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Some Golden Harbor: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Sunday, May 7, 2006 05:09 EDT



Charlestown Harbor on Bennaria

    The water taxi that brought Daniel and Hogg from Waddell House to the Sissie was a flat-bottomed skimmer driven by an air-screw astern. It was only marginally stable, extremely wet, and more than a little dangerous because the powerplant was a nacelle cannibalized from an air-cushion vehicle.

    The high-speed intake stream would've sucked off Daniel's saucer hat if he hadn't kept it on his lap. He could imagine a drunk who'd stood too close when the nacelle pivoted for a turn having worse problems than that.

    Half a dozen other watercraft, bumboats rather than taxis, were tied up to the starboard outrigger. As a safety precaution, locals weren't allowed aboard the corvette in harbor and the lower decks remained sealed in accordance with Daniel's orders. He'd given half the crew liberty, though, and the other half--save a minimal anchor watch--was free to trade with local entrepreneurs so long as they didn't leave the ship.

    The floating crib, an open-topped canvas shelter on a boat small enough to be rowed with a single set of oars, was stretching the point a trifle, but only one man left the Sissie at a time and that only by the length of the bow rope. Vesey'd been right to interpret the orders loosely. Spacers waiting in line greeted Daniel cheerfully as the taxi glided to a halt, and Plastin, a tech on guard duty in the entrance hatch, bent to give him a hand up.

    Hogg had paused to pay the driver with a handful of local scrip--and when had he found time to gather that? He scrambled onto the ramp a moment later, glaring at Daniel's spray-sodden Whites. "Bugger-all use they'll be till I get'em cleaned!" he grumbled.

    "It may be some while before I need them again, Hogg," Daniel said. "The quality people of Bennaria don't seem to have warmed to my charms."

    "The Lieutenant's on the bridge, sir," said Plastin as he retrieved the sub-machine gun that Fairfax, his partner on guard, had been holding while Plastin helped Daniel aboard.

    "And Mistress Mundy's in the BDC, sir," Fairfax added. "By herself."

    "I thought Tovera was with her," Plastin said, frowning.

    Fairfax gave his partner a broad grin. "Like I said," he replied.

    "I'm glad she's aboard," said Daniel, striding toward the companionway. It was a pleasure to hear the familiar echoes of his boot soles on the steel deckplates. "Thank you both."

    "I've seen better quality people working the Harbor Three Strip," said Hogg in a low voice. "I've seen better quality people lying in the gutter on the Harbor Three Strip!"

    Daniel didn't respond except perhaps to smile a little broader; but then, he was generally smiling. He more or less agreed with Hogg. Any Cinnabar citizen would.

    A brief frown touched his forehead. Well, almost any; Master Luff was a disturbing exception.

    Vesey was coming out of the bridge to meet Daniel as he stepped from the companionway into the A Level corridor. "Good evening, sir," she said. "Mistress Mundy was hoping you'd drop in on her in the Battle Direction Center when you came aboard."

    "That's where I'm headed, Vesey," Daniel said. "You've had no excitement, I trust?"

    Vesey'd been alone on the bridge, running a simulation at the command console. Daniel couldn't make out the details at this distance, but his mind made an intuitive leap at the sight of a few blue specks maneuvering among the large number of orange ones.

    "There haven't been any angry calls from the groundside authorities," said Vesey with a perfunctory smile. "Ah--I gave the starboard watch liberty, as we'd discussed, but I let both Blantyre and Cory go tonight. I hope that's all right?"

    "I'd have done the same," Daniel said as he turned toward the BDC at the other end of the corridor. Over his shoulder he added, "And regardless, Captain, it's your decision."

    Tovera cycled open the heavy hatch as Daniel approached; the BDC was armored, like the bridge and Power Room. She gave him a smile that made him think--as usual when he was around Tovera--of snakes, then said, "Come have a drink with me, Hogg. They won't need us for a little while."

    Daniel glanced at his servant. "Yes, of course," he said. He didn't know what Tovera wanted to discuss with Hogg, and he did know that asking wouldn't gain him anything. "For that matter--I intend to go out later myself, but there's no reason you need to accompany me."

    Hogg sniffed. "No reason the sun needs to rise in the morning either, young master," he said. "But I guess it will."

    To Tovera he added as the hatch closed, "I've got a pint of what they call whiskey on Blennerhasset. Leastwise we can make room for something better, eh?"

    The consoles of the BDC were arranged petal-fashion around the center of the compartment, with five jumpseats along each sidewall. Adele, alone in the room, didn't turn when Daniel entered behind her.

