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What Distant Deeps: Chapter Two
Last updated: Wednesday, May 12, 2010 19:30 EDT
The Bantry Estate, Cinnabar
“You’re not one for small talk, are you, Mundy?” said Bernis Sand. She tapped the bottle. “Help yourself to the whiskey.”
“No,” said Adele, “I’m not. And I expect the sun to rise in the east tomorrow, if you choose to discuss the obvious.”
Adele had known she was in a bad humor, but she hadn’t been aware of exactly how bad it was until she heard herself. Despite that, she took the bottle and poured a half-thimbleful into the glass. After swirling the liquor around, she filled the glass from the carafe.
It was what she’d done in the years when the water where she lived wasn’t safe to drink. The liquor wasn’t safe either, of course, but in small doses it would kill bacteria without being immediately dangerous to a human being.
It wasn’t precisely an insult to treat Mistress Sand’s whiskey that way. But it wasn’t precisely not an insult, either.
Adele took a sip. Very calmly, Sand said, “What’s wrong, Mundy? The last mission?”
Adele set the glass down. She swallowed, trying to rid herself of the sourness which — she smiled — was in her mind, not her mouth.
“I’m sorry, mistress,” she said. “I –”
She paused, wondering how to phrase it without being further insulting. The things other people said or did would always give room to take offense, if you were of a mind to take offense. Therefore the fault wasn’t in the other people.
“Yes, I suppose it was the most recent mission, the battle above Cacique at least,” Adele said. “It affected me more than I would have expected.”
“Your ship was badly hit,” said Sand as Adele paused to drink. “I understand that it will probably be scrapped instead of being rebuilt. You could easily have been killed.”
Adele smiled faintly and refilled the glass with water. Her mouth was terribly dry. When she laughed, the ribs on her lower right side still ached from where a bullet had hit her years ago on Dunbar’s World. Fortunately, she didn’t laugh very often.
“I’m not afraid of being killed, mistress,” Adele said, meeting the spymaster’s eyes over the rim of her glass. “I haven’t changed that much.”
“Go on, then,” Sand said quietly. She was a stocky woman on the wrong side of middle age. In the brown tweed suit she wore at present, she could easily have passed for one of the country squires Adele had seen with Daniel on the sea front.
Mistress Sand had been more important to the survival of Cinnabar in its struggle with the much larger Alliance than any cabinet minister or admiral in the RCN. What Adele saw in the older woman’s eyes now were intelligence and strength . . . and fatigue as boundless as the Matrix through which starships sailed.
“Debris flew around inside the ship after the missile hit us,” Adele said. “A piece of it struck Daniel — that is, Captain Leary –”
Sand flicked her hands in dismissal of the thought. “Daniel,” she said. “This isn’t a formal report. It’s two old acquaintances talking. Two friends, I’d like to think.”
“Yes,” said Adele. “Debris struck Daniel in the head.”
She raised the carafe, but her hand was trembling so she quickly put it back. Sand reached past and filled the glass.
“It cracked his helmet and gave him a concussion, but the injuries weren’t life threatening,” Adele said. “If it had struck an inch lower, however, it would have broken his neck. Severed it, like enough. That would have been beyond the Medicomp or any human efforts to repair. And I don’t believe in gods.”
“An RCN officer’s duties are often dangerous,” Sand said, carefully neutral. Adele realized that the spymaster still didn’t understand the problem. Sand was afraid of saying the wrong thing — and equally afraid of seeming uninterested if she didn’t say anything. “That might have happened to any of you.”
“Yes,” said Adele, “exactly. Whereas I’d been thinking — feeling, I suppose — that it might happen to all of us. That is, if a missile hit our ship, we would all be killed. That event, that incident, proved that there might well be a future in which Daniel was dead and I was alive.”
She took her glass in both hands and drained it again. This wasn’t coming out well, but she wasn’t sure there was a better way to put it.
“Mistress,” Adele said, “I’ve built a comfortable life. Rebuilt one, perhaps. The RCN is a family which accepts and even appreciates me. The Sissies, the spacers whom I’ve served with, they’re closer than I would ever have been with my sister Agatha in another life.”
