I leaned over the balcony of the palace staring into the darkness, melancholy thoughts tumbling through my mind. Ex-major of the 43rd Division Confederacy Ground Forces, ex-alcoholic, ex principal of the Rosewood Academy and now a woman without a home the thought made me feel despondent. I ignored the sounds of music and laughter at my back feeling so alone. Even the firework and laser display earlier in the evening had failed to raise my spirits. I straightened and pulled my gloves tighter. A reminder to me not to look at the symbol carved deeply into the palm of my hand. An ancient race calling themselves the Guardians had done that to me turning me into a living weapon. My task was to destroy another ancient race the Rhosani that had emerged from a thirty thousand-year exile. If only people would let me do that. I knew with my aunt and cousin that was an impossible task. Absently I brushed the surface of my pale green tunic with its high-necked purple collar and dark green cuffs. The two Confederacy gold stars on my chest the highest award the Confederacy could bestow were nestled there with the Valour Victorious the highest award of the Terran Empire.
Trying to shake myself out my dismal thoughts I glanced across and saw a man standing there looking as out of place as I felt. Navy, from the blue collar and cuffs on his uniform. Probably some admiral's ADC at the beck and call of his commander, I thought to myself. "He looks as trapped as I am." I couldn't keep myself from speaking those words. Here I was on an alien world far from my beloved Confederacy. A series of unfortunate circumstances and orders from Com Ops had brought me here to this juncture. Combined Operations the Confederacy's Military command had made it quite clear as to what my orders were to entail. My duty was to protect my cousin and my aunt although at the time I hadn't known this fact. I only learned of this later after they had uncovered a plot by the Rhosani to take over the Terran Empire. These same Rhosani had pushed the Empire into war with the Confederacy in the hope that it would weaken the Terran military enough for them to take over completely. They had done the same in making the Empire attack the Orsini Commonwealth. A hopeless genocidal war since the Orsini didn't take prisoners. I shuddered at the thought of my own brush with the Orsini on Anoxi. The world on which my father died and that led my to a moment of madness that earned me a second Confederacy Star. Although what happened after had been my own fault as I descended into alcoholism torn by guilt at not preventing my father's death. I nodded to the man trying hard to keep my mind from the place my dark thoughts were taking me.
Suddenly a reek of unwashed flesh and alcohol assailed me. As I felt a hand on my shoulder my senses went on full alert.
"Hey Babe whatcha doing later!" a drunken voice slurred in me ear.
I sprang into action my body running on reflex. With a quick twist and flip I threw my assailant over the balcony. All I heard was a strangled squawk as the realisation hit me that there was a ten metre drop from the balcony to the lawn below. Cold flashed through me in the microseconds before I heard the splash. Suddenly I remembered that this portion of the balcony over hung an ornamental lake a fairly deep one or so I had been told. I turned and glared at the two couples sharing the balcony with me. Both couples in uniform with sidearms strapped to their hips. My bodyguards or so I had been led to believe. I guess they were there because Camelia wanted control over me since I had attempted to return home to the Confederacy on several occasions. The closest I had got was boarding a shuttle but Ellie's guards had caught me and returned me to the palace where I got a lecture from my aunt. I may not have been Confederacy born but it was my home, that was until Ellie and Camelia had pulled that stupid stunt and made me third in line to the imperial throne. I had no intention of ascending to throne and had made that abundantly clear. The Usurper as Camelia had named the previous holder of the throne had been under Rhosani influence and had killed any claimants to the throne in order to increase his hold on power.
"Where were you when I needed you?" I growled at them. My escort actually managed to look ashamed. They were supposed to protect me from this type of incident.
The man I had been watching hurried over and leaned over the balcony. I looked down seeing the flash of lights and the sounds of splashing and cursing. The palace guard was fishing my assailant out of the lake.
"Remind me never to get on your bad side," the man beside me quipped.
I turned and regarded him before speaking. "Took the wrong attitude." I noted that he was about my height with smoothed back black hair. I found myself having to admit he was good looking if not my ideal.
"I'm Tony Miller captain of the Jakarta," he held out his linen-gloved hand to me in greeting, "I'm not going to go for a midnight swim am I. I'm not dressed for that kind of encounter?"
