Mary Yellan was born and grew up in the fields of Agros, learning from childhood all of the skills of farming. Then, when she was older, she stayed by the sea a while; she soon left there. But it wasn't in either of these places, although they shaped her in their own ways, that she met the woman - the laughing woman, full of life and happiness and sadness all at once. That happened years later, in a bar on the other side of the galaxy.
"Erna's a dangerous place for a lady to be, Miss. 'Specially round here."
Mary kept her eyes trained on the door; she was waiting, with some apprehension, for Jem's return. Any moment now she expected him to come waltzing through the door, a smug grin on his face, to take her rocketing off somewhere else before his customers had realised that the ships he had sold them were, underneath their new coats of paint, rather similar to ones recently reported missing.
"Is that so?" she said distractedly.
The man who had taken it upon himself to come and warn her nodded. "Oh yes," he said solemnly. "There are pirates operating in these parts."
This made Mary pay more attention. "Pirates?" she asked sharply. "What sort of pirates?"
"Why, they've been a terrible trouble to us here recently. Stealing the merchant-men's stock and everything. Causing havoc with the local women." He blushed at the thought.
A memory stirred in Mary's mind, of Joss Merlyn and his crew luring low-level ships to come crashing down onto the planet, killing the survivors. "Have they hurt anyone?" she asked.
"Oh, well, not as such, Miss, but we're awful fearful that they will. Foreigners, you know. From the outer reaches. There's even rumours that there's a woman on board."
Mary thought of her own adventures with Jem, and it occurred to her that this man would be horrified beyond belief if he heard of them. Perhaps if she were in a slightly different situation, she would've challenged him on it, but she needed to keep a low profile for Jem's sake. Instead of saying anything, she smiled and sipped at her drink. She noticed her hand was shaking slightly; places like this always made her skittish.
The man noticed. "Are you alright, Miss? I haven't scared you too much with my talk of pirates, have I?"
Mary smiled, but it felt insincere, even to her. "Oh, no," she said. "I'm not easily frightened."
"Quite right, too."
Mary turned around in her seat. It was a woman talking, one of the nobles in the place, by the looks of it. She smiled down, something of mischief in her eyes.
"You shouldn't talk so light of it, Lady St Columb," the man said gravely. "What with them taking advantage of our girls and all."
Lady St Columb leaned on the table so that she could better talk to the man; Mary watched her ringlets swing in front of her face, Jem momentarily forgotten. "Is that so?" she asked, in a tone of faux-politeness cultivated carefully over many years. "I rather thought they were enjoying being taken advantage of, myself, but I suppose it's always possible that I've misread the situation entirely."
The man stared at her in open mouthed shock, and she seized the moment to take Mary's arm. "Come on," she said in a low voice. "I'll take you somewhere quieter. You mustn't mind the tales of the men here, really. They're just frustrated because their wives prefer the pirates to them. I think if you spent enough time here you'd understand why."
Mary protested weakly - she'd really got to wait for someone, she wasn't planning to stay long, but Lady St Columb waved them away.
"Nonsense. And if your friend was the one trying to sell my husband a repainted stolen ship, he's already left. Not everyone is quite as gullible as Harry, and he was foolish enough to try and resell a man his own property."
Mary felt a familiar sense of frustration rise within her. The lady caught her expression.
"Done this before, has he?" she asked casually. At this point, they reached her table, and she pulled a seat aside for Mary, who dutifully sat down.
"Yes," said Mary. "But I can catch up with him, if I find someone that will take me soon."
"And deprive me of your company? How inconsiderate of you. There's no need to leave quickly, anyway; I have a friend with a fast ship that'll allow you to stay an hour more, at least."
In any other situation Mary might've coldly refused and left to find her own way back to Jem. But there was something about this woman - something in her smile. The same thing, perhaps, that had attracted her to Jem - a sort of wildness, although in her it was reserved, tied down by something else, an awareness of duty unfulfilled, perhaps, or merely less of a need to explore far and wide, to get a rush from law-defying activities. So she agreed, and stayed where she was.
"What did that man call you? Lady -"
"St Columb," the woman said smoothly. "But I really insist that you call me Dona. It makes everything so much more cosy, don't you think?" A smile tugged at her lips. "I don't think I ever caught your name."