In a life in which two soldiers hadn’t cut off Agatha’s ten-year-old head with their belt knives and turned it in for the reward.
“And Daniel himself . . . ,” Adele said. She didn’t know how to go on. She hadn’t expected this conversation. She hadn’t expected of ever to have this conversation. It was obvious that she was in worse shape than she had imagined only a few moments ago.
It was less obvious to see how she was going to get out of her present straits.
Adele felt her lips rise in an unexpected smile. The RCN prided itself that its personnel could learn through on-the-job training. No doubt life would prove amenable to the same techniques by which Adele had learned to be an efficient signals officer.
“There’s no one like Daniel,” Adele said simply. “I don’t mean ‘no one better than Daniel,’ though in some ways that’s probably true. But my entire present life is built around the existence of Daniel Leary. I would rather die than start over from where I was when I was sixteen and lost my first family.”
Mistress Sand sighed. “I have my work, Mundy,” she said. “And my –”
Her face went coldly blank, then broke into an embarrassed grin. “I may as well be honest,” Sand said. “I have my children. That’s how I think of them.”
With a hint of challenge she said, “That’s how I think of you.”
“I wasn’t a notably filial child when I was sixteen,” Adele said. “Perhaps I’ll do better with the advantage of age.”
Sand laughed and pushed the bottle another finger’s breadth across the table. From her waistcoat she took a mother-of-pearl snuffbox. She sifted some of the contents from it into the seam of her left thumb closed against her fingers.
Adele poured two ounces of whiskey and sipped it neat. It was a short drink but a real one, and an apology for her previous behavior.
“You were wondering why I wanted to see you,” Sand said. Her eyes were on her snuffbox as she snapped it closed. “Are you ready to go off-planet again, do you think?”
“Yes,” said Adele. She’d considered the question from the moment she’d been summoned to this meeting, so she spoke without the embroidery others might have put around the answer.
Sand pinched her right nostril shut and snorted, then switched nostrils and repeated the process. She dusted the last crumbs of snuff from her hands, then sneezed violently into her handkerchief. She looked up with a smile.
“There’s a Senatorial election due in four months, perhaps even sooner if the Speaker fancies his chances,” she said. “All the parties will attempt to use Captain Leary. He’s a genuine war hero and, shall we say, impetuous enough that he might be maneuvered into blurting something useful.”
“Yes,” Adele repeated, waiting.
“That would be a matter of academic import to me,” Sand continued, “were it not for the fact that Leary’s close friend is one of my most valued assets, and that asset would become involved also.”
Sand cleared her throat. “Do you suppose Captain Leary would be willing to undertake a charter in his private yacht to deliver the new Cinnabar Commissioner to Zenobia?”
Adele set her data unit on the table and brought it live. Sand knew her too well to take the action as an insult, but that wouldn’t have mattered: Adele had done it with no more volition than she breathed. If asked whether she would prefer to be without breath or without information, she would have said there was little to choose from.
“I had understood . . . ,” she said as her fingers made the control wands dance. She found the wands quicker than other input devices — and so they were, for her. Adele used them as she did her pistol, at the capacity of the machine. “That Daniel was to be kept on full pay despite the fact that the Milton is scheduled to be broken up.”
“That’s correct,” Sand said, pouring herself another tumbler of whiskey. She controlled her reactions very well, but Adele could tell that the older woman was more relaxed than she had been since Adele entered the room. “The officers and crew will serve as members of the RCN –”
Sand used the insider’s term instead of referring to “the Navy.”
“– but as a matter of courtesy to the Alliance, they will be in civilian dress while in Zenobian territory, and their ship will be a civilian charter rather than a warship.”
Adele smiled slightly as she flicked through the holographic images which her data unit displayed. Common spacers generally wore loose-fitting garments, whether their ship was a merchant vessel or a warship — of the RCN, the Alliance Fleet, or one of the galaxy’s smaller navies. The colors were all drab, but the particular hue depended on where the fabric had been dyed rather than who was wearing it. If they were worn by Power Room crew, lubricant and finely divided metal had turned them a dirty black.