I found my heart lightening and I smiled it seemed an alien emotion to me after all I had gone through these past months. "Not if you behave yourself," my lips cracked a shy smile the first in what seemed an eternity. "Sandra Locke," I stated. It was simple no speaking of rank and title both things new to me. The crowns on the collars' indicating my status as colonel and as to the title Duchess of Mars I had my cousin to thank for that burden. Things had been simpler when I was just plain old Sandra Locke major in the Confederacy Ground Forces. My blood relations had pushed that into the far distant past. "So Tony Miller what are you doing here?" That was as far as I got. Tony's sudden stiffening and salute had me turning.
I turned to see me cousin and my aunt standing there. I stiffened to attention and saluted Terran style. My hand thumping to my chest. My cousin Ellie was ten years my junior and was dressed in the latest style, which was a copy of another style eight hundred years out of date or so she had happily informed me. She wore a gold coloured tight waisted dress with the lace collar, the skirt of which hugged the ground. Her hair was piled on top of her head and set in place with pearls. Beside her was her mother Camelia similarly attired but were as Ellie's dress was gold hers was in a multitude of colours and topped off with a purple and green sash the same colour as my collar and cuffs.
"Your Majesty, Lady Broaden," I remarked stiffly.
Ellie looked stern but I could see the ghost of a smile on her face. "When you've finished scaring the fish," she gave a nod to Tony; "the party is starting to wind down. Don't linger too long out here it gets really cold in the early hours before dawn." With that she gestured to her mother and left a half dozen guards trailing behind her. Camelia hung back clearly she wanted to say something now that her daughter was out of earshot.
"Your father would have been proud of you," with that she left.
I stared in her direction a stunned expression on my face.
"Sorry," I apologised to Tony. My mind dwelling on what my aunt hadn't said.
"That's ok," he replied, "I thought I was in for a boring night." He smiled. "At least it will be a night talked about for months."
I sighed. "That it will," I gave Tony a look, "before I was interrupted I was going to ask you what you were doing here?"
"Oh I was invited. My ship's currently being upgraded. I can't say more than that you know what it is like secrecy must be maintained. As why I got a invite I'm not sure."
"And you'd rather be elsewhere?" I could understand his reluctance to tell me what the upgrades to his ship entailed I could relate to his dilemma.
"On my ship supervising the upgrades."
"And you?" Tony asked me.
I eased up a little. At first I had been suspicious of this stranger but if he wasn't here to gain an advantage like most of the men I had talked to perhaps I could cut him some slack.
Ellie and Camelia watched from a distance. A tight expression crossed Ellie's face. "Was that really necessary?" she asked her mother.
"I know my plan went wrong. How was I to know she would react like that?" Camelia glanced to where Sandra was talking to Tony, "I thought I'd taken some of the rough edges off her. Her etiquette master says she shows progress."
"Sandra trained as a soldier a fact I'm glad of. How could not you know that she would react any other way?" Ellie replied, "she has enough problems without us adding to them."
"It has achieved the desired affect." Camelia nodded towards Sandra and Tony. He was talking to her his hands waving in an animated fashion.
Ellie scowled. "Next time warn me in advance. I nearly had a heart attack when she threw that idiot over the balcony. What were you thinking mother she could have killed him?"
"Do you really think I'd let that drunken fool anywhere near her if it had been that dangerous. Besides look they are talking. The closer she is to him the more likely she will stay."
Late night several days after the balcony incident I lay asleep in my oversized bed in my apartment. The chime of the door woke me from my sleep. Still half-asleep I reached for the sidearm I had under my pillow. "Lights! Door!" I called out. The computerised system turned on the lights and opened the door. My apartment was an all in one bedroom and living room combined. The only separate rooms were a small kitchenette, a walk in wardrobe and a bathroom. Standing in framed in the doorway was my cousin Ellie dressed only in a silk slip. I became more alert I could see glistening tears on my cousin's face. I felt chilled something had frightened the most powerful woman in the Terran Empire. She looked nothing like an empress rather like a young and vulnerable woman. The same young and vulnerable woman I had rescued on Anwa Padak before I had become involved in all this.
