A novel set in the Culture universe created by Iain M. Banks

Second Attempt

[tight beam, M8, tra. @n4.29.313.1017]
  xGCU xGCU Partial Arbitrage
    oGSV Neat Solution Overall
One of my crew had a surprisingly good idea on where we might find this elusive Trista Hy-Golten. [Report attached.]

[tight beam, M8, tra. @n4.29.313.1017+]
  xGSV Neat Solution Overall
    oGCU Partial Arbitrage
Hmm, a very interesting thought. Colour me impressed. Please convey my congratulations to Ms. Fremtahl.
Do you have any idea when you might get one of your humans into this Brunanburh place?


Within the next forty hours. Mr. Lemahr deserves a little more R&R before I hustle him off, I think.
All this may yet come to naught, of course. Perhaps you would consider holding off on any further reports to your Special Circumstances friends until I have a result, one way or the other?


I will consider it, as you request.
Good luck to you and your crew.


Thanks. More to follow.

*

Folkiss Lemahr had not known Lizzat Fremtahl before she had joined the crew of the Partial Arbitrage, some five years before the detour that had taken them to the planet known as Epsilona in search of Trista Hy-Golten. Fremtahl had been a long-term member of the complement of the ship when Lemahr came aboard, after the General Contact Unit had rendezvoused with the GSV Neat Solution Overall.

They had fallen for each other almost the instant they had been introduced at the inevitable let's-meet-the-newbies ice-breaking party. Such parties, according to a long-established Contact tradition, began very shortly after the GCU had been waved off by the General Service Vehicle it was leaving when, generally speaking, a substantial fraction of the larger ship's passengers would turn out to offer good wishes to the departing vessel.

Their relationship had moved from cordial friendliness to passionate sex in an astonishingly short period of time, even by the demanding standards of the Culture. Now, years later, they were still passionate lovers, but their intimacy and affection for each other had deepened into a deep and genuine friendship and an honest-to-goodness love affair.

Nowadays, they of course spent as much time as they could in one another's company, tolerating patiently those - sometimes lengthy - periods when one or another was away on Contact business and communication was necessarily intermittent, sporadic and generally long-distance. They genuinely missed one another and immersive conversations via neural net were nowhere near enough to compensate.

"So when will Folkiss have to depart?" Fremtahl asked the ship, suddenly sounding rather downcast.

"Weeelll," the disembodied voice of the Partial Arbitrage replied, "I am under a certain amount of pressure from my Contact colleagues, especially those with some contacts in Special Circumstances, for some result in this search."

"So how long have we got?" Lemahr pressed, taking both of her hands in his own.

"How about a day or two?" the ship suggested, "The Neat Solution Overall was impressed by Lizzat's suggestion, so I can parlay that into a little more R&R."

Fremtahl beamed at the compliment.

"Well, I guess we'd better make the most," she purred, licking her lips, "Of the few hours of recreation we have left to us."

*

This time the module had deposited Lemahr on another sunny hillside, in a quiet field dotted with pens and enclosures made from large dry stones, intended to contain grazing animals which were cultivated more for their furry coverings than for meat. The invisible craft silently opened its door allowing him to step down onto the grass, then closed equally quietly behind him. The faintest of breezes indicated the craft had left, powering its way back to orbit and a rendezvous with the Partial Arbitrage.

The clear morning air afforded Lemahr a splendid view of the walls and gates and buildings of Brunanburh, all now quite familiar to him through the maps and recordings had displayed for him, in between the times when his attention was entirely given over to Lizzat Fremtahl. The town walls were tucked into a crook of the river with gates leading down to the docks and to the stone-built bridge which led to the grassy common land known as Bankfield where everybody, regardless of their wealth or status, could bring their animals to take advantage of the summer grazing for three days a year.

Within the walls, he could make out the shambling bulk of the castle on its mound, as well as the newer monuments which were the Guildhall and the Merchant's Chambers; without, the ancient pile which was the Monastery of the Brothers Thewall was the most obvious landmark. The market square was clearly visible, as were most of the major thoroughfares; he knew that the maze of alleys and cut-throughs whose details were printed on his brain would be invisible from here and, in some cases, difficult to detect when actually inside them.

Lemahr was approaching from the south, following a trail used infrequently by pack animals and their minders down the hillside, heading for Brun Hamlet Gate. The path cut into the edge of a thick forest; the leaves on the trees were fresh and glossy, glinting in the sunshine. Woodcutters and charcoal burners were hard at work in the ancient woodlands, judging by the sounds of axe and saw, and the occasional smell of burning. In places, thorny runners from creeping plants were doing their best to cover the winding trail and he had to use his staff to push through.

The pack trail joined a larger road furrowed with the passage of many carts and carriages. There was much more traffic on this route and he nodded a polite greeting to several walkers and waggoners travelling in the other direction. Eventually, he approached Brun Hamlet Gate, which was nothing special: just enough to keep out night-time marauders rather than being a serious deterrent to an invading army.

~I've arrived, he sent via his neural lace.

~So I can see, the voice of the Partial Arbitrage replied.

~Here goes. Let's hope for better luck this time.

~Good luck. I'll be watching out for you.

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