Officers wore RCN utilities on shipboard duty. For most of the crew, utilities were dress uniform — and formed the base for liberty suits.
“A voyage to Zenobia will certainly keep the brave Captain Leary out of the political arena for a suitable period of time,” Adele said dryly as she skimmed information on Zenobia. There were specialist databases — virtually every database on Cinnabar was open to a combination of Adele’s skill and the software which Mistress Sand had supplied — but it scarcely seemed necessary here. Unless the readily available material — which included the Sailing Directions for the Qaboosh Region, published by Navy House — was wildly wrong, Zenobia had no depth to go into.
“Yes,” said Sand. “It fits that criterion amply, since it’s a sixty-day run for merchant vessels.”
She smiled wryly and added, “I have no doubt that you’ll tell me that Captain Leary can better that estimate, Mundy. Nonetheless, the distance justifies our hero being absent for as long as the campaign season requires.”
“Any RCN vessel could better the estimate, I suspect, Mistress,” Adele said, hearing a touch of asperity in her tone. She smiled, amused to realize that she had become just as protective of the honor of the RCN as she was that of the Mundys of Chatsworth. “It’s as much a factor of the larger crews of a naval vessel as it is of the much higher level of astrogation training to be expected of the officers.”
“I bow to your greater experience in the matter, Mundy,” said Sand. Adele wondered if the older woman would have been less amenable to the pedantry if she weren’t so relieved to be past the awkward scene with which the interview had opened.
Clearing her throat, Sand continued, “Zenobia is typical of the Qaboosh Region, meaning it’s of no particular account. Both we and the Alliance have tributaries and a naval base there, but the region is such a backwater that both parties chose to ignore it during the recent hostilities. Sending a real fighting squadron to the Qaboosh would have wasted strength which was needed closer to home.”
“Is Zenobia an Alliance possession?” Adele said, scrolling rapidly through data without finding the answer she wanted. “It appears to be one, but there shouldn’t be a Cinnabar Commissioner if it were.”
“Zenobia is technically independent, with a Council and an executive — the Founder — elected for life by that Council,” Sand said. “Foreign policy and realistically everything more important than the level of the food subsidy for Calvary, the only real city, is in the hands of an Alliance Resident. I suspect that if the Resident cared about the food subsidy, he could change that also.”
Adele nodded, her eyes on her own data streams. Now that she knew what she was looking for, she found considerable detail.
“You’re probably wondering why we even have a Commissioner on Zenobia,” Sand said. She tapped the bottle forward again, but Adele was absorbed in her information gathering.
“Not at all,” Adele said, more curtly than she would have done if her intellect hadn’t been focused in other directions. “A good quarter of the region’s spacers appear to be from Rougmont, one of our client worlds. I suspect very few of them are actually Cinnabar citizens, but based on what I’ve noticed on the fringes of civilization, most will claim to be Cinnabar citizens when they’re jailed for being drunk and disorderly. Their normal state when they’ve been paid upon landfall.”
A Resident was a senior official in the Cinnabar’s Ministry of External Affairs. He or she directed the local leaders of worlds which were Friends of Cinnabar: that is, tribute-paying members of the Cinnabar Empire.
Not that anybody put it that way. Those who did were promptly imprisoned for Insulting the Republic.
“Ah,” Adele said with more satisfaction than most people would have packed into that simple syllable. “I was wondering why I wasn’t finding more evidence of piracy. Our ally, the Principality of Palmyra, patrols the region and appears to do a very good job of it.”
Her lip quirked in a wry smile. She said, “It would seem that they do a better job than dedicated anti-pirate squadrons in other regions, whether mounted by us or by the Alliance.”
“Just for my curiosity, Mundy . . . ,” Mistress Sand said. Despite her attempt to seem casual, her eyes had narrowed slightly. “How do you determine the effectiveness of the patrols? Do you have Admiralty Court records in your computer?”
