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In The Stormy Red Sky: Chapter Twelve

       Last updated: Friday, March 13, 2009 01:03 EDT



Hegemony Harbor on Karst

    Daniel hadn’t changed out of his Whites when he reached the Milton. There’d have been time and his Grays were technically sufficient as well as being more comfortable and practical, but it was just possible that the greater formality would help when he met the Hydriotes shortly.

    “Captain Leary!” said Senator Forbes, storming past the Marines at the bridge hatchway. They didn’t so much admit her as ignore her presence the way they did air flowing through the ship’s environmental system. “Instead of dealing with this insult to the Republic, you’ve given the crew liberty! I want you to take me back to Cinnabar at once. At once, do you hear?”

    “Your Excellency,” Daniel said, rising politely from the command console. Forbes had changed in her compartment; Senatorial robes and the buskins she wore with them were impossible in the tight confines of a warship.

    Robinson–still in his 1st Class uniform–had followed the Senator with tight lips and a worried grimace. The poor fellow was between a rock and a hard place: sure he would either offend either his great-aunt or his captain. He’d demonstrated in the Angouleme Palace that he was an RCN officer first, but he wouldn’t have any better idea of Daniel’s plans than the Senator did. And certainly if you didn’t know where those plans were going, the first stage–calling Vesey from the aircar and telling her to give the starboard watch three hours liberty–must look so perverse as to be insane if it weren’t instead treasonous.

    Daniel glanced around him. Rather than key the intercom, he raised his voice and said, “Clear the bridge! Only Senator Forbes and Officer Mundy are to remain. Move it, spacers!”

    The RCN personnel, Robinson included, reacted immediately. Borries looked as though he might have said something, but Vesey gripped him firmly by the shoulder as she went past and turned him toward the hatch.

    “What’s this?” said Forbes, startled but no longer evidently furious.

    Rather than answer her, Daniel said in a much harsher tone, “Hogg, that means you and Tovera too. Out, and close the hatch behind you.”

    Hogg shrugged and obeyed. Tovera gave Daniel a sardonic grin as she followed, or anyway he thought she did. It’s generally a mistake to anthropomorphize the behavior of reptiles, though. Regardless, Hogg closed the hatch as directed.

    “Your Excellency,” Daniel said, “this is between the three of us as Cinnabar citizens. I apologize in advance for any seeming discourtesy. If I didn’t respect you, you wouldn’t be here.”

    Adele had rotated the seat of her console so that she faced him and Forbes in the center of the compartment. Her eyes were on the display of the little data unit in her lap, however.

    “Leary,” said the Senator, “I know your reputation. If you try to manipulate me, I’ll make it my life’s work to have you executed by Bill of Attainder. Even if I have to wait for your father’s death to do it!”

    “Yes, ma’am,” said Daniel. He smiled faintly. “With that understood, I’ll proceed with the briefing.”

    Forbes’ threat was a warning. Corder Leary wasn’t the sort to wait for an enemy to do something overt. Nor was Hogg, which was the main reason Daniel had sent his servant off the bridge.

    “We’re still taking on supplies,” Daniel explained. He thought of suggesting that they both sit down like Adele, but this wasn’t quite the time. “We could lift without them, but that would look like panic–and we’d be short of fresh fruits and vegetables for the voyage home.”

    He gestured to the astrogation display on the console behind him. “Waiting to complete loading will only take six hours,” he said, “and I’ll venture to shave six hours off any other astrogator’s time to Cinnabar orbit. Giving the crew a short liberty demonstrates to the wogs–”

    He chose the slur carefully.

    “–and particularly to Captain Greathouse that the RCN is conducting business as usual despite the disaster on New Harmony. The delay isn’t significant.”

    “Yes,” said Forbes, frowning. “What is the story on that? Do you suppose there’s any truth in what they were saying?”

    “It’s more or less true,” said Adele without looking up. Her wands danced as she frowned at the holographic data forming in front of her. “The battleships, a cruiser, and a number of destroyers were destroyed or captured in harbor. The remainder of Ozawa’s ships fled to Cacique, where Petersen is blockading them.”

    “By the Gods, Leary,” Forbes said. She looked as though she’d been punched in the stomach. “What… what does this mean?”

