Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Vanished Princess

The princess was missing, presumed dead. There was no sign of a body. There also had been no sign of any ransom demands. The planet of Noiterianas was in a highly volatile sector. It was assumed that some neighboring world was planning to take advantage of the situation. Therefore, they had called in me, John Talltree, to find the killer.

Princess of Noiterianas was a nominal title left in place by the empire, which really ruled the planet. Nonetheless, she had considerable loyalty from the people. This princess, Goiderous Ferpius Bernmus IV, was still young, the older members of the family having been killed in the imperial takeover. It had been thought politic to leave her with a title but little real power.

The planet of Noiterianas was a water world, generously dotted with islands but with no real continents. The inhabitants resembled nothing so much as a jellyfish with legs and were equally at home on land and in the water. I had brought my underwater gear, just in case.

The governor, Xerwas, was an amphibian who looked like a fish with legs. "Where was the princess last seen?" I asked him.

"She left her dwelling early in the morning," he said. "Her servants remember her leaving. She said she was going to the official audience hall. We allowed her to hear requests from the people, though we carefully controlled what was actually granted. The hall was only three streets down, and as far as we know she never arrived. Those are busy streets, but even after repeated appeals no one has come forward to admit to seeing anything."

"Would they have recognized the princess?"

"She was frequently on the vid and was well known. But she was not highly recognizable, and she never wore her regalia outside the audience hall. I think an inattentive person could have walked right past her and not noticed. At least no one has claimed to have seen her."

I took my issued aircar to the princess's dwelling. But on the way I drove over the streets in question. They were certainly crowded, with aircar traffic above (the streets were intended to limit the aircars to specific routes) and pedestrian traffic below. I might have to check again early in the morning.

The major domo of the household was an older Noiterianasian named Keras Poufatius. "Of course she was here that morning," he said. "I do not see why you insist on asking the same question over and over."

"Did you see her?" I asked.

"Yes, I see to it that her breakfast is properly brought in and if there is anything else she needs. I saw her go out the door. Do you think I am lax in doing my job?"

"Did you notice anything out of the ordinary?"

"Not a thing."

The cook, Yardes Faswer, seemed broader than was normal for a Noiterianasian. "I have said once and I have said a thousand times," he remarked, "I made her breakfast and brought it out to her. I did not actually see her go out the door, but she said she was walking over to the audience hall."

"Did you notice anything out of the ordinary?"

"No, why should there be?"

The maid, Vordis Qerus, was tall and thin, even more than even usual for a female Nioterianasian. "Why do you imperial flunkies disturb me with more questions?" she said. "Do you not see I have my work to do? I saw the mistress when she got up that morning, but did not see her leave the house. But it is obvious she is not still here."

"Did you see anything out of the ordinary?" I asked.

"Everything was just as normal."

The princess's air car driver, Purtius Latima, was tall for a male. "I do my job," he said. "I went down and asked my lady whether she had need of the aircar. She said no, she preferred to walk. I saw her go out the door. Why do we keep rehearsing this over and over?"

"Was there anything out of the ordinary?" I asked.

"Not that I saw."

I went over to the audience hall and talked to Opiuhis Lundris, the door keeper. "I come in every morning when the hall is open before the ruler gets here," he explained. "I unlock the doors and make sure everything is prepared for His or Her Majesty. I have done this my whole life for a number of rulers. But that morning I waited and no one came, so I notified the imperial authorities. I am pleased to see you are taking this seriously enough to investigate."

Reighis Qwerutes was the head of the princess's honor guard. "We were in the main hall, just waiting," he said. "We were already getting nervous when we were informed the princess was missing. Tell me, is there any hope she is still alive?"

"Nobody seems to think so," I responded.

"That is a shame. She was the last of the direct line. They will probably find a distant relative to replace her, but I do not know who."

Trailing suspects is not my specialty. And trailing someone on a water planet is even more difficult. But sometimes you have got to do what you have to do. I stuck carefully to the shadows until we reached a deserted beach. Then I turned on the switch on my water belt and followed him in. The water belt creates a forcefield to keep the water out and the air in. Shame it is not strong enough to do the same for a blaster bolt. By God's providence we were in the shallows, which meant I could hide behind rocks and seaweed. In the open sea it is almost impossible to follow someone without being noticed. A large sea creature passed over my head as I crouched among the seaweed. But it was eating the seaweed and therefore was probably not interested in me.

Finally we came to a group of underwater houses on stilts. They looked like a row of giant mushrooms. There was an opening in the bottom that my quarry plunged in through. I waited for a few minutes, pulled my blaster, and swam up after him.

In one corner of the room was Keras Poufatius. In the other was seated a Noiterianasian female. "Princess Goiderous Ferpius Bernmus IV, I presume," I stated.

"How did you know?" she replied.

"All your house servants were uniformly hostile. I could believe one, possibly two, were traitors or simply had abrasive personalities, but not all of them. So the simplest solution was that they were supporting you and following your orders. So what are you doing here?"

"I am aware of what your empire does to planets - grabs their resources and enslaves their people. And I knew that I had no power to resist it. But empires are temporary; they fall apart over time. I have every confidence that one day we will be free again. But I could not preside over the destruction of my people. So I decided to go into hiding. Now I suppose you will drag me back."

I had prayed long and hard about this. I still do not know if I did the right thing. Certainly, if word ever got back to Central, they would have my head. They would say a free princess was a possible rallying point for rebellion. And they would be right. But sometimes you have to serve God rather than men. "I came here to find a murderer," I said. "I see no murderers here." Then I exited back into the sea. 

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