"They've taken her!" Ellie wailed tears streaming down me face, "oh I what am I going to do?"
My heart went out to my cousin. "Who?" I asked and felt awake.
"Jeanne! They've stolen me!"
"Who the Confederacy? They wouldn't do anything like that."
"The Rhosani! They stole the whole planet!"
I felt a chill slide down my back, my marked hand curled into a fist. I didn't want to look at the mark. "Rhosani? How do you know?"
Ellie sniffed and entered the apartment. I slipped off the bed and crossed the floor and comforted the younger woman.
"I sent a ship to bring her home," Ellie shuddered then continued, "the world was gone."
Gone was the chill, anger burned within me. "Get me a ship!" I growled.
"That won't be necessary Sandra!" a voice called from the doorway.
I released hold of my cousin and stepped back. Camelia stood there, a younger thin pale faced woman in a doctor's smock stood in her shadow. "Constantina please go back to bed this can be sorted out when we are all thinking more rationally." She gestured to the woman with her. "Doctor Lessing will give you something to help you sleep.
Helplessly I watched Ellie go. Camelia turned to go after her.
"Not so fast!" I called out.
Camelia regarded me her brow raised in query.
"We need to talk." I was in no mood to let Camelia go easily there where things I wanted to know, things my aunt had avoided telling me about.
"I want an explanation as to why you hate me so much?"
"Sandra we don't hate you." Camelia replied and stepped further into the room.
"There you go again avoiding my questions." My voice sounded accusatory I felt I had a right to say that.
Camelia walked over to a beige fabric couch with a real wooden table in front of it and sat down. She gestured to the seat beside her. I sat there the expression on my face tight.
Camelia took a deep sigh. "I suppose I'd better. I've been putting this off for too long." She glanced to her guards standing at the doorway. "Close the door and wait outside.
Her guards saluted and left. Camelia waited until the door was closed before speaking again.
"Well?" I demanded breaking Camelia's train of thought.
"You are angry just put it aside for a minute and listen," Camelia took a deep breath her expression saddened, "I've done enough hating myself for the both of us."
I was taken aback by Camelia's revelation seeing uncertainty in her eyes she always seemed so confident. Even when she had confronted the Usurper and the Rhosani agent in the throne room she had sounded confident.
"I believed what I thought as the truth. Your mother and I where often at each other's throats. So it was easier to swallow the lies I was fed."
"Lies, what lies?" I felt confused I knew my parents had cut themselves for the rest of my family never mentioning a single word about them. I had only recently found out that I had a cousin and an aunt.
"My father, your grandfather although he'd lost any right to be called that, had your mother poisoned."
"What? Why? How?" I was too shocked for coherent thoughts.
Camelia clasped my hands in hers. "Understand I never wanted to hurt you. You were such a delightful child."
I was unresponsive still trying to comprehend what Camelia was trying to tell me.
"It was clear from the start your mother loved your father deeply. I guess I was jealous of that. Frank was my twin we did everything together when we were little then he met your mother and everything changed," Camelia's gaze was intense.
All I could do was nod mutely.
"My father," Camelia swallowed hard a sour expression on me face, "was opposed to your mother from the start but Frank was close friends with Constantine who was only the crown prince at the time. So he pretended to be nice all the while plotting behind our backs." A tear trickled down her face. "I'm really so sorry. The elevator accident and incident where your mother was barged down the steps at the baseball game while she was pregnant with you were early attempts to kill her," she said her voice ragged with emotion.
"You knew this?" my voice sounded cold but my eyes said something different I felt the fury rising within me.
"Only on his death bed. He confessed it all." Anger flashed in Camelia's eyes echoing mine. "I could not believe how far his obsession with our bloodline went."
"Bloodlines what do you mean by that?"
"Nothing for you to worry about," Camelia said hastily a little too hastily.
"That can't be the only reason?"
Camelia took a deep breath. "My father tried again to kill your mother," Camelia held up me hand to forestall any of my questions, "things between us seemed to have calmed down a bit for a few years. Then Frank announced that Veronica was pregnant. She suddenly got sick and had a miscarriage," Camelia paused several tears trickled down me cheeks, "we thought her illness caused the miscarriage but she had been poisoned."