Adele laughed. “I could get them from database in Navy House,” she said. “Or for that matter from the duplicate set that the Ministry of Justice is supposed to keep. I doubt if they’d tell me much, though. Our own patrols are rumored to take shortcuts when dealing with pirates, and the Palmyrenes certainly do.”
She met Sand’s eyes for the first time since she’d brought up her data unit. “It’s much simpler,” she said with a cold grin, “to check insurance rates for the region. They’re as low as those for the Cinnabar-Blanchefleur route.”
Sand laughed ruefully. “Rather than say, ‘Oh, that’s simple,’ I’ll note that the mind which went directly to that source wasn’t simple at all,” she said. “And yes, Palmyra has nominally been a Cinnabar ally for several generations, though that’s basically been a matter of the Autocrators choosing a policy which is in keeping with the aims of the Republic. Palmyra has become a major trading power — the trading power in its region, certainly — and has put down piracy for its own ends.”
Adele collapsed her holographic display to meet the spymaster’s eyes directly. “Is Palmyra my objective, mistress?” she said.
Sand placed her hands palm-down on the scarred leather tabletop and laughed. “You’ve just demonstrated the limits of logic, Mundy,” she said. “You know there’s a reason I’d be asking you to go to the Qaboosh Region, and the only thing of even moderate significance in the region is the Principality of Palmyra, on whose intentions you’ve noticed that my information is strikingly scanty. Not so?”
“You’re correct,” Adele said with clipped tones. The humor of it struck her. She didn’t laugh, but her lips formed a self-mocking grin.
“Arrogance is the claim of greater power, here in the form of knowledge, than one actually has,” she said. “You’re quite right to bring me up short when I display arrogance.”
Sand looked at her in appraisal. “Sorry, Mundy,” she said. “You give me too much credit: I was priding myself on having finally beaten someone who regularly runs circles around me. And it was a trick, because there was no way you would have known that Guarantor Porra’s favorite of the past three years was Lady Posthuma Belisande.”
Adele’s smile reformed itself into tight, triumphant lines. Her display sprang to life.
“A relative of the present Founder of Zenobia,” she said. Her wands flickered further. “The younger sister of Founder Hergo Belisande, twenty-four standard years old. Called Posy, although I don’t know when that datum was gathered. It might be embarrassing to greet the lady by a nickname she’d last heard when she was eight.”
Adele shrank her display again. She said, “You said Belisande was, rather than that she has been, Porra’s mistress for the past three years. The relationship has ended?”
“So we understand,” said Mistress Sand. “Officially the lady is visiting relatives on Zenobia, but it’s generally understood that she isn’t expected to return. That she’s expected not to return, in fact — though some of that may be put around by rivals.”
Adele’s eyes narrowed. “Do you expect her to confide in me?” she said, trying to restrain the irritation that threatened to sharpen her tone. “Because I have no skill whatever at Human Intelligence, mistress. I have no skill at human relationships, one might say.”
“My thought was that electronic security on Zenobia would be a great deal less sophisticated than it was on Pleasaunce,” Sand said calmly. “While there’s no evidence that the lady will be writing her memoirs, I’m confident that you will be able to penetrate all her files in short order.”
Adele grimaced. “Sorry,” she said. “I’ve been on edge. As you know.”
The room held three waist-high bookcases, one against each wall; the door took the place of the fourth. Two of the six hinged glass fronts had been replaced by wooden panels. Those must have been lovely when waxed and buffed, but they hadn’t received any care in decades.
The shelved books were standard sets of the classics, published in the second and third centuries after society on Cinnabar had begun to rebound from the thousand-year Hiatus in interstellar travel. Old learning had been assembled and reprinted in lovely editions. Every prominent landholder and every tradesman with pretensions to culture had sets just like these.
Adele had seen scores of similar collections when she haunted the libraries of her parents’ friends before going off to Blythe to finish her education. Most of them, like these at Bantry, appeared to have remained unopened throughout their long existence.
