart with one made from steel. But she never spoke of the events of this day again, so no one knew for sure.