I leapt from the couch my cheeks flushed and my fists clenched. "What!" I screamed.
"Please calm down," Camelia begged me, "whispers at court carried the rumour that your mother deliberately aborted the baby. We traced it back to my father. Unfortunately by that time my relationship with Veronica had soured so much that I believed that it was true." She gestured to me to sit down waiting until I had sat before continuing. "Frank, Veronica and Constantine knew the truth. I closed my mind to it but Constantine opened my eyes. Then your family left." Camelia sat for a moment the pain in her voice mirrored the pain in her face as she thought about what she had done.
I had to admit my parents had cut me off from all knowledge that I had an aunt and cousin. The reason why was now clear. "You knew my mother had been poisoned?" I tried to keep my voice calm and level but inside I boiled with rage. Yet I wasn't angry with Camelia. I knew what she was telling me was the truth.
"Not at first," there was an odd catch in Camelia's voice, "Constantine helped me see the light. He was everything I wanted in a man, kind, thoughtful and always thinking of others. Because of him I learned to look for meanings beyond face value." Camelia began to cry tears streamed down her face. "Oh Constantine. I loved you so much," she took a deep breath and her sobs subsided, "and he loved me in return. That's why I married him when he asked me." Camelia looked distant as if trying to find a happier time in her mind.
I felt incredulous. "You married the emperor. When?"
"A few years after Frank had left. It was a secret wedding. Victor never approved."
"Victor?" I hadn't heard of anyone called Victor. I'd never paid any attention to the Terran Empire yet my father had to have some plan in mind otherwise I would have never learned to speak Terran.
"Constantine's father. I guess he knew about my father's imperial ambitions. He tried to have the marriage annulled and forced me to marry Richard Broaden."
"Hang on you were still married to Constantine isn't that against Terran law?" I remembered the court scandal of a few months ago. Then that was a mistake.
The couple involved had married without checking if their respective spouses were dead. The Usurper had many high-ranking nobles killed or imprisoned. There had been much confusion and the couple had married only to find their spouses alive and well and living on a colony world they had been deported to.
"That's why when I married Richard we married in Utah. The laws about having more than one wife or husband had never been repealed. It meant I could still be married to Constantine."
"And what did your father think?" I asked unsure of how to respond properly. It seemed to me that Camelia wanted to talk to me about it. I guess she hadn't the time to mourn Constantine properly.
"If he had known I was married to Constantine he would have been delighted. I never told him. After what I found out about him I'm glad I never did," she paused, "of course Victor was furious that we had defied him. In revenge he named the Usurper as Constantine's successor. Saying that any child between Constantine and me would never ascend the throne. "
"That explains why the Usurper took control. Surely when Constantine would have repealed this when he took the throne?"
"He was going to."
I felt confused it wasn't hard to see why since Terran politics seemed so complex. "So how did the Usurper do it?"
Camelia sighed. "That was our fault more than anything. We both wanted to protect Ellie from palace intrigue until she was old enough to deal with it."
There were still many things that had me puzzled. "And all this happened while you were married to Richard Broaden?"
"Understand that although we shared a bed for propriety we never went any further than that," Camelia halted conflicted emotions played over her face, "I love Richard as a brother for that. He never complained or took anyone else to his bed."
"He was gay?" I said that rather too bluntly.
Anger flashed in Camelia's eyes. "He never was!"
"Ok sorry I didn't mean to be so blunt." I apologised, my runaway mouth and me again.
"It was that he was never interested in sex. Oh he had his hobbies. His main concern was for those he ruled. Mars has always been a troubled dukedom ever since the Corporate Wars."
I had read about the Corporate Wars in passing. It wasn't like I had much else I could do, that and training with the local marine garrison the only thing that gave me a hint of home. "The Martian War when a number of greedy corporations tried to take control of the Martian Colony?" I remembered reading about that. The then governor of Mars a Charlotte Turner had tried to broker a peace deal and was crippled for her efforts. I hadn't finished the book so I couldn't comment on the outcome.