Any unique items — journals from the settlement, handwritten memoirs; perhaps a list of flora and fauna by one of the first Learys to settle at Bantry — had been removed from this collection. They were probably in Xenos if they existed at all. How would Corder Leary react to a request from Lady Adele Mundy to view his library?
Adele’s smile was terrible in its cold precision. Her honor didn’t require her to seek out Speaker Leary. If by some mutually bad luck she met him, she would shoot him dead unless his guards shot her first. She would bet on herself there: she had a great deal of experience in shooting people.
“I . . . ,” said Mistress Sand and stopped. Adele would have thought that Sand had forgotten what she intended to say had she not kept her eyes focused on Adele’s. Sand finished the whiskey in her glass, poured another four ounces, and drank half of it. Adele waited.
“You’re wrong about lacking skill in manipulating people, Mundy,” Sand said as she lowered the glass. “You’re remarkably good at it, simply by being yourself. I don’t think you appreciate how powerful an effect absolutely fearless honesty has on ordinary people.”
She smiled, but the expression was unreadable.
“It’s something many of them will never have encountered before, you see,” Sand added.
Adele grimaced; the conversation was making her uncomfortable. “I’m afraid of many things, mistress,” she said. “And it’s easier to tell the truth than to lie.”
“Of course it is,” said Sand. “If you’re not afraid of what other people will think. That’s where the rest of us run into problems, even –”
She paused to drain her tumbler in two quick gulps. She wasn’t doing justice to what Adele supposed was very good liquor.
“– when we’ve been drinking more than perhaps we should be.”
Sand shrugged. She looked at the bottle but placed her hands flat on the table instead. “Regardless, I won’t ask you to use a talent that makes you uncomfortable. Not unless the safety of the Republic requires it.”
Sand didn’t move except to tremble from the effort with which she pressed down on the leather. She seemed — not right. Adele was used to people showing emotion, but it was a new experience to see Mistress Sand showing emotion. Adele disliked it in the spymaster even more than she did in others.
“You know I’ll use up my assets if the Republic requires it,” Sand said. “You do know that, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course,” Adele said. She paused, then went on, “There are twenty rounds in the magazine of my pistol.”
She tapped her left tunic pocket.
“They wouldn’t be of any use to me if I weren’t willing to expend them.”
“That doesn’t bother you?” Sand demanded. Her face sagged into a lopsided smile. “I suppose it doesn’t at that. You understood it from the beginning, when I first approached you; so of course you’re not going to complain about a choice you made willingly. You wouldn’t.”
Adele said nothing. She realized, not for the first time, that anger was a common human response because it was a comfortable one. The mood in which she’d started this interview was much easier to bear than quietly listening to Mistress Sand say things that Adele would rather not hear. She could solve the problem by hurling the water pitcher to the floor and storming out of the room . . . .
She smiled. “Easy” had never been the major criterion for her decisions.
Sand shook her head slowly. She took out the snuff box again, but instead of opening it she raised her eyes.
“Sorry, Mundy,” she said. Her voice was normal again. “I realize there’s no need for me to say anything, not to you; but I started this, so I’ll finish it. I expect you to extract whatever useful information Posy Belisande has. I expect you to considerably expand my information on Palmyra and on anything else in the Qaboosh Region which is material to the Republic of Cinnabar. This is a real mission.”
Though she was obviously trying to seem cheerful, the impression Adele got from Sand’s sudden smile was sadness. She said, “Mundy, we — the Republic — are as much at peace as it’s possible for an entity of our size to be. If I thought it would do any good, I’d suggest you take a research fellowship in Novy Sverdlovsk. Captain Leary would make a splendid Naval Attaché at our embassy there, I’m sure. I didn’t think that would work out, however.”
Adele felt the corner of her mouth twitch in the direction of a grin. “No,” she said. “I don’t think it would. For either Daniel or for me.”
Sand nodded agreement; she was relaxing again. “It appeared to me, however,” she said, “that this business in Zenobia might be a useful stage for you both — for servants of the Republic like yourselves — to transition from the business in the Montserrat Stars back to normal life.”
