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Stanton Harcourt – Turn 1

STANTON HARCOURT, FAMED Explorator and lion of the Rangar speaking circuit, smiled warmly as the small Brighampton Rooms audience politely applauded his concluding lecture. All in all, the talks had gone rather well. When he had been asked by the REC Council to carry out the program of lectures, the mood in Rangar regarding the proposed expedition to Galiche had been low indeed. Even members of the Council, such as the publicity-crazed Howard Zway, had been publicly decrying the REC's plans. Now, though, all such scoffers were quiet, and Stanton was sure that the mood of the audience at this, his last lecture, was far more favourable than it had been at the first. His amiable mix of anecdote, analysis and exposition had covered the whole subject of exploration rather successfully, he felt, and the various curios with which he had illustrated the talks had been very well received. How fortunate that nothing of note had been taken when Basin Place was broken into during his visit to Harcourt Towers! There had been no repetition of the incident since his return to Rangar, and the City Watch's investigating officer, Captain Greene, seemed to have lost interest in the case. With increasing violence in Rangar Port and the warehousing areas, the Watch no doubt had its hands full enough!

As Stanton tidied his exhibits away his mind drifted towards the open sea and the thrill of exploration. How pleasant it would be to be taking part in the expedition himself, to see once again the clear Galichean skies and hear the macaws shrieking from the treetops! He politely signed a few autographs for the four teenage girls who had eagerly occupied front seats during the whole series of lectures. There seemed to be a fifth girl today, though, and she proffered her piece of paper with a hand adorned with a black lace glove of familiar design - the twin to the glove Stanton had in his pocket! Startled, he jerked his head upwards to meet the girl's eyes, which were sparkling with an amusement unmalicious but perhaps a little patronizing. Her face seemed unusually broad, with high, pale, flat cheekbones and widely-spaced greenish eyes above a slightly retroussé nose. She was dressed in a shapeless round-necked black woollen gown. Stanton felt his mouth open foolishly and squeeze out a stammering 'Wh-who are you?' The girl raised her forefinger to her lips, leaving the piece of paper in his hand. Suddenly a hearty voice just behind Stanton's shoulder cried out 'Ah, Harcourt, a favourite with the ladies as ever, what?' Blushing, annoyed, he turned sharply round to see the pointed intelligent face of Equester Jaíme Paravane of the Royal Exploratory Commission Council, peering inquisitively forward.

'Now, my dear friend,' Paravane continued, 'I fear I must steal you away from your adoring public for a few moments - King's business, you know!' There was a swift rustling noise and the girl was gone. Stanton caught a brief glimpse of a flash of blackness moving through the departing crowd, but as he craned forward Paravane's pressure on his elbow increased.

'No, really, my dear fellow, I must congratulate you. Why, His Majesty is most impressed with your efforts in the aid of this expedition. He has granted you the honour of a private audience, tomorrow at two. A little bird tells me that honours may be in the offing - what of that, eh? No more than deserved, we say at the Council!' Jaíme Paravane continued to mumble urbanely as he smoothly steered the confused Stanton away towards the back of the hall, where Lal Pressman and Willem Barskin, two other Council members, could now be seen waving encouragingly to Stanton and brandishing brandy glasses. 'A little toast, what? To your success, my dear fellow, to your success!'

IT WAS NOT for two hours that Stanton was able to extricate himself from the company of the three REC Council members, and dusk was now approaching. It appeared, at least, that the lectures had indeed been successful. There were now nearly sixteen hundred volunteered colonists, including some from the skilled trades. The Church was still behind with its promised twenty Medarchs, but Pressman seemed to think that the Hierarch Duer would come through in a couple of weeks. Provisioning work had gone extremely well, and the colonists would want for little on their journey. The King had promised ten ships of the line to escort the fourteen colony vessels, which should be a sufficient force to scare off any Sib flotilla likely to try an attack. The whole atmosphere of enforced jollity rather grated on Stanton, though. Pressman's good wishes were genuine enough, the old fellow had always been a friend of his. But Willem Barskin was a cold enough fish normally, rarely to be heard uttering praise of anybody, and he counterfeited conviviality poorly. As for Paravane, he seemed to be laughing at a private joke of his own. All in all Stanton was glad to slip away, with the excuse that he had to see Wittenham Clumps before the hospital closed to visitors. Pressman had asked him to convey Wittenham his dearest regards, but neither of the others had made a similar request.

