Sheska's ordinary morning is interrupted by a run in with a very strange pickpocket.
She paused at the gate. It was a relic of Mars's ancient history, when the city-states had warred over water and arable land, before unification under the Technocrat’s ancestors. Sheska showed her identification badge, which she had put in her pocket before coming over.
"What's your business this sol?" The spear and shield held by a bored-looking guard were as ceremonial as the old gate, though Sheska had no doubt the guard had more modern body-armor under his robe, and a radio headset built into his helmet.
"Sheska Squires with a message for the Technocrat or his family, from Ambassador Hughes. The Ambassador asked me to deliver it to the Technocrat’s hands, or to one of the Royal Family, personally."
The guard nodded. "The Technocrat is out of the city on business," he explained, using the spear to lean on. "The princes have been in and out all week, but the Lady Trisha is in her solar."
Sheska bowed -- just enough to be poilte. "Thank you."
"I'll summon an escort for you," the guard said, twisting his head slightly to speak into what had to be a hidden microphone in his helmet.
Sheska turned away, noticing motion out of the corner of her eye. A workman was directing a couple of robots in refurbishing one of the bas reliefs on the outer walls. It was a mural of the Solar System, each planet carved from the rust-red stone native to the area, and then adorned with paints from tanks on the robots. Earth was a brilliant blue against the stone, with Luna set next to her in tarnished silver. Mars had been left unpainted, but polished to the same finish as the other planets, and dark pinpricks set to either side for Phobos and Deimos.
She watched as the robots touched up the clouds of Earth, and one start on the bands of Jupiter, when she heard the sound of a woman's throat clearing. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said, almost without thinking about it, and turned to face the newcomer.
The woman facing her was clearly of the noble class. She wore the same simply-cut robe that many Martians favored, but it was ornately adorned with beadwork around the collar and cuffs. Her hair was pulled back, prominently showing the slender antennae that were the most obvious difference between Martians and Earthlings, and secured with combs as black as her hair. There were iridescent feathers set in her hair, of some bird that Sheska didn’t recognize. The woman was frowning at Sheska, her brow furrowed. "The Royal Palace is not for gawking by ignorant alien tourists," she said.
"Oh, I'm with the Embassy," Sheska replied. "Just waiting for my escort so I can deliver a courier package inside." She held it up, clearly showing Ambassador Hughes's personal seal, alongside the globe-and-olive-branch seal of the United Nations of Earth.
The noblewoman sniffed, as if having even a working Earthling on the Palace premises were fouling the air. Sheska found herself frowning in return. She knew that there were some Martians who felt that any involvement with Earth would pollute their culture. One of her jobs was scanning the news broadcasts for the Ambassador's reports back to Earth. But, so far, all of the Martians she met, whether officially or just out on shopping trips in the city, had been nothing but kind to her.
Well, maybe the woman just didn't like her lollygagging around when she should be working. Sheska glanced over to see another guard approaching the one standing watch. "Well, that's probably my escort, ma'am. If I may take my leave."
The woman nodded, going back to watching the mural painters. Sheska turned to follow the guard, and tried not to trip over anyone else. This early in the morning, and with the Technocrat elsewhere, the palace was quiet. Sheska saw more guards, a few bureaucrats coming over from the Government House across the mall, and the occasional cleaning robot scouring the floor. One of the robots took to following the guard and her as they walked, buffing the floor to remove even the possible hint of footprints. Sheska struggled to check her boots without stopping. They looked mostly clean. There were traces of dust that had been pushed into the seams and that no amounts of polishing and cleaning would get out. But that was just what being on Mars was like.
They had arrived in a south-facing room, where the sweet smell of flowers suffused the hallway even before the guard keyed open the door. Sheska nodded. "This will only take a moment," she said. The guard nodded back and Sheska entered the Lady Trisha's solar.
The view of the red deserts below the mesa that the city was built on, framed in windows of clear glass, made the earthly plants that covered the room look a brilliant emerald green. Or rather, Sheska amended, many shades of green, from peridot to turquoise. Flowers sat among the leaves like little tropical birds hiding from the cold. The center of the room had a carved fountain, which made the dry air feel softer against Sheska's face. It also felt truly warm here, and she wanted to shed her coat, even for a moment.
The Lady Trisha went almost unnoticed, sitting on a stone bench with her back to the fountain, facing her plants. She was dressed in the Martian fashion, in a simple white robe belted across the waist, and her brown hair in a plain twist, but she still was clearly an Earthling. She was bent over her handheld computer display as Sheska entered, but glanced up almost immediately.
"Good morning, your Majesty," Sheska said.