"Good Sandra at least you are learning about your heritage."
I frowned at that annoyed with Camelia and Ellie although I suspected that it had been Camelia who had instigated it. "What possessed Ellie to lump that title on me. I never wanted it!"
"Sandra you are the Duchess of Mars. Don't deny your heritage. Duchess of Mars isn't a title easily deposed of. With it comes great responsibility. I wouldn't let Richard's legacy go to some stranger. I trust you will do the best for Mars as Richard did."
I knew Camelia wasn't going to be moved over this. "I guess I owe it to Ellie to do my best but I don't know even where to start."
"That's why I've appointed an able administrator to oversee your dukedom. He's from Mars and Richard trusted him implicitly."
I gave up trying to get Camelia to change her mind. I turned back to the original subject. "Why did Richard keep silent that Ellie wasn't his child. I know you never told Ellie that Constantine was her father until recently?"
"Love and loyalty. Richard was very loyal to Constantine. There was a rumour that Richard was Victor's illegitimate son but blood tests disproved that theory. Unlike the rumours that Ellie wasn't Constantine's." Camelia scowled. "Did you have to punch Count of Mozambique. I heard not only did you break his jaw you put his body guard in hospital."
"I'm not sorry about that. I was defending Ellie's honour." I felt more than justified doing that.
"So you say or was the real reason that you found out that those people calling you the Grey Lady was slur rather than a badge of honour."
It was my turn to scowl. "I really thought it was because I like to wear grey rather than for what it turned out to be." I was really angry when I learned the truth. Some little bitch had called me that not because I like grey clothing but because she seemed to think I was neither one thing nor another. I guess my rage was because she was probably correct. I was torn between worlds with my love for the Confederacy and my birth on Earth.
Camelia again took my hands in hers. "Not one of us believes that's true you are home."
"This is were you belong and let no one tell you different."
"So why is my heart with the Confederacy." I wanted to leave this place and go home.
"I understand your conflict better than you think. You were brought up in the Confederacy and that was where you lived but your real home was here. In my case I was with Richard for Constantine's sake but I really should have been at Constantine's side." Another tear trickled down her face. "I could have stopped all this and Constantine would still be alive."
"More than likely you would have been dead and Ellie along with you," we both knew I was speaking the truth, "and the Rhosani would rule enslaving all."
Camelia shuddered. "That was so true."
"One thing puzzles me was why you didn't go and say you where married to Constantine when he became emperor?"
"You've had a taste of palace politics. Constantine wasn't so certain of his position to be able to do that. There were many rivals but the Usurper killed off or exiled most of those. While I was in love with Constantine we couldn't forget Richard. He would have gladly stepped aside for Constantine."
"So why didn't he?"
"He became ill, I know I checked to see if he had been poisoned but his illness was natural and despite all we could do he knew he was dying. We both knew he was ill and it was Richard's desire that I remained with him until the end. For his loyalty to Constantine I honoured his request."
"So when he died why still keep it secret?"
"Again palace politics. All those around Constantine thought I was his mistress but they never knew the truth, which would have been a bigger scandal. So we waited until an appropriate time had passed after Richard's death before announcing the truth. That was our intention but things happened so fast."
"Where did Ellie fit into all this and why keep it secret from her all this time?"
"The court would have torn her apart."
"Not while I'm around," I said hotly.
"Not physically like that. You Sandra are the one that likes to use your fists."
"They certainly don't do it again." Most of the court nobles avoided me, which suited me fine. I was more comfortable around soldiers.
"Oh Sandra I do despair sometimes."
"I am a soldier so I apply a soldier's solution." Which as far as I was concerned was what I was. I'm not a duchess or some noble the sooner all learned that the sooner they would leave me alone.
"You are more that that and it is time you learned." Camelia released her hold of my hands and swiftly changed subjects staring hard at her own. "We decided that Ellie should see something of the universe so when the expedition came up we sent her with it. Our thought was to give her some life experience before she returned home." Camelia paused and looked at me intently. "I'm glad you found her and saved her," she sounded hopeful.
"I wasn't quick enough to save her friend," bitterness coloured my words. Had I known what was happening I would have reacted quicker.