    "I've been busy," she said as her wands flickered; she'd slaved the console to her little data unit as she generally did. She was so familiar with its controls that she gained minusculely by the circumlocution. "I assume you want to know about Admiral Wrenn?"

    "Yes-s-s...," said Daniel carefully, patting his head by reflex to be sure that he wasn't after all wearing a commo helmet that would've transmitted the business aboard the destroyer back to Adele here in the Princess Cecile. He wasn't--of course.

    He settled onto the console to the left of Adele's. Text spilled across the display, broken up with images of Wrenn at various stages of his life. Mostly he was dressed in one or another comic-opera Bennarian uniform, but in one he appeared in the unpiped gray of a probationary RCN midshipman.

    Understanding dawned, filling Daniel with relief. "I turned the Sibyl's console on!" he said. "You used that to see what was going on aboard her. And then you gathered the rest of this because you knew I'd want to know what had gotten into Wrenn."

    "You would, and I did also," said Adele, cocking her head just slightly sideways and offering Daniel a smile. Well, a smile for Adele; a slight tick of the lips for anybody else. "And I suspect the answer is that Wrenn was sent to the RCN Academy at Xenos as a foreign student but was dismissed after the first year. He doesn't seem to have showed up for classes. The Wrenns are a Counciliar House, of course."

    She frowned. "I'm a little surprised that he wasn't simply waved on through," she said. "Since he wouldn't be entering the RCN, after all."

    Daniel shrugged. "If he'd been from somewhere more important," he said, "Kostroma or the Danziger Stars, say, I suspect that's what would've happened. Bennaria doesn't matter enough for External Affairs or Navy House either one to worry about offending the local nobility."



    He laughed. "I suppose I ought to regret that choice," he said, "but I don't. I don't care that some dimwit from Bennaria gets angry any more than the Academy Provosts did."

    "I was puzzled by the timing of Wrenn's appearance on the Sibyl," Adele said, cascading additional text across Daniel's display. He glanced at it but kept his attention on his friend instead; she'd give him the information he needed in an organized and compact fashion, a much better plan than him trying to sort the raw data himself. "Since it didn't seem random. I found--"

    More text in the corner of Daniel's eye; he continued to watch Adele and to smile as she worked, completely absorbed with her task.

    "--that as soon as Councilor Fahey had returned to his townhouse, he called Admiral Wrenn and informed him you were inspecting the ships and installations at the Squadron Pool. You see from the transcript--"

    "Summarize it, please," Daniel said mildly.

    Adele looked up, caught his smile, and managed one of her own. "Yes, of course," she said. "While the Councilor doesn't refer directly to the fact Wrenn flunked out of the Academy, he's obviously wording his comments in a way to remind Wrenn of the fact. 'These Academy-trained Cinnabar officers think the sun shines out of their asses,' was one of his lines. It strikes me as an effective job of goading Wrenn into actions that he'll reasonably regret."

    She frowned and added, "I don't see why Fahey's opposing us, though."

    "He's not," said Daniel. "He resents Waddell's power, so he's using my visit to embarrass him. Fahey doesn't gain anything, but he irritates his rival. And he doesn't think his involvement'll be traced back to him."

    Daniel shrugged. He smiled, but he felt suddenly tired.

    "It's the sort of thing my father'd do," he said. "Except that my father would probably have done it better."

    "I have enough to regret about my own actions," said Adele coolly, "that I'm not going to become depressed over the behavior of foreigners whom I neither know well nor care for. And as it chances, my trip back to the ship wasn't as uneventful as I'd expected either. I've met Yuli Corius. He arranged to meet me, rather."

    "Did he indeed?" said Daniel, his expression sharpening. "And what was that in aid of?"

    "He told me he intends to defeat the Pellegrinian invasion of Dunbar's World," Adele said. "By himself, if necessary; but he'd like us to work with him."

    "By himself?" Daniel repeated. "Can he do that, do you think? From the way Waddell was talking...."

    He let his voice trail off. Adele had been at the same meeting; he didn't have to repeat what was said there. Besides, anything Councilor Waddell said had to be taken with a grain of salt.

    "I'm still working on that," Adele said. "Corius has rented four large transports, which implies he's serious about moving a significant number of troops somewhere. They're at his estate eighty miles up the River Noir from Charlestown."

    More data appeared on Daniel's display; this time he did look at it. The ships were the Greybudd, IMG 40, Todarov, and Zephyr; 3,000-ton freighters of the type standard in Ganpat's Reach.