"Mary. It's Mary." Even as she said it, Mary was aware of the danger in giving her name away to a complete stranger, but the smile drew her in, and she found herself ignoring every warning that Jem had ever given her.
"Well then, Mary -" the smile grew wider - "tell me about yourself."
Now she became distrustful. She remembered a man met on the moors, long ago, whose manner had encouraged her to pour her heart out; she remembered his snarling face as he dragged her away from safety. "I don't think I should," she said warily.
"No? Well, that's probably for the best. I doubt the line of business you're in is entirely legal. And my husband - bless him - likes to think that he's an important member of the local law enforcement. How do you know I won't just go running to him after I've seduced you for information?"
A smile tugged at the corners of Mary's mouth. "Seduce me?" she said.
"Well, of course. Didn't you realise that was what I was doing?"
"I think you're joking."
"Hm." Dona acknowledged the accusation with a shrug. "You might be right. Still…" She leaned forward in her chair, elbows on the table, head resting on her hands. "Don't you want to know what drew me to you?"
"Go on," Mary said cautiously. She couldn't let herself trust this woman, no matter how appealing she might seem.
"There's a sort of defiance in your eyes, in the way you hold your chin up. I think you could stare down a man holding a gun to your head and he'd apologise."
Mary shook her head. "You've read me wrong. I'd be scared." She thought of that night, the blood on the floor, being dragged across the moors.
Dona hummed again. She picked up the drink that had been resting on the table and sipped at it, never looking away from Mary. "Then why," she said, "did you choose to take up with a cheating ship thief? There's a lot of risk in a job like that. And I doubt the sex appeal alone would be enough to convince you."
That caused Mary to pause. "I don't know." She remembered Dona's flippancy at the talk of pirates, her friend with the fast ship, and made a wild guess. "Why did you choose to take up with a pirate?"
Dona didn't even flinch. But there was something more serious in her eyes as she said, "Perhaps I'm trying to run away from myself."
"I've yet to find out. But don't you, sometimes, find some inexplicable dissatisfaction with your life that dogs you, no matter how hard you try to escape it? Maybe, to avoid it, you do some foolish, shameful thing. You hope with all your heart that by acting out you'll get a glimpse of what it means to live. And yet, there it is, that same dissatisfaction."
"Maybe you should travel," Mary suggested. A year ago, she'd never have thought it. A year ago, all she wanted was to head back home to the fields, even if there wasn't a place for her in her old house.
Dona shook her head and smiled; this time there was a sadness to it that Mary hadn't noticed before. "I'm too tied down to this place."
"By what? Your husband?"
She nodded. "And children. I have two: a boy - oh, he'll be marvellous, as marvellous as any mother thinks her son is going to be, as marvellous as any of the men here - and a girl. She's a silly thing, but I suppose it's cruel to mock her when it's a miracle that she'd be anything else in a place like this."
"You don't seem foolish to me."
"Well, you've only known me for less than an hour, so maybe you're not the best judge. You don't think my acquaintance with the most wanted man on the planet is foolish?"
"Only as foolish as travelling with a ship thief," Mary shot back. "I don't think either of us is in the position to judge."
"That's true," Dona mused. "That's very true. Perhaps, though, it gives us something in common." She looked Mary dead in the eyes. "Don't you think?"
"There are very few people I have anything in common with any more," Mary said quietly.
"Oh, come now, don't be like that."
"You're brooding. What happened? Something wonderfully gothic, I hope?"
"Gothic, maybe. But there was nothing wonderful about it." When she'd woken up after days lying unconscious and bruised, she'd been angry. Furious, even. Ready, despite her aunt's protests and the risk of further injury, to go downstairs and face Joss Merlyn. He was a monster, a dictator in his own home. She held no sympathy for him, even now. That didn't mean that she couldn't remember him pathetic, drunk, confessing his sins for her in some misplaced search for forgiveness. Or him dead on the floor of his house.
He'd been a fool to think he could be absolved of his crimes, and he'd been a fool to think he could survive making a deal with a man such as Francis Davy had been.
"How can you associate with pirates?" she asked. She hoped the question would distract Dona from her.
"How can you associate with a thief?" Dona shot back.