As Stanton stepped out into the chilly air, thrusting his hands into his pockets he found the piece of paper the mysterious girl had left him. Stopping by an early-lit street lamp, he eagerly smoothed it out. Written on the note, in a firm and regular hand, was the following:

Stanton reflexively glanced around him as he returned the piece of paper to his pocket. His mind was racing with excitement. An enemy? Grave danger? His friend? What could all this mean? Would it be wiser to attend the rendezvous, to ignore it, to tell the City Watch? Enough! He put the matter to the back of his mind and strode smartly onwards. His certain friend, Wittenham Clumps, was expecting him.

HE WAS ABLE to catch the Hierarch Chirurge at the doorway on her way out. She had good news to report, though. Wittenham Clumps was now sitting up, eating soft foods and conversing with some facility. It seemed that his brain was undamaged, although the fracture meant he was still heavily bandaged and would have to remain in bed for a further week at least. For a man of his age his recovery was remarkable, the Chirurge added: no doubt that could be ascribed to his active lifestyle. Why, Stanton himself had seen Wittenham throw off a bout of sand-fever inside three days when half the ship's company had been prostrate. Perhaps Doctor Fostulus would not now be required: in any case, the Hierarch Chirurge was happy enough for him to be called in if Stanton thought it desirable.

Thanking her and passing into the building, Stanton made his way to his old friend's room. Wittenham was still awake and delighted to see him. 'Good to behold your face again, my lad... sick to death of these confounded nurses flappin' around!' His voice was muffled by the bandaging but had most of its usual strength. Stanton took the chair at the bedside and the two companions were able to chat away comfortably enough.

Wittenham was unable to shed much light on the mysterious glove. 'She seemed to know who you were, or at least to know that I was not you - had a strange smile about her as I recall. Pretty enough, I'd say, but none too smartly dressed but for those gloves. Wouldn't say a thing, though, just that she wanted to see you and could I warn you she'd called. I asked your butler - whatsisname - and he said she'd come on foot, couldn't say from which direction. Naturally enough, I assumed she was some paramour of yours - eh? - you could do worse, on looks at least!'

It seemed that Clumps had been visited in the hospital by Captain Greene of the City Watch earlier in the day. 'Strange, as last time I saw him I had the impression he'd more or less given up! Wanted to know if I'd heard any strange noises, or seen bright lights, before the break-in. Told him I'd been asleep, but it was the window-glass cracking that woke me up. Never saw the fellow that hit me - must have been hiding behind the door! Puzzle, eh?' This curious news made Stanton even more determined to speak with Greene, perhaps early on the morrow, and with Heitman Kirkland if Greene was unhelpful. It was clear that the City Watch were not taking him into their confidence!

From the next room Stanton could hear a persistent muffled moaning. Clumps told him it was a very sad case. 'Old fellow, Medarch Lindstrom or something... ran into some thugs down by the Roaring Donkey, a little while ago now. Funny sort of place for a Medarch to be in the middle of the night, don't you think? Lucky to be alive, but it sounds like he mightn't last too much longer... depressing, eh?'

After a few minutes more of conversation, a nurse came into the room and looked meaningly at Stanton - visiting hours would be over for the day at eight, ten minutes away. He rose to his feet slowly, considering what to do. Should he tell Wittenham about the events of the afternoon? Tomorrow would be a busy day, with a Royal audience in the Legacy Palace at two: and what of tonight?


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