    His hope had been wrong: they weren't warships and couldn't be converted to warships. Two of the transports mounted single 10-cm plasma cannon; the other pair had pods of unguided 8-inch rockets, the sort of light armament that pirates used to cripple their prey. By no stretch of the imagination could they tackle a cruiser, even a cruiser crewed by Pellegrinians.

    "On a short run," said Daniel. He was thinking out loud as much as he was informing his companion. "You could pack three thousand people aboard them. A run from here to Dunbar's World, that is. But soldiers--not nearly so many, not if they've got any kit at all. And even three thousand troops won't throw Arruns off Dunbar's World. Corius's going the wrong way about it if that's really what he plans. He ought to be looking for warships."

    He pursed his lips. "Do you believe him?" he asked.

    "I don't disbelieve him," Adele said. "He's a clever man and clearly a bold one." She smiled faintly. "Rash, in fact. He nearly got himself killed this afternoon, and I can easily imagine him miscalculating other risks just as badly."

    She paused. "I don't disbelieve him, Daniel," she said. "But I certainly don't trust him."

    Daniel laughed and got up from the console. "Based on what I know thus far," he said, "I see no way to accomplish our mission. That doesn't mean I'm giving up."

    Adele sniffed. "I didn't imagine you were," she said dryly.

    "No, of course," said Daniel in mild embarrassment. "Sorry."

    He'd been talking for effect rather than talking to Adele. He didn't need to convince her of anything, and she wasn't the sort to be swayed by words alone anyway.

    "We need more information," he said. "We'll get it--here, I think, though I'll go to Dunbar's World if we've explored all the avenues here."

    "Corius may be the answer," Adele said. "There's his assembly tomorrow."

    "Right," agreed Daniel. "And tonight I'm going out to see what I can learn around the harbor. Spacers may tell me what the Councilors wouldn't."

    He grinned and added, "Besides, it's been a long voyage. I'm looking forward to having a drink on the ground."

    Adele nodded. "I'm going out myself," she said. "I'd like to get a neutral opinion about the situation here on Bennaria before we pick a side--whether Waddell or Corius."

    Daniel felt his lips purse; he knew Adele was a spy, but that wasn't a business he felt comfortable around. "Well, I trust your judgment, of course," he said, and turned toward the hatch.

    "Oh, not one of Mistress Sand's people, Daniel," she replied with a hint of amusement. "His name's Krychek, and I have an introduction to him from an old family friend. His ship's berthed at the other end of this island. From the way he responded when I called him this evening, he'll be very glad to talk to someone whom he considers civilized. The members of the Council of Bennaria and their associates don't qualify as civilized in his opinion, I gather."

    Daniel laughed as he cycled the hatch open. "Well," he said, "Master Krychek and I agree about something, at any rate. Good luck to you!"



    The water taxi's electric motor began to arc and spit before it'd carried Adele and Tovera more than halfway to Krychek's ship. They wallowed.

    "Can you get us to shore?" Tovera said. Adele couldn't see her face in the darkness, but her voice was cold. "We'll walk the rest of the way."

    "No no!" said the boatman, pulling on a rubber glove. "Is not a problem, you see!" He put his index finger on the motor's control panel, apparently holding down a relay. The motor buzzed back up to speed and they proceeded, a nimbus of sizzling blue wrapping the boatman's hand.

    "There's no road on the island," Adele said mildly. That was why she'd called a water taxi for the trip to the Mazeppa. "It's just mud except for the individual slips."

    "Yes," said Tovera from her seat in the far bow. She was wearing RCN goggles which gave her several light enhancement options as well as magnification if she wanted. "But even so we wouldn't sink as deep."

    The boatman cut inshore toward a freighter hulking against the tip of the island. The stars were thick enough to silhouette dorsal turrets at the vessel's bow and stern; there were rocket clusters also, bolted on awkwardly between the folded masts.

    Krychek's Mazeppa displaced nearly 6,000 tonnes, nearly twice the size of anything else in harbor. Lights shone through open hatches on the upper levels, though the hull at the waterline was dark save for the vast square of the entrance hold.

    Adele had examined the Mazeppa through its computer. The vessel didn't carry missiles so it couldn't engage a real warship with any chance of success, but its array of short-range armament was enough to warn off a pirate--or squadron of pirates.

    "There's two automatic impellers aimed at us," Tovera said. She didn't sound frightened, but she'd raised her voice more than she usually would.

    "Sheer off!" a man shouted. "We don't want visitors!"

    A powerful searchlight above the entrance hatch blazed down at the taxi. The boatman yelped, jerking his hand away from the relay. The motor spluttered, leaving the boat to wallow again.