"No, but I mean - pirates do have a reputation for violence." She was thinking of the wreckers, not quite pirates but near enough, who had once lured only sea-ships to their doom, but had extended their work to the sky when ports were installed on that part of the planet; it was more dangerous, the crashes more explosive unless you could manoeuvre everything to just the right place, but maybe that was why they liked it. The added risk gave a wilder tint to their eyes.
"That's true," Dona conceded, "but fortunately for me these particular pirates happen to be of the honourable sort. Stealing from the rich to - well, stealing from the rich, at any rate. I'm not sure they've worked around to the other part yet." She smiled fondly. "Their enigmatic leader does, however, make a lovely soup. You should try it."
"You're sure he'll take me?"
"If I bat my eyelashes at him for long enough then yes." Dona leant forward on the table. "And I'm hoping that if I bat my eyelashes at you for long enough then you'll yield to my superior charms."
"And do what?"
Dona reached across to take Mary's hand. There were still old scars on it - she couldn't remember from where, maybe struggling across the moors, or something from her happy days and years of farming - and Mary flinched slightly when Dona's fingers brushed it. It was only a momentary reaction; she soon relaxed, and let herself enjoy the sensation of another's fingers playing across her palm.
"Whatever you want, darling," said Dona with a wink and a smile. Despite herself, despite the suspicion she felt, forced herself to feel, on any new acquaintance, Mary's heart fluttered. Always finding herself attracted to the wrong sort of people: a thief; a married woman who consorted with criminals. People who would be sure to get her in trouble.
"No strings attached," said Dona when she saw the expression on Mary's face change, thinking of her husband and her children and her pirate, all but the last inevitably tying her down to this place.
"No strings attached," Mary repeated back, only half-knowing what it meant but meaning it anyway; because of her dead parents, because of her dead aunt, because of a home lost for no reason except a change in herself.
"I know a place where we can have some more privacy," Dona told her.
Dona ended up batting her eyelashes at her pirate friend in a little under the hour promised. Mary could never remember his name, even after he'd introduced himself - in conversation with Dona he was always 'her friend', 'her pirate', like calling him anything else would create a gulf between two strangers, people who had never met before and really had nothing to tie them together, except for perhaps a dubiously similar taste in men and in each other.
Mary wasn't in love with Dona. She wasn't even sure if she was in love with Jem, and she'd known him for far longer. It wasn't like what they had could be called a relationship by any reasonable person.
Still, she could have been in love with Dona. Her wit, the way she spoke, was appealing, drawing Mary in; but she also felt something underneath, something that she couldn't quite put a name on. "Perhaps I'm trying to run away from myself." Dona's words stuck in her mind. Mary, on the other hand, wasn't trying to run away from herself; only her past. Seeing the ships crashing down, the murders of her aunt and uncle, being dragged across the moors by Francis Davy. The memories haunted her mind, waking and dreaming. After one of Joss' cronies had tried to rape her, it had been almost a year before the idea of being that close to Jem - or anyone else for that matter - stopped making her feel sick to her stomach. It was like a wound that would never quite heal - even the slightest of jolts would force the closed skin back open. Maybe she'd made the decision to go with Jem because she'd thought, subconsciously at least, that travel would help. It hadn't, but a large part of her now found the idea of returning to places of the past repulsive.
The pirate's ship was styled after the old sailing ships that Mary had sometimes seen rotting on the sea-shore near her uncle's inn, left there as technology advanced and more and more people stopped caring about the upkeep of such ancient things. It seemed Dona's friend had a taste for the old-fashioned. Of course, it couldn't be a perfect facsimile, given the added need for air in space, and the differing propulsion systems of a space-ship. He kept the sails, though. He claimed that it wouldn't look right without them.
True to Dona's word, the ship was surprisingly fast. Mary sat on the deck for the journey; after a while, Dona came to join her.
"I thought you'd be staying with your friend," Mary said.
Dona shrugged. "I can see my friend any time I want. You, however, I have only a limited amount of time left with." She sat down next to Mary and pulled herself closer, wrapping her arms around her companion.
"What did you mean earlier when you said 'no strings attached'?" Mary asked, her proximity to Dona focusing her mind onto their previous conversation.
