Episode 8 — The Jester's Distress Call

NeVaga receives an invitation from her uncle Valkolm to come to Cumulus Station. Valkoln Nolent greets NeVaga warmly, then gets down to business: he needs help from an outsider to Cumulus Station. Contraband is transiting through the station, but not through the Scravers Guild; he fears a Guild Member might be moonlighting and he wants discreet investigation. The Inquisition is beginning to sniff around the matter and the Guild does not want the Church on board the station. Interrogations of the Charioteers involved show they had no knowledge that their ships were being used for smuggling. The contraband merchandise usually consists of drugs, portable goods, etc., and comes from various systems, including Byzantium Secundus itself.

The Inquisition has arrested a stevedore from Cumulus Station, Thadross Marv of the Muster Guild, and made him disappear; Valkoln asks NeVaga to obtain Lady Masseri's help in investigating and keeping the spotlight off the Guild. He wants the operation stopped for good, but if possible would also like to learn how it was done.

Meanwhile Aquilegia receives a request for an audience from the Imperial jester, a Gannock named Stukeneneer, on a matter of some discretion. After a pleasant but meaningless conversation, Aquilegia invites Stukeneneer out for a meal at a low-key restaurant. At the end of the meal, he passes her a note asking for help; his family is being threatened and he is afraid of going to anyone. In addition are two more notes written on cheap paper in what may be blood, ordering him to tell no one and be ready for contact.

After they part company, Aquilegia checks society columns and gossip to find out more about Stukeneneer and Gannocks in general. He is unusual among Gannocks for even being away from his family (which is still on Bannockburn); he has no known friends although he is well-known and considered amusing. When NeVaga returns, Aquilegia tells her the story, shows her the notes and asks for help in investigating. NeVaga agrees in exchange for help in investigating the Cumulus Station contraband ring.

Aquilegia then contacts Bishop Demijanik and asks her to find out how she could gain access to the suspect (Thadross Marv) which was taken by the Inquisition. She spends the remainder of her time examining the information available on the smuggling ring. The contraband is all material that is not particularly extravagant, but is profitable - power cells, power equipment, medical supplies, intoxicants, drugs, proscribed holovids - things that would either be proscribed for general use or heavily taxed.

NeVaga asks Valkoln to have the threat notes discreetly analyzed; the ink is Gannock blood, several months old, written on paper made from plants native to Bannockburn. She then investigates who would have access to Stukeneneer's quarters (a large number of servants and officials); but three maids, 15 security people, a valet, and a cook are the most likely candidates to have had access to Stukeneneer's quarters.

Bishop Demijanik sends what she has been able to find on the Inquisition's investigation of the smuggling ring: Thadros Marv was arrested by an Avestite Inquisitor and has been sent to Pyre for trial, for trafficking in contraband goods - specifically untaxed holovids of "Stan and Stultzy" - as part of a current investigation of contraband goods being smuggled into Byzantium Secundus. He was remanded to the Inquisitorial court on Pyre for interrogation and trial.

NeVaga investigates the background of the various palace personnel and finally identifies one as a promising lead: a maid, Xanna Hamilton, who has in recent months taken a few unusual trips to Veredian University. Moreover, her brother Ravi is a member of the Muster posted on Bannockburn. NeVaga has to wait for a couple of days until Xanna finally has a day off and ventures outside the palace to run errands. NeVaga inconspicuously follows Xanna around but notices no one skulking or watching, and Xanna's activities are wholly mundane.

Aquilegia asks NeVaga to stage a scene with street urchins robbing Xanna, so she can come to the rescue and have an excuse to talk to the maid. She takes her to sit and have some tea, and after some conversation and a good deal of effort, Aquilegia gains Xanna's timid confidence: the maid passes a note saying: "help me they have my brother." It is getting late so Aquilegia lets the maid go back to her post.

Next, Aquilegia speaks to Sir Thoktika'a to ask for her opinion or a suggestion of trustworthy authority to take this to. He advises her to pursue this on Bannockburn, and agrees to watch over Stukeneneer and Xanna while she is gone. Aquilegia discreetly leaves a note for the Gannock to let him know where she is going, and manages to meet Xanna again. She learns that Xanna has received threats from Muster Manager Karlson, telling her that unless she obeyed his instructions, her brother Ravi would be posted on Stigmata and never seen again. She has to visit Veredian University every couple of months to receive her orders. On two occasions, she was given notes to leave in Stukeneneer's quarters; she did as she was told and did not read the notes. Aquilegia instructs her to memorize or copy any future notes and pass them to Sir Thoktika'a while she is gone.

NeVaga visit Valkoln Nolent on Cumulus Station again and informs him that her charge is about to leave for Bannockburn; he had mentioned some time ago that he had goods he wished to move unobtrusively under cover of Lady Masseri's travels. He gives NeVaga a phial of clear liquid, enjoining her not to let it be found or damaged. It must be taken to Criticorum, where an Ukar will approach with the phrase "Gund dashedi myr tant" ("Fire rains on our enemies"); NeVaga must answer with "Bont tavi kormig rivga Sukara" ("Let our swords send their broken spirits to the judgement of Sukara.") Finally, he refuses to disclose the contents though he says they are instantly lethal, but he warns NeVaga that if Aquilegia should ever discover the nature of the contents, one of them must die.

On Byzantium Secundus, Aquilegia visits Sergeant Jake Wilkinson of the Muster, to ask him what he knows of Manager Karlson. She learns that the man is a Slaver of pretty high level, though not the kind of man likely to have put this scheme together; Wilkinson dislikes him intensely and would be happy at a chance to let him get what he deserves.

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