“Thank you, mistress,” Adele said as she rose. “I appreciate your . . . .”
She paused, searching for the way to phrase what she wanted to say.
“I appreciate your intelligent concern.”
Sand remained seated. Adele made a slight bow, then turned to the door. As she reached for the latch, she heard a shot in the near distance.
Adele was striding down the hallway in the next heartbeat, her left hand dropping to her pocket. Tovera led with a miniature sub-machine gun openly displayed in her right hand. There was another shot from outside, toward the sea front.
The trouble with normal life, Adele thought, is that it doesn’t stay normal for very long.
Daniel felt his eyes narrow slightly as he looked past Peterleigh’s ear to watch the group centered on Chuckie Platt some twenty yards north up the seafront. Peterleigh was giving a full discussion of the formal garden he was building at Boltway Manor, complete with a grotto populated with — fake — crystalline formations which were meant to suggest petrified trolls.
“Just like they’d been touched by sunlight and turned to stone, don’t you know?” Peterleigh burbled. It was the sort of fashionable nonsense that would have bored Daniel to tears if he hadn’t had Platt and Lieutenant Cory to worry about. Both young men held dueling pistols.
Peterleigh said, “Of course, that’s where the paradox is that you need for real art. They’re underground in the grotto, don’t you know, so the light couldn’t have touched them! That’s a paradox!”
Platt was aiming out to sea. His body was edge-on, making a single line with his outstretched right arm; his lift arm was rigidly akimbo as though he were executing a ballet posture.
“I don’t see what you mean by a paradox,” Broma said, scowling. He sounded as bored with the description as Daniel felt. “Isn’t a troll a bloody paradox enough? They’re not real, so they’re a paradox.”
Platt fired; his right forearm lifted straight up with the recoil. The whack! of the hypersonic osmium pellet accelerating down the barrel made the others around Daniel jump. The birds overhead screamed, chattered, or croaked, depending on their species.
Waldmiller snarled, “Hofmann, what’s your boy playing at, hey?”
“Don’t call him my boy,” Hofmann muttered. He hunched over his mug of ale and didn’t meet the older landowner’s eyes. “He’s Bertie’s boy and she insisted on bringing him. I swear by all the gods, Leary –”
He looked up in abject misery.
“– I didn’t think he’d want to come. And when he said he did, I said maybe we ought all to stay home, but Bertie insisted because she’d heard Lady Mundy was going to be here. And now it looks like she was wrong about that, but here we are with Chuckie anyway!”
Daniel didn’t bother to inform Hofmann that Adele had arrived — but with the rest of the Sissies instead of in the private aircar that he and his wife were apparently expecting. The Bantry tenants knew of Adele as the Squire’s friend. It hadn’t occurred to Daniel that Bertie Hofmann was from Xenos and would hope to scrape acquaintance with Mundy of Chatsworth.
“I think it’d be just as well if your son put those pistols away for the time being, Hofmann,” he said. “There’s a lot of people here. And some of them have been drinking, of course.”
Cory fired. They were shooting out to sea, presumably at bobbing flotsam. Spray fountained only twenty feet from the base of the sea wall; Cory had let his muzzle dip as he pulled the trigger.
Platt hooted and called in a loud voice, “Why, you weren’t within a mile! Not a mile! What wets you navy men turn out to be!”
The coils wrapping the barrel generated an electromagnetic flux which ionized the pellet’s aluminum driving band. The plasma hung in the air, a quivering paleness which faded as it stripped electrons from the atmosphere and returned to steady state.
One of the effete servants was loading the pistols; the other held the case for him as a table. Platt had taken the gallon jug.
“Oh, he won’t listen to me,” Hofmann mumbled. “I may as well save my breath.”
Platt laid the jug on the crook of his elbow to lift it, then drank. He passed the liquor to the man on his right. There were about a dozen people in the group, none of them as old as twenty-five.
Cazelet was one of them. Daniel supposed he and Cory had joined a youth whom they knew only as someone of their own age and class. The sons and daughters of a few Bantry tenants had drifted over also.