    Daniel gestured her to the navigation console and sat down on his own couch. When Forbes was settled, he said, “The bulk of Petersen’s fleet, three battleships and attendant screens, proceeded from New Harmony to the Cacique system after the battle. Their plan is to set up a base on the larger moon and reduce the Cinnabar defenses. You’ll appreciate–”

    He nodded toward Adele.

    “–that Lady Mundy has gained this information through methods outside the normal RCN procedures.”

    “Yes, Leary, yes,” said Forbes. “I’m not in the habit of blurting inside knowledge to amaze strangers at dinner parties. But we have to get this information back to Xenos! There’s nothing we can do about it by ourselves, surely?”

    “I’m coming to that, Senator,” Daniel said. “There has to be a warning sent back to Xenos, of course, but we don’t have to carry it ourselves. The Milton is a powerful vessel, and the three of us on this bridge are–”

    When he smiled, he realized how stiff his face had been. His cheeks felt like cardboard, crinkling.

    “–in our different ways, important assets of the Republic also. We’re very close to the Montserrat Stars. If the Alliance is allowed to consolidate its victory, it’ll require a fleet much larger than Admiral Ozawa’s to dislodge them; and the RCN doesn’t have those ships. If we three are willing to take risks….”



    Daniel lifted an eyebrow toward Forbes. She glared at him and said, “Leary, I warned you. Just say it. I still don’t see what this cruiser can do against a fleet with three battleships–or even the other battleship, wherever it’s gone off to.”

    “The remaining Alliance squadron is reducing Ponape,” Daniel said, shrugging. “Ponape isn’t a Cinnabar ally, but it’s trying to remain independent and has some naval forces.”

    He looked toward Adele and nodded to direct Forbes’ attention to her. “Lady Mundy,” he said. “Please describe the situation on Bolton to the Senator.”

    “Bolton?” said Forbes. “What’s Bolton? Where’s Bolton, that is?”

    “Bolton has for sixty years been the Alliance capital in the Montserrat Stars,” Adele said calmly. Daniel doubted that Forbes would hear her irritation at being asked a silly question. There was no particular reason the senator should know about Alliance sector capitals, of course. “It’s the cluster’s main Fleet base. There are no warships stationed there, however, and the regular garrison is small.”

    She looked up from her display, a blur of light to any eyes but her own. “Many Alliance military retirees live on Bolton,” she said, “but the weapons that would be issued to them if they were reactivated are under guard in the military reservation. The only troops presently under arms are a regular battalion of about five hundred.”

    “But this is a Fleet base?” Forbes said. “Surely it’s defended?”

    She touched the console she sat at, obviously for a moment considering bringing it live. A Senator wouldn’t carry a data unit herself, but her secretary would normally be at her side with one available. Daniel was coming to respect Senator Forbes… and he suspected his father respected her also.

    “There’s an extensive Planetary Defense Array,” Adele said, lowering her eyes to her display again. Her wands danced. “A minefield. I can’t disarm it except from its control room in the citadel.”

    “What?” said Forbes. She was using that word and tone a great deal this afternoon. “Is it possible to switch off PDAs? Why, Cinnabar isn’t safe if that’s true!”

    “I said it wasn’t possible to disarm this array,” Adele said with a waspish buzz. “But it’s an older system and out of date. I may be able to adjust its coverage patterns from outside the controlled zone.”

    “While we were returning from the Angouleme Palace,” Daniel said, leaning toward the Senator, “I discussed the details of the situation with Lady Mundy. The individual warheads of a PDA can move. They have to be able to in order to close gaps swept in their coverage. Lady Mundy believes she can shift the mines outward from an axis wide enough to allow a ship to pass through without triggering any of them.”

    “It sounds,” said Forbes deliberately, her eyes holding Daniel’s, “insanely dangerous.”

    He shrugged and smiled. “I have more experience of Lady Mundy’s skill than you do, Senator,” he said. “But if you’ll look at the record of ships which I’ve commanded, I think you’ll see that I have reason for my confidence.”

    “You’ll also see,” said Adele unexpectedly, “that the fact that a plan is insanely dangerous has never deterred Captain Leary in the past. But we expect to take risks on the Republic’s behalf, since we’re RCN.”

    Daniel didn’t know how to read Adele’s expression. It was cold, certainly, but it was always cold in his experience. There was real emotion underlying the analytical glare, though. It reminded him that her father, like his and like the woman here on the bridge with them, had been a Senator. Was she judging the whole structure of the Republic when she spoke to Forbes?