    Adele had expected the light and was already squinting. In the side-scatter of the beam she saw a pintle-mounted automatic impeller aimed at them from the boarding ramp. Tovera'd opened her attaché case, but she used the lid to conceal her right hand from the vessel.

    "This is Mundy of Chatsworth!" Adele said. "Visiting Captain Krychek by arrangement!"

    "Bloody hell!" somebody muttered from the Mazeppa. The searchlight cut off, turning the night into a pit of total darkness.

    "Come aboard, Mistress," a different voice called. "Sorry for the confusion."

    The taxi coasted against the Mazeppa's outrigger. The boatman was hunched with his hands clasped over his head, so Adele herself grabbed the rope ladder hanging from the metal. Tovera remained as she'd been, smiling faintly but focused on other concerns than whether the taxi would drift away from the freighter.

    Adele didn't have local currency, so she dropped two florins beside the boatman and climbed the ladder. "That's too much, Mistress," Tovera said mildly as she waited for Adele to reach the outrigger."

    "He may have trouble changing Cinnabar money," Adele said, waving aside the spacer bending to offer her a hand. "Besides, he just had guns pointed at him."

    Tovera tittered. Adele didn't ask what her servant had found funny. Perhaps it was the thought that an automatic impeller was more dangerous than she was.

    A hatch squealed open; full illumination flooded the entrance hold in place of the yellow watch light that'd been on before.

    "Mistress Mundy!" said the big man coming toward her with his arms out in greeting. "I am Krychek! Pardon my men's mistake. The Bennarians do not welcome us, and we do not encourage drunken louts to speed past and hurl garbage. As has happened in the past."

    Krychek was about sixty, with close-cropped hair, a full beard, and a wrestler's build. He wore closely tailored trousers and tunic of blue fabric with red piping. The outfit suggested a uniform but had no unit or rank markings. "I regret to hear that," Adele said, clasping Krychek's right hand in both of hers to prevent him from embracing her--if that was actually what he'd intended. "I was hoping for a neutral assessment of the political situation here."

    Adele'd looked up Krychek as soon as Claverhouse mentioned his name, though at the time she hadn't expected the information to be of importance. He was hereditary Landholder of Infanta, one of the founding worlds of the Alliance of Free Stars.

    From the beginning Infantans had been more notable for military prowess than scholarship; Adele didn't remember ever meeting one in the Academic Collections. She didn't know what the culture considered a friendly greeting, and she had no intention of adapting her own upper-class Cinnabar reserve to anything more physical.

    "A neutral assessment?" said Krychek, taking her firmly by the elbow and guiding her toward the companionway. "A difficult task, mistress. Flies, I am sure, can find all manner of subtleties in garbage, but for such folk as you and I--what can we say about a stench and an abomination? Still, come with me to my library and I will do what I can to inform you."



    The first segment of companionway would’ve been dark except that a work light hung on a length of flex running back into the corridor behind. Adele had noticed that the floor of the entrance hold wasn’t level, a more serious maintenance problem. The port outrigger must leak enough to float lower than the starboard one.

    “Do you appreciate fine wines, mistress?” Krychek asked. “Or liqueurs, perhaps?”

    He was immediately behind Adele, which meant Tovera brought up the rear. She’d presumably decided that she could best protect her mistress from that position, though Adele couldn’t imagine what criteria she’d used. Tovera didn’t have the emotional concern for Adele that Hogg did for Daniel–she didn’t have emotions at all, so far as Adele’d been able to tell–but she would stolidly and efficiently do the best job she could through intelligence and ruthlessness.

    “I can’t say that I do, sir,” Adele said, honestly but for effect also. She wasn’t here to socialize. “I might say that I’m a connoisseur of information, but even there I have catholic tastes.”

    She stepped out in the A Level corridor and turned left–toward the bridge–by reflex. “This way, if you please,” Krychek said, opening the hatch across from the companionway. The interior lights went on automatically.

    In a compartment down the corridor men–she was sure they were all men–were singing, “Rosy dawn, rosy dawn, will today my grave-mouth yawn?”

    Krychek nodded toward the voices. “The crew are my retainers,” he said. “My children and closer than children. They came into exile with me–for me.”

    “Soon I’ll hear the trumpet sound,” sang the hidden chorus. One of the group had a guitar. “I to death am surely bound, I and my dear comrades.”

    “I’ll join them, mistress?” Tovera said, flicking her eyes toward the singing. Adele nodded agreement.