“I think then that I’ll have a word,” said Daniel, starting forward. He thought sourly about how much more easily he could handle matters aboard the Princess Cecile, but he knew this sort of business could occur in a military environment as well.
His Academy classmate Oudenarde had served as midshipman on a light cruiser whose captain allowed his pet Tertullian swamp monkey to wander freely on A Level. The animal’s career of rending, fouling and eating the possessions of the junior officers ended when it gobbled a package of aphrodisiacs which the Second Lieutenant had concealed among his socks.
Apparently the pills worked better on swamp monkeys than Daniel had ever known them to do with humans. The beast had been shot on the captain’s screamed orders while it made a very respectable job of buggering him through the trousers of his Dress Whites.
“I figure a wet like you hasn’t any business with a pretty bint,” said Platt, seizing the arm of the girl in a scarlet apron who’d been standing with Cory. She tried to pull away. “You don’t resent this, do you, navy boy?”
Platt grabbed a handful of the squealing girl’s hair and bent to kiss her.
“Cazelet, grab him!” Daniel shouted as he broke into a run.
Rene Cazelet wrapped his arms around Cory and dragged him back. Thank the gods he’d been smart enough to understand what Daniel understood but hadn’t adequately put in words. Cazelet touching Platt would have been just as bad as what Cory was lunging to do.
It was possible though unlikely that Cazelet was a better shot than Cory, but in either case RCN officers had to resign their commission in order to fight a duel. A hundred puffed-up bullies like Chuckie Platt weren’t worth the career, let alone the life, of an RCN engine wiper.
The girl scratched at Platt’s arm; his fist balled. Daniel knew he wouldn’t get there in time.
Adele slapped Platt’s left cheek. The boy straightened and cried, “What?”
“Sir,” said Adele, “you have insulted my friend, Mistress Maynor. You will apologize to her at once.”
The girl pulled herself free; Platt had forgotten her. Two of the male tenants helped her get clear but stayed to watch; the girl ran sobbing toward the huts.
“Who the bloody hell do you think you are?” said Platt, touching his cheek in amazement.
Daniel paused. This wasn’t what he’d wanted to happen, but it had happened — and the situation was certainly under control now.
Hofmann’s wife, gasping with emotion and the strain of running in a ridiculously tight dress, thrust herself between her son and Adele. “Chuckie, this is Lady Mundy!” she said. Her voice had a shrill edge that didn’t seem to belong with so fleshy a body. “What are you thinking of?”
Platt flung his mother aside with a sweep of his arm. She gave a despairing cry as she fell. He’s more drunk than I realized, Daniel thought. He’s wobbling on his feet.
Eyes locked on Adele’s, Platt repeated, “Who the hell –”
Hogg and Woetjans had the boy from behind. The complaints of people they’d knocked down added to the general bedlam.
“Think a swim’d sober him up, Six?” the bosun said, nodding toward the sea. She held Platt’s right arm straight up and was stepping on his foot to anchor it.
“Or there’s the old cesspool from before we cut the sewer through from the third row houses,” Hogg suggested in a gruffly hopeful voice.
“Dear gods, Leary,” Hofmann said. “Dear gods.”
Daniel had forgotten the fellow. He said, “You can –”
Hofmann bowed to Adele. “Lady Mundy,” he said, “I sincerely apologize for any offense my son may have given in his delirium. I was remiss, grossly remiss, in not keeping him at home when I knew how ill he was.”
Adele’s face changed, though Daniel didn’t know how he would have described the difference. Adele looked human again; he supposed that would do.
“Yes,” she said. “Home would be the best place for him. My colleagues –”
Her eyes flicked toward Hogg and Woetjans.
“– will help you put him in the car, if you don’t mind.”
“Yes, of course!” Hofmann said. “And I will apologize personally to Mistress Maynor in the place and manner you wish, your Ladyship.”
“A moment if you please, Hofmann,” Daniel said. Woetjans thumped to attention; even Hogg’s expression showed that he understood that there weren’t going to be any arguments now. “May I borrow these for a moment?”