    “And I’m not, you mean?” said Forbes. She laughed, cackled anyway. “Well, I think you’d find agreement among my colleagues that I’m at least as expendable as you are, Captain Leary. And I’m quite sure–”

    She looked at Adele. For a moment, the women’s expressions mirrored one another.

    “–that Mistress Sand would shed fewer tears for me than she would for Lady Mundy. So, Captain….”

    Her eyes switched back to Daniel.

    “What is it you need from me?”

    “We need troops,” Daniel said. Forbes had demanded that he be direct, but he was pleasantly surprised to learn that she really could accept directness without becoming angry or defensive. “How close are you to William Beckford?”

    Forbes grimaced. “Not good enough friends that he’d give me soldiers,” she said. “Besides, Captain, I don’t believe that he has soldiers in any number. Yes, I know he’s skirted the edge of legality a time or two, but I assure you that Prince Willie is the last man I know who’d try to overthrow the Republic by force. He’s interested in his pleasures and in the businesses which bring in money to pay for those pleasures. That’s all.”

    “That’s not precisely what I had in mind,” Daniel said. “To phrase it differently, would you object to the Republic getting troops from Master Beckford without his prior agreement?”

    Forbes frowned and pursed her lips. “No,” she said. “No, I don’t suppose I would. Not in the present need. If there were any.”

    “Then,” said Daniel, rising with a smile, “the next step is for the three of us to go to the Hydriote Traders Guild here in Hegemony City, where you’ll represent the Republic. I’ll run over the points of the proposition while we’re on route.”

    Adele rose also, shutting down her personal data unit. “I’ve called ahead,” she said. “Captain Gambardella is the senior official present, and he wasn’t at all happy about entering discussions with us. But he couldn’t–”

    Adele smiled. A pistol shot would’ve been warmer and held more humor.

    “–refuse to meet with a senator of your stature, Mistress Forbes.”

    For a moment, the Senator’s face was as hard as Adele’s. It softened suddenly and she said, “Then it’s fortunate that I decided to throw in with Captain Leary, isn’t it?”

    As Forbes stepped toward the hatch, she went on, “Captain, tell me about this proposition.”



    Adele preferred imagery to looking at things directly, but the best view she’d been able to find of the Hydriote Traders’ Guild was a slant shot which the Milton’s sensors had captured as they landed in Port Hegemony. The buildings across the relatively narrow street were of three and four stories, so even with computerized manipulation there was more conjecture than reality in the scene.

    Tovera drove the amphibious truck with fussy precision. She was probably a better choice than Hogg, who’d learned his enthusiastic driving style on a rural estate, but she’d scraped a number of bollards at intersections and knocked over a barrow of citrus fruit by cornering short on the twisting streets of the old city.

    Daniel bent close to be heard over the truck’s air-cooled diesel. “I’d have tossed the barrow boy a florin,” he said, “but I don’t have pockets in my Whites, and Hogg isn’t here with my purse. Still, I think we’ve arrived.”

    “Yes,” said Adele, staring at the facade of the Guild offices with considerable irritation. Three layers of large, gray-brown ashlars formed the foundation; the slant image hadn’t gone that deep and therefore the building she’d studied was radically different from the one in front of her. She’d failed to get an accurate picture of the structure.

    The ornate door with a fanlight above it was correct, though: her software had extrapolated the pilaster bases from the scrolled pediment. She smiled wryly, realizing that she was playing a game with herself and making up the scoring rules to suit her ego.

    “Adele?” said Daniel, who was perhaps the only person alive who could read her facial expressions.

    “I was noticing evidence that I’m human,” she said. She paused, then added, “I suppose it’s unfortunate that I see humanity primarily in my failings.”

    Daniel smiled, but she wasn’t sure what that really meant.

    Tovera pulled up on the shallow plaza in front of the Guild offices, ignoring the middle-aged woman wearing a severely cut dark blue tunic and trousers. She leaped back but rapped the vehicle’s left front fender loudly with her cudgel.

    Daniel swung open the rear door on his side and banged the folding steps down. “I think you’d better slide across the seat, your Excellency,” he said to the Senator, who was in back with him. There was room for three on the bench, but Adele had chosen to ride with the driver. “I’m afraid that the RCN’s version of ground transport is even farther from luxury than the aircar we took to the palace this morning.”

    The parking warden–or whatever she was–stood on the truck’s running board to shout at Tovera. Gripping the door with the hand that held her cudgel, she reached inside to fumble for the lock.