"You mean you didn't know?" Dona asked, amused. "And yet you replied in kind. That's very trusting of you." She hesitated; Mary could hear her steady breaths, feel them as they fluttered the hair on the back of her head. "What I meant was - imagine, for a moment, that there are only two people in the world. You and me. We have no lovers, no reason to hesitate in whatever we choose to do. But once the moment is over, we return to being two strangers, free to move on with our lives and forget each other. It's very simple, really." She laughed. "And I think rather fanciful of me."
Mary didn't say anything. She watched the stars go by above them. Perhaps privately she agreed with Dona - it sounded like something out of the pages of a novel. But at the same time maybe she needed something fanciful, something to cheer her up.
Dona became quiet. She hummed slightly under her breath. Mary let herself melt into the sound, and they stayed like that for the rest of the journey.
In too short a time, they had caught up with Jem. He seemed relieved to see her, in his gruff way; there was no laughing, no embraces, with Jem Merlyn.
Dona said goodbye to her with a kiss. "It was nice meeting you, Mary," she said with a twinkle in her eye.
And soon after that the war began.
Really, they should have been prepared. There had been mumblings about danger in most places Mary and Jem had visited; minor conflicts, scraps over trade, moral arguments about the things being traded. But no-one had thought there would be a war. No-one ever did.
It was a mess that caught up nearly the whole system in alliances so convoluted that after it was all over there probably weren't many people who could figure out entirely what happened. At the end of the day, they made little difference: both sides had wanted land and control; both sides saw great destruction. And the people who won - the people who were now in charge of the entire system - had clamped down on government sanctioned slavery but turned a blind eye to the ships that scoured planets for people to kidnap, and which had seemingly doubled in number in the aftermath of the war.
Mary had - miraculously - managed to escape the whole thing relatively unscathed. She'd once more been separated from Jem, for much the same reason as before, but this time it hadn't been safe to catch a ride - movement between planets was, by law, extremely limited when the sky was peppered with the debris of people who had lost fights, and there wasn't anyone willing to risk legal action just to carry Mary somewhere. So she'd whiled away her time with a nervous young woman and her much older husband, immigrants to the particular outer reaches planet that she'd found herself on. Apparently some trouble at home had necessitated the move - she hadn't paid particular attention, mostly choosing to keep herself to herself, and they hadn't said much on the subject anyway. And when everything was over and an uneasy peace had settled, she said goodbye and set off in search of - something. She couldn't say quite what - Jem, maybe. She just knew she couldn't bear to sit still anymore.
Mary would never figure out what coincidence brought her to the exact same bar in Erna where she had met Dona three years earlier. Pirates were no longer plaguing the area - the war had played a part, as had the local authorities' eventual success in clamping down on their activities. Mysteriously, their arrested leader had managed to escape the prison on the day before his execution for the death of a man visiting from the city. No-one had managed to work out how he'd done it, but Mary gathered from a few resentful murmurings that Dona had been seen around the house where he was kept at the time.
"I always knew it was her," one man declared to Mary once he saw she was interested in the topic. He stared - very conspicuously - at her chest.
"No you didn't," his friend scoffed. "None of us did. It weren't till after she got caught for spying that any of us knew a bloody thing. Excuse my reaches speak, ma'am." He addressed this last remark to Mary.
Mary wanted to tell him that she'd heard much worse on her travels, but she bit her tongue. Instead, she asked, "Spying?"
"Yeah. It's the general feeling here, ma'am, that if it weren't for that damn - if it weren't for Lady St Columb, we would've done a bit better in the war."
"Might even've won!" His friend chimed in.
The man ignored him. "But it's alright, see, because she got her comeuppance for that. There's some here that think she could be punished more, but I'm a fair man. If you see what happened -"
He was cut off by the sound of the doors opening.
Mary could finish his sentence for him: "If you see what happened, you'll know what I mean." She got caught for spying. Mary sucked in a deep breath and tried to stop herself from trembling.
In the doorway stood Dona St Columb. A dark scar that barely missed her left eye crossed her face. It had never properly healed, and gave the impression that it could split apart the entire front of her head at any moment. One of her hands glinted in the sunlight; Mary guessed it was a replacement. There was a lot of demand for those nowadays. But her physical appearance wasn't the most shocking change. As Dona grew closer, Mary caught the look in her eyes. She could still remember the sadness in them before, and mingled with that the joy for life. Now they were just dead.