"Good morning," Lady Trisha said flatly. Sheska frowned. She couldn't say she knew the Lady Trisha well, but the two or three other times she had met her, there had been a warm hello. On the other hand, those were at some reception or other, when she had greeted dozens of guests. Perhaps she was just having a bad sol -- or was homesick. The solar was a lovely replica of the best of Earth, but you could still feel the light gravity and thin air in the room. "Miss Squires from the Embassy, yes?"
"That's right." Sheska smiled. "I have a message from Ambassador Hughes. Top secret -- for the Technocrat or Crown Prince's eyes only. Can you see that one of them get this as soon as they get back?" She held out the packet. Really, she suspected that Lady Trisha herself and Prince Alphonse would know as soon as the Technocrat or Prince Edward read it, but those had been her instructions. Only four people could receive the information, and only two of those were authorized to open it.
Lady Trisha nodded as she took the package, setting it next to her. "Of course."
"Thank you, your Majesty." Sheska paused, before leaving. "Are you all right?" she asked, biting her tongue afterward.
"Well, you sounded a bit... oh, it's nothing." Sheska snapped to attention, trying to make up for her sudden informality. Dealing with royalty was hard and she really didn't want to screw up this job, after she had been so happy to get a posting off-world. "I thought you might be homesick, and, well, you're always welcome in the Embassy gardens as well. If you wanted a change of pace, I mean. They’re outside, so it’s mostly alpine and tundra plants, but..."
Lady Trisha paused, as if sorting out the fast blur of Sheska's words. "Thank you. Perhaps I will visit Ambassador Hughes later."
Sheska sighed, almost collapsing in relief before she remembered where she was. "I'll look forward to it." She bowed, because she figured you couldn't go wrong with a bow, then headed out as quickly as her inner sense of decorum, already badly bruised, would let her.
Sheska decided when she left the palace grounds that it would be a good idea to stop at her favorite bakery on the way back. She could bring some pastries in for the ambassador and his family, which would be a kindness, and have one for herself, which would be relaxing after making a fool of herself in front of the Lady Trisha. This early in the morning they would be fresh from the oven, crusty on the outside and steaming in the cold air when they were broken open. She could practically taste them as she walked, dry and flaky, and covered in something very much like honey.
To get there from the Central Mall, she had to veer off the main streets and into the maze of twisty little alleys, all alike, that made up some of the less trafficked parts of Cyndonia. Here you could feel the weight of years on the city, with houses and shops that had been occupied for millennia, patchworked in repairs. Her boots echoed on the cobbles as she walked, and she found herself paying very little attention, letting her feet carry themselves roughly south towards the bakery. In her head, she reviewed her other jobs for the sol as she walked.
Perhaps she should have paid attention to where she was going. She nearly ran into a Martian woman, not much younger than Sheska herself. "Oh, I'm sorry," Sheska said. The woman stood up, not really seeing Sheska other than to mumble an apology, and took off at a run.
Out of reflex at the running figure, Sheska checked her belt pouch to make sure the stranger hadn't been a pick-pocket. But she could still feel the weight of her identification, returned to her pouch after leaving the Palace, and her credit chip. "Huh," she said, and continued walking. It must just have been someone in a hurry to work and not a thief at all. Not that she wanted to see a pick-pocket, really. But, it would have been a bit of excitement to another boring sol on Mars, even if she'd probably end up losing her credit chip anyway as the thief got away.
She finally made it to the bakery, and had the assistant at the counter fill a bag with pastries for her, still hot from the oven. Sheska opened her belt pouch and fished out her credit chip for the clerk to scan and deduct from her account. "Is this going to be on the embassy's tab?" the clerk asked her.
"No, ma'am," Sheska replied. Even if some of them would go to the Hughes family, this was for her first. She wanted to take out a pastry and start eating right away, but it wouldn't be good to have sticky hands before she put her credit chip back in her pouch.
The clerk returned her credit chip and Sheska slipped it into her pocket instead of her belt pouch so she wouldn't have to free up her other hand, holding the shopping bag, to unzip it. Her hand brushed a folded piece of paper, one that shouldn’t be there -- she meticulously cleaned out her jacket pockets every night, and hadn’t put anything new until now.
Outside of the shop, she shoved the bag under her arm and took out the piece of paper. It was a cheap scrap of something, torn off from a larger sheet, and was addressed to Ambassador Hughes in Martian script. Inside was more of the same.
Sheska turned the note this way and that, but couldn't see a signature. The handwriting was neat, without noteworthy features, and the Martian was perfect -- either a native speaker, or someone who knew it at least as well as she did. It was possible that this was a prank, of course, or something more sinister. But she decided to take it to the Ambassador anyway, as something unusual. Even if it wasn't as it seemed, it was something that he should know about.