    “Leave,” said Tovera calmly. “Or I’ll injure you.”

    Nothing could have been more clear than the request, but Adele knew from experience that people heard tones, not the actual words. Tovera could’ve been mumbling about the weather for all the effect it would have on the angry warden.

    “Give her a coin,” Adele snapped, because Tovera knew perfectly well that the woman wasn’t listening. “Give her a florin. And don’t shoot her!”

    Very few people–probably nobody in hearing except for Adele herself–would consider Tovera to be correct if she shot someone because they were being noisily discourteous. Adele assumed the majority was right, though she didn’t pretend she really felt that way.

    “Benazir!” called the man who’d come out the door of the Guild offices. “Leave the car alone. These are the visitors who’ve come to have lunch with me. It’s all right for them to park in front of the building.”

    The warden glowered but dropped down from the vehicle. Adele waited to make sure the silly person had really obeyed. Early in their relationship Adele had directed her servant not to kill anyone without orders. Tovera had accepted the spirit of the command, though both of them realized that situations could arise unexpectedly.

    Here there’d have been no need to kill the warden. If she’d pursued her threats, however, Tovera might easily have shot her through both wrists; and that wouldn’t have eased negotiations with her employers.

    “Captain, ladies,” said the man who’d come out of the building. He wore a red sash and covered his head with a golden bandanna. He gestured. “I am Matthew Gambardella, whom you talked to, Lady Mundy. There’s a restaurant just across the square, the Four Pipers, and we will eat there.”

    “I don’t need a meal,” Senator Forbes said, a frown in her voice. “I’m not in a mood at all for eating, to be frank. Let’s go inside and talk business, if you will.”

    “But I will not,” said Gambardella. He was a short, plump man. He had waxed moustaches and was probably bald beneath the bandanna. “Come along. We will have Karst specialties, and perhaps we will find congenial souls with who to chat on various subjects over our meals.”

    “Ah,” said Forbes. “Yes, when on Pleasaunce, do as Pleasaunce does.”

    She started across the cobblestoned square between Gambardella and Daniel. Adele hesitated a moment, then understood; she followed a few paces behind the others.

    Gambardella had to do business in the Hegemony. He was therefore making sure that this meeting with the Cinnabar representatives was unofficial… but of course he wasn’t saying that, which would negate the whole purpose of the deceit. Deceit was often necessary to smooth human interactions, whether or not the Adele Mundys of the world liked the fact.

    Captain Gambardella’s presence cleared a path across the crowded square, but Adele was far enough behind her companions that the hole closed behind them. That was no real difficulty; she slid past bigger, hurrying locals, adjusting her stride and course but mostly keeping her hard eyes open and letting others avoid her.

    Adele felt a smile at past memories, though the expression didn’t reach her lips. She’d walked alone through city streets for many years before she met Daniel Leary. Most people wouldn’t guess what her left hand held in her pocket, but her clear stare discouraged others from treating her with the contempt that a lightly built woman might otherwise have received.

    The restaurant had the ground-level corner of a modern building. Its facade of green-painted wood transoms framed large windows which were plastered with advertising bills. Instead of leading Daniel and the senator inside, Captain Gambardella gestured them through a wicket in the waist-high palings enclosing an open-air dining area. Three huge pillars marked the corners of the plaza, separating it from the modern square. They were the same kind of stones as the foundation of the Guild offices.

    Adele reached for the data unit in her thigh pocket, but she didn’t take it out yet; better to wait until she was seated. Gambardella nodded to a waiter, who lifted the wicket to admit her.

    The round tables were large enough for six; one had eight locals squeezed around it, drinking clear liquor in four-ounce stemware and arguing loudly about politics. Two men–a sharp thirty-year-old with a goatee and one who looked like a skeletal mummy–rose from the table Gambardella indicated. They too wore the sashes of Hydriote captains.

    “We’ll have fricasseed macaca, Miguel,” Gambardella said to a hovering waiter. “And raki all round.”

    To Senator Forbes he added as the waiter shuffled away, “The specialty of the house and a local delicacy. You’ll like them, I’m sure.”



    Adele sat on a three-legged stool. While the others murmured greetings she brought her data unit live, ignoring the surprised looks of the Hydriotes and the scowl she drew from Senator Forbes. First things first, and here proprieties could wait on information.