When Dona walked past her she stood up almost involuntarily. But what would she say to her? They'd met once, years ago. And once you'd gone through a horrible experience, whether it left scars on the outside or not, there was nothing anyone could say that wouldn't feel false. Mary knew that.
Dona slumped down at the bar and ordered a drink. Someone had left a newspaper there; she picked it up and began to flick through the pages. The front cover had an article about depowering the androids left after the war - 'androids', which implied artificial life rather than the near resurrection of the dead pioneered in the midst of fighting, was the accepted term now. Many people - including the writer - felt that it was unnatural to continue human life after death. These poor souls had died in the war, or not long before it, and they should be allowed to stay at rest. It occurred to Mary, as she read it from her position hovering at Dona's side, that no-one in this discussion had bothered to ask the 'poor souls' what they thought about being 'deactivated'.
Dona yanked down the newspaper, startling Mary out of her thoughts. "If you really want to read it," she said, "you could have asked me to give it to you, rather than standing so close by." There might have been a glimmer of recognition in her eyes; Mary couldn't tell.
"Hello," she tried. "Do you remember me?" She sat down next to Dona.
Dona turned over a leaf of the paper. "It's funny," she said, "the disconnect between using such an impressive piece of technology -" here she waved her right hand - "to handle something so primitive." She flapped the paper. "But then again, this has always been a place that firmly believed in tradition, and everything that that implies. I had to call a man from off world to fix my hand up."
She finally turned to Mary. "Does it sound ridiculous that I missed you?" There was a flicker of a smile on her lips.
"What about your pirate?"
"He had other business during the war."
"He…" Dona paused. "When I was uncovered, he was really very sorry at what was happening - I could tell, he was, and shocked too, that his wife could do such a thing - but he didn't do anything to stop it. He told me that everything would be alright if I just confessed, he practically begged me to confess because he hated seeing me in pain. Unfortunately for him, I've always been stubborn. Then he died fighting. Brave enough to defend his homeland; not brave enough to defend his wife. I suppose it takes different types of strength to do either. I've been forgiven, you know, by the new government, but nobody trusts a spy, not even after an official pardon. My children were taken away after Harry died. So if you're thinking how extraordinarily ridiculous it is of me to miss a woman who I've only met once in my life, the truth is that I have nothing else left."
"I -" Mary hesitated, knowing she couldn't say 'I'm sorry', couldn't apologise for whatever horrible things had happened -"I wish I could do something to help."
"You're here. That's more than anyone else is. And please - don't tell me that your coming here was a coincidence. I'd much rather think that you sought me out on purpose." Dona's drink arrived, and she took a moment to taste it. She made a face. "This bar has always made terrible beer. I don't know why I bother anymore. What happened to your thief?"
"We got separated," Mary said, and left it at that. Dona let her.
"I need to get off this damn planet," she muttered to herself.
An idea occurred to Mary. "I have a ship," she said.
Dona looked up. "You do?" she asked. She seemed surprised, like she hadn't expected anyone to be listening to what she'd said.
"The Mary Anne. It's how I got here. There were people I stayed with, on the outer reaches, during the war. They gave me it. It's a bit patchy - a while ago there was some accident with it, don't ask me what because I don't know - but it could get us away."
"You're asking me to come with you?"
Mary hesitated. But she knew the necessity of leaving the places of the past behind you. "Yes."
"Well." Dona thought for a while. "You've lost your thief, I've lost my pirate. We could go looking for them." She glanced at Mary, and again there was that hint of a smile. "And have some fun along the way. I'm sure I can still remember how to enjoy myself, if I have you to help jog my memory." Hope was in her voice now. Cautious hope, but hope nevertheless.
"We can go straight away," said Mary. "After you've paid for your drink, that is." A memory came to her. "No strings attached?"
Dona dug around in her pocket for money, which she gave to the man behind the bar. "I don't have any strings left," she said. "Nothing to forget for the moment I'm with you." She tilted her head, sizing Mary up, admiring her. "So I think I can afford to make some new ties."
She stood up unsteadily and offered Mary her arm. Mary took it without hesitation and, together, they left the bar.