"You did your best in limited circumstances. That's the all I could ever say about that. For Ellie's sake I want to draw a veil over the whole incident. We should move on. The Usurper has made a real mess of everything. It's taking us longer than we had first thought to put things right."
"The Rhosani are still out there. A danger to both the Confederacy and the Empire." I tried to argue my point. The Guardians had made it abundantly clear I was their weapon against the Rhosani.
"We aren't ready to take on the Rhosani. We're barely holding our own against the Commonwealth."
"Then at least let me help there!" I hated the Orsini with a vengeance my mind on my father's murder at the hands of the Orsini. The peace he had tried to broker broken before it began. At least I was no longer susceptible to the horrific nightmares that had led to my drunken downfall. That was the only good thing the Guardians had done to me. They had made me into a living weapon and a flawed on that that. What use was I as a weapon when every time I used it I passed out making me an easy target. Thankfully Ellie and Camelia had been there to protect me even if that meant I had ended up stuck on Earth.
"You know I can't do that. Until the line of succession has been re-established you will remain the third in line for the throne."
"You mean until Ellie has a child." I sounded sarcastic and hadn't meant to but the situation seemed so ridiculous to me. The only way I would get out of this was if Ellie was to have a baby and then I would be free. Yet I did wonder if Camelia would let me go that easily.
"Sandra!" Camelia spoke sharply and stood up. "Go back to bed!" she strode to the door, "I do mean that Sandra!" Camelia turned, "otherwise I'll get Ellie to cancel your trips to the Santa Anna Base."
I fumed as the door closed knowing all too well that Camelia would carry out her threat. Still angry I turned to the running machine in the corner of my apartment and powered it on. As I ran a holographic image of a forested path surrounded me. An hour or so running would burn off my frustration.
Camelia's first visit was to her daughter. Ellie still dressed in her silk slip was seated on her bed in the opulent state apartment that was her bedroom with the image of Venus rising out of sea as the mural on the ceiling. The same room Sandra had spent time in when she had collapsed after defeat the Rhosani in the throne room. Dr Lessing hovered close to her she stiffened on seeing Camelia.
"You should be sleeping." Camelia said to Ellie and nodded to Dr Lessing who took the hint and left.
"I will in a moment. Yet every time I close my eyes I see Jeanne's dead face staring back at me."
"Do you not think it's the same with me? I see Constantine's face in my dreams. I try to focus on the happy times, as you should be doing. You couldn't save Jeanne and I couldn't save Constantine."
"Will I ever be rid of them. These nightmares?"
"In time, in time," Camelia responded, "Sandra's healing has started but she has along way to go."
"I do worry about her. We have placed a heavy burden on her. I know she doesn't want any of this." Ellie gave her mother a look. "You were gone long?"
"Sandra wanted to talk."
"You didn't tell her…" Ellie's voice trailed off there were a number of topics both Camelia and Ellis had agreed that Sandra was not to be told. Even going as far as to edit any news from the Confederacy.
"I told her the truth about her mother and father and my failure. But I didn't tell her she is still being hunted by the Rhosani I can't do that."
"Because you know that she'll try to take them on." Ellie suddenly sounded wiser than her looks belied.
"We're far from ready to confront the Rhosani," Camelia glanced at her daughter, "how are the Ezarans getting on with the modifications to the Jakarta?"
"They've finished on the main gun and are working on the engines and shields. We should be on schedule for a test at the end of the month."
"Good. Now please get some rest. I know you've had a traumatic experience but you should get your rest. You diary is rather full for the next few days."
"I know mother," Ellie grimaced at the thought, "I was thinking of sending Sandra in my place."
"Heaven forbid! You don't use a sledgehammer to crack a walnut. You remember the last time Sandra intervened she chased the minister of public works around the conference room with a chair."
"I'm well aware of Sandra's short comings. But her attitude to some of my so called advisors has brought the rest into line." Ellie slid off the bed and pulled back the covers. "See mother I'm getting into bed." She settled down. "Good night mother."
Camelia watched her daughter fall asleep. She blew her a kiss and left glad that her daughter hadn't put up with the sacrifices she had made. With that she headed back to her apartment.