    “These are my friends Captains Christopher Weber and Thor Christianson–”

    The goateed man and the walking cadaver, respectively.

    “–whom I’m glad we’ve chanced upon this afternoon,” Gambardella said. “Good conversation makes a meal more tasty, I’ve always found.”

    A boy came with four-ounce glasses of clear spirit. Adele ignored hers and got to work. She’d used distilled alcohol to purify water often in her life, but she had neither a taste nor the head for it.

    Mistress Sand’s files on Hydriote hierarchy weren’t as complete or up-to-date as those on members of the Alliance bureaucracy, but Adele had already identified Captain Gambardella as the head of one of the Fifteen Families of Hydra. He was a shipper in the same sense that Senator Forbes was a Cinnabar politician.

    Weber and Christianson commanded two of the dozen Hydriote ships in the harbor, but each was a member of a leading Family. The trio couldn’t speak for Hydra, exactly, but its members were important enough to carry the Cinnabar position in the House of Families if they were themselves convinced.

    “Did you have a good voyage from Paton, Captain Leary?” Weber asked.

    “We had a topmast bend the first time it carried sail,” Daniel said. “It was from stores and I suspect had been taken from a ship that was being broken up. It was the only one, so it wasn’t a serious problem.”

    Adele looked up. Daniel was deferring to the Senator, and the Senator was waiting for a suitable moment. In Adele’s opinion, the present moment was the most suitable.

    “This area…,” Adele said. She swung her head side to side, because she held the data unit’s controls in both hands. “This plaza, was the forecourt of a Terran sector headquarters before the Hiatus. These pillars–”

    Nodding again.

    “–are well over two thousand years old.”

    “That’s right,” said Gambardella with a quizzical expression. “The foundations of our offices are made from the stones from the headquarters as well.”

    He coughed. “You’re a historian, Lady Mundy?” he said.

    “An antiquarian,” Adele said primly. “And Captain Leary as a naturalist might be interested to learn that the coin-like buttons that compose the limestone are the skeletons of plankton from fifty million standard years ago. But neither of those things is the reason we’re meeting here. Senator?”

    Forbes looked at her with a flash of anger; it subsided into a smile of respect, albeit grudging respect. Returning her attention to the Hydriotes she said, “Lady Mundy is of course correct. Gentlemen, we wish to arrange for the transport of approximately five thousand workers. They can travel in spartan conditions, though they should be better treated than the cargoes of slave ships. Not that Hydriotes would be engaged in slaving, of course.”

    “Over what distance?” Christianson said, staring into his open palm. It was empty.

    Forbes glanced at Daniel. He nodded and said, “I would ordinarily say twelve days for a merchantman, but you’re Hydriotes. Perhaps you can make the run in ten.”

    He raised an eyebrow in question. “Am I able to speak in confidence?” he said.

    “Yes,” said Gambardella. He didn’t have to consult his fellows. “Anything said at this table is in confidence.”

    “Good,” said Daniel, bobbing his head twice in understanding. “Captains,” he said, “we wish to transport laborers from Fonthill to Bolton.”

    The waiter arrived with three flat bowls along each arm and a round of bread on his head; his right hand clutched six spoons. He bent over the table.

    “A moment,” Gambardella said. “And you visitors should note that the edge of the utensil is sharpened on the back side. If you’re left-handed, it behooves you to be extremely careful.”

    The waiter shuffled the bowls off his right arm with his left hand, serving the Hydriotes, then dropped the spoons on the table and cleared his left arm with his right hand. Finally he straightened and laid the loaf in the center of the table without either a plate or a napkin beneath it.

    “Enjoy!” he said. He sauntered toward the couple rising from a table across the plaza.

    “You would provide us with the coordinates of Fonthill?” Weber said. His expression hadn’t changed in any way Adele could identify, but she was suddenly struck by his resemblance to a fox. “For you see, we understood these coordinates were a closely held secret.”

    “We’ll supply the coordinates, yes,” Daniel said.

    Adele’s wands twitched. She said, “Captain Christianson, you’ve been recording this conversation on the data unit in your left breast pocket. I’ve just transmitted those coordinates to you, so that you can distribute them to the other ships of the argosy which will be required for transport.”

    It was probable that all the ships which the Hydriotes picked for the operation would have made the journey to Fonthill in the past, under contract to Master Beckford. These men wouldn’t have admitted their knowledge, however, if the Cinnabar envoys hadn’t proved they already had the information.