Without waiting for Hofmann’s response — it was a blurted, “Yes, of course, anything!” when it came — Daniel lifted the pistol from the tray with his right hand and the one the servant had just finished reloading with his left. Holding each by the balance, butt forward, he turned toward Adele. She waited impassively.
“Adele?” he said. “There are two Dravidian Maws above us, the large pink birds. They’re an introduced species which I consider to be a nuisance. Would you please take care of it for me?”
He held out a pistol. Adele glanced at the raucously circling birds. Smiling faintly, she took the weapon in her left hand.
The Maws wobbled between a hundred and a hundred and fifty feet in the air, higher than most of the other birds. The bare skin of their wings was, as Daniel said, pinkish below, though the upper surface was opalescent and rather attractive in sunlight.
That was the birds’ only attractive aspect. Their heads were roughly the size of clenched fists and resembled beaked gargoyles, their call was as shrilly unpleasant of that of a tortured rabbit, and they spread their liquid green feces widely as they flew. One could scarcely ask for a better –
Adele presented her pistol and fired as part of the same motion. Spectators jumped at the shot; a few reflexively clapped their hands over their ears.
One of the birds had been over the sea. Its head vanished in a pink mist; the heavy body tumbled, motion making the wings flutter like unstayed sails. The bird splashed but did not immediately sink.
Adele tipped the butt of her pistol up; Daniel took it in his free hand as he offered her the loaded weapon. She held that one for a moment, judging the balance. The pistols should have been identical, but Daniel wasn’t going to try to tell his friend her business.
Some of the birds had scattered at the previous shot, but the remaining Maw continued its circle. It shrieked as it sailed over the sea wall, apparently in general peevishness. Adele presented and fired, her motion more like someone netting butterflies than anything lethal.
The bird’s skull splashed, though this time the lower half of the beak remained attached to the neck by a strip of skin. The throat sack filled like a parachute, halting the Maw in mid flight.
The bird dropped, spilling air and swelling again twice more before it hit the water; it floated within and arm’s length of its mate. The new splash drew some of the fish which had begun to nibble the previous carcass.
“Thank you, Adele,” Daniel said as he took the emptied pistol. He beamed at Platt.
The youth had stopped struggling. He stared at Adele, then turned gray and threw up. Hogg grinned to Woetjans. When they both let go, Platt toppled face-first into his own vomit.
Hogg elbowed one of the liveried servants. “I guess you two can get him to the car, right?” he said. “Do it now.”
The servants took their master by the arms, but they fumbled badly. Platt dropped to the ground again before they got him to his feet. They finally stumbled off in the direction of the aircar.
Daniel turned. He threw the pistol in his right hand as far into the sea as he could get it, then followed it with the other. He managed to get an additional three or four feet on the second throw. Fish, made hopeful by the Maw corpses, shivered toward the fresh disturbances.
“Very sorry about dropping the guns, Hofmann,” Daniel said. “I’ll pay you for them, of course.”
Hofmann was helping his wife to her feet. He looked over his shoulder toward Daniel. “I wouldn’t think of it, Leary,” he said. “It’s just another of the several favors you’ve done me this day.”
Then, to his wife, “Come along, Bertie. We have things to discuss when we get home.”
The landowners and Sand remained where they had been. Daniel gave them a quick, hard smile to show that all was well.
Bantries sidled away from Daniel and Adele, whispering to one another with a variety of expressions. Cazelet had headed for the hall, his arm around Cory’s shoulders.
Hogg and Woetjans were moving back also. That surprised Daniel until he realized that the gallon liquor jug had somehow vanished from sight.
They’ve earned a drink this day, he thought. He ostentatiously turned his back instead of peering more closely at his servant’s baggy tunic.
Adele was standing at his side. “I don’t know about you, Daniel,” she said quietly, “but I’m ready to leave Cinnabar for a place where the rules are simpler.”
“Yes,” said Daniel. “Though with the Peace of Rheims in effect, we can’t hope to find a war zone.”
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