    “This is very interesting,” said Gambardella, speaking with what was probably unexpected honesty. “But I’m very sorry, Senator. We of Hydra cannot be parties to an act of war.”

    “Let alone an invasion!” said Weber, his moustaches twitching. “Do you think we’re unaware of Bolton’s defenses?”

    Adele looked at the contents of her bowl: six caterpillars, corpse-white with brown splotches, in gravy. Each worm was the thickness of Daniel’s thumb. They were, at least, dead.

    “This is simply a transportation contact between ports controlled by the RCN,” Daniel argued. “Of course we wouldn’t ask you to land on Bolton if it were in Alliance hands.”

    Adele locked her display and put the control wands in their carrying slots, though she didn’t shut down the data unit on her lap. Following Captain Christianson’s lead, she cut the end off a worm with the back of her spoon, then scooped it to her mouth. The gravy was tangy, with a hint of peppers and sage.

    “I find it hard to believe that your Republic’s navy will capture Bolton, at least during the lifetimes of us at the table here,” Gambardella said. “I thought that even last week. Yesterday, my cousin brought his ship from New Harmony, saying that the Alliance had captured the planet after destroying the Cinnabar fleet in the cluster.”

    “Nonetheless, it’s true,” said Senator Forbes. She was forceful and sounded more certain than she had in recent discussions with Adele and Daniel. “All you’re being asked to do is to land five thousand unarmed laborers to Bolton. There’s no question of being involved in an invasion.”

    “We’re here, gentlemen,” Daniel said, “because of our respect for the skill and integrity of Hydriote merchants. I would hope that you in turn hold our Republic and the RCN in what I believe should be deserved respect. Bolton will be ours before your vessels land.”

    Adele munched her way through the first worm and started on the second. Neither Daniel nor the Senator were eating. In Daniel’s case it may have been solely because he was focused on the negotiations. From Forbes’ expression when she’d looked into her bowl, her lack of appetite was for other reasons.

    Weber glowered; Christianson ate while watching Adele in puzzlement as she also ate. Gambardella said, “You’re a very surprising man, Captain Leary. You’re all very surprising.”



    Gambardella’s gaze wavered between Forbes and Adele, then locked again on Daniel. He continued, “But I’m afraid that though technically such a charter as you propose could be considered neutral, the Alliance would have another opinion of it. By all accounts, Guarantor Porra takes a very robust view of the law.”

    “Unless…,” said Weber carefully. Had they orchestrated this? The timing was perfect. “This were a private charter, one which didn’t involve the Republic of Cinnabar. Hydriote ships have taken private cargoes to and from Bolton during the present war, after all.”

    Gambardella pursed his lips, then looked at Forbes and raised an eyebrow. “Perhaps you would care to charter the necessary vessels, Mistress Forbes?” he said. “Or could you act as agent for Master Beckford? I don’t think I’m disclosing any matters that will surprise you if I say that we’ve carried many cargoes for Beckford to worlds controlled by the Alliance.”

    Forbes laughed in what seemed to be good humor. “I don’t think I’ll trouble Prince Willie on this,” she said. “And as for chartering ten or a dozen transports at war rates–it would be war rates, wouldn’t it?”

    The Hydriotes looked at one another. Christianson said, “Yes, I fear that for the region you’re discussing, that would be necessary. Though these would be private cargoes.”

    “Of course,” said Forbes. “Would you accept my personal note for that amount, Captain Gambardella?”

    Gambardella looked embarrassed. Not all senators were fabulously wealthy. On learning of the embassy, Adele had investigated Forbes and found that she was deeply in debt from her failed run for the speakership. She hadn’t held the position of Finance Minister very long, but even so a less scrupulous person would have made a better thing of it.

    “We’d discuss the matter among ourselves and with the local agents you direct us to,” said Christianson. “In the normal course of business, you understand.”

    He too sounded subdued. His eyes were on Adele as she mopped the rest of her gravy with a wedge of bread she’d torn from the loaf.

    “So that isn’t practical either,” said Forbes in the same bright, bantering tone as before. “Fortunately, gentlemen, before the Milton lifted from Cinnabar, the managing partner of the Shippers’ and Merchants’ Treasury summoned me for a consultation. She authorized me to pledge the full credit of her bank on such commercial ventures as I might sumble across on a mission such as this.”

    “Well bless my soul!” Daniel said. “Why, that’s my bank! And the manager is my sister Deirdre!”

    “Yes,” said Adele. She cleared her throat. “How very fortunate that you’d made this arrangement, your Excellency.”

    In a very different sense the Shippers’ and Merchants’ Treasury was Corder Leary’s bank. He owned the bulk of the shares and had installed his daughter as managing partner.

    Knowing Deirdre’s eye for a profit, the bank expected to make a good thing out of this when the Senate approved transfer of the contracts to the public exchequer. The element of risk justified the profit, however, as the supersession of the contract by the Republic would only occur if Captain Leary’s plans were successful.

    Deirdre wouldn’t have been able to provide so sweeping a credit without the approval of the majority partner. On principle, Daniel would never have accepted the money if he’d known it came from his father; but Adele’s principles didn’t require that she inform her friend.

    The Hydriote captains stared at one another. Adele didn’t see any type of communication pass between them, nor did her personal data unit detect anything in the electro-optical band, but clearly something was going on.

    Captain Gambardella turned to Forbes. “The Shippers’ and Merchants’ Treasury is well known to us,” he said. “Not that we doubt your word, Senator, but do you have this authorization in a form that…?”

    “Yes,” said Forbes, pulling open the placket on the bosom of her tunic. What Adele had assumed was either a stiffener or body armor turned out to be a fitted document case. “This in the electronic form–”

    She laid a chip on the table, sliding the remainder of the bread to the side. Christianson immediately fitted it to the data unit which he’d taken out at the same time.

    “–and in a more colorful medium,” Forbes said, handing a sheet of parchment to Captain Gambardella. It was small enough to fit in the case without folding or rolling, but even in a quick glance Adele saw ribbons, seals, and text in a tiny copperplate hand as regular as printing.

    She smiled coldly. Given that the document represented a credit greater than the net product of many worlds, it ought to be ornate.

    “This is satisfactory,” Captain Gambardella said, handing back the letter of credit. “Very satisfactory. Captain Leary, when will you have the details of the contract ready?”

    Adele had unlocked her data unit when she finished lunch. Her wands twitched.

    “I believe Lady Mundy has just transmitted them,” Daniel said, smiling. He leaned back on his stool. “Your standard commercial rates, adjusted by a 15% war risk premium. Calculated time to the rendezvous and destination are there as well. I’m assuming most if not all the vessels will come from Hydra herself, but I’m also assuming that you’ll send the fastest available courier there with the information.”

    Weber grinned, more like a wolf now than a fox. “I’ll carry the information myself, Captain,” he said. “And for your future calculations, I estimate the run from Fonthill to Bolton at nine days maximum, and eight if conditions are favorable. For Hydriote vessels.”

    “I’ll travel with you, Weber,” Gambardella said. “There are some matters I should take care of at home.”

    “And I,” said Christianson. The three Hydriotes chuckled.

    “Then I believe we’ve finished our business here,” Daniel said, rising to his feet. “Unless you have something to add, Senator?”

    “I do not,” said Forbes. “Though I suppose a prayer would be proper if I believed in the Gods.”

    “We’ll see you on Fonthill, then, good sir and ladies,” Captain Gambardella said, bowing. “No doubt you’ll arrive long before we do, but we’ll keep our schedule.”

    “We need to make a side-trip to US1528,” Daniel said, “so I suspect the timing will be similar for both of us.”

    Weber frowned. “US1528?” he said. “If you need to take on reaction mass, Captain, why not do so here?”

    He didn’t, Adele noticed, mention that US1528 was an Alliance refueling station.

    Daniel laughed. “As you have matters to deal with on Hydra, so the needs of the RCN are varied, fellow spacers. I look forward to our next meeting.”

    He turned. As Adele poised to follow him, Captain Christianson said, “Ah, Lady Mundy? If I may ask, you appeared to like the macaca worms?”

    Adele shrugged as she put away her data unit. “The gravy was good,” she said. “I found the worms themselves tasteless, which–”

    She smiled. Christianson didn’t react, but Weber straightened and his face went blank.

    “–is better than some of the things I ate during the years I lived on very little money. I prefer their texture to that of hog tripes, at any rate.”

    As they walked back to Tovera and their vehicle, Adele leaned to speak past Daniel. “I share your doubt about the Gods, Senator,” she said. “But regardless, there’s a closer power at present. I’ve found putting my faith in the RCN to be quite efficacious.”

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