    “I understand,” said Adele as she followed Krychek into the compartment. The hatch was an ordinary steel valve, but the inner surface was veneered in the same dark wood as the cabinets and other furnishings. “The circumstances of my own exile were rather different, of course.”

    “I never thought, I never thought–”

    “Exile?” repeated Krychek, pausing with his hand on the hatch. “But of course, I should have realized–you were an associate of my friend Maurice!”

    “–my joy so soon would come to naught,” the chorus sang with lugubrious gusto.

    “Yes, my family was implicated in the Three Circles Conspiracy,” Adele said simply. “I spent most of my adult life on Bryce, until the Edict of Reconciliation permitted me to return to Cinnabar.”

    She was using the massacre of her own family as a tool to elicit the sympathy and thereby cooperation of this Infantan noble. Part of her was horrified at such callousness, but that was an intellectual thing. Emotionally she was quite content to use any tool available to accomplish her task.

    Krychek closed the hatch. “So!” he said. “We have much in common, mistress, you and I. Though I’ve never been to Bryce.”

    “The Academic Collections suited me better than they might you,” Adele said with a faint smile. Sometimes she was afraid that she had no more conscience than Tovera did.

    The compartment was built on two decks. A hardwood mezzanine circled this level, giving access to the books in shockproof cases, but a broad staircase led down to cushioned chairs and curio cabinets. The ceiling was white and double-vaulted, with unfamiliar–to Adele, at least–coats of arms at the eight corners.

    “Come, please,” Krychek said. “We can sit as we talk. And surely you’ll drink something with me?”

    “A light wine, then,” Adele said, walking down the polished steps with the care they deserved. Neither the staircase nor the mezzanine had railings. Krychek was presumably used to it, but even so it’d be a bad place to be caught if the ship had to maneuver unexpectedly.

    “How is dear Maurice, eh?” Krychek said as he unlocked a Tantalus and withdrew the decanter of pale yellow wine. “He wasn’t sure how he’d find Xenos. One doesn’t really return after so many years, you know; what had been home is a different place.”

    “Yes, I do know,” said Adele dryly as she accepted the offered wineglass. “As for Claverhouse, he seemed as well as anyone his age could expect. Judging from the restaurant where we met, he’s comfortably fixed at least.”

    “Yes, we made a good deal of money,” Krychek said, waving Adele to a chair. Its leather upholstery was the same polished brown as the paneling. “And Maurice’s expenses are lower than mine, of course; he has only himself to care for.”

    He looked up at the ceiling. “This library is a replica of the one on my estate, as you’ll have guessed,” he said, lowering his eyes to Adele’s. “I cannot return to Infanta till God rips the tyrant Porra from the throne he disfigures, but I have brought a little of my home with me.”

    “Including your retainers,” Adele agreed, tasting her wine. She was no more of a connoisseur than she’d claimed, but she was quite confident that her father–who was remarkably knowledgeable–would’ve approved the vintage.

    “Yes-s-s…,” Krychek said, sipping his wine with a harsh expression, his eyes focused a thousand miles away. “That is so.”

    Rather than probing while her host was lost in a brown study, Adele glanced at the curio cabinets to either side of her chair. The one on her right held pipes for smoking; tobacco pipes, she was almost sure. They were of a remarkable variety, ceramic, vegetable, and mineral. One was of white material, possibly ivory but stone or synthetic with equal likelihood. Its bowl, bigger than her clenched fist, was decorated with a forest scene in high relief.

    The case on the left held… more pipes.



    “They are my whimsy,” Krychek said. “I began collecting them before my exile.”

    He walked to the case on Adele’s left and rotated it, then pointed to a simple pipe with a bowl of dark root-stock and a stem with noticeable wear. Many of the others didn’t appear to have been used.

    “This was my grandfather’s,” Krychek said musingly. “He was smoking it when he died. That and his name are the only things that remain to me of him.”

    He met Adele’s eyes. “I do not smoke myself,” he said. “But I collect.”

    Krychek settled into his seat again and cleared his throat, frowning. “You wish to know about Bennarian politics,” he said. He shrugged. “There are four great magnates, Waddell above all; Fahey and Knox; and there is Corius, who sets himself against all the others. Waddell leads the Council, but he’s not greedy. Not too greedy. He leaves some cream for the rest; more than they’d get fighting him, at least.”

    “If Waddell isn’t interested in driving the Pellegrinians off Dunbar’s World…,” Adele said, pursing her lips as she looked into the display of her data unit. “Then Corius is our only hope?”

    She’d brought the unit out without really being aware of what she was doing. A flick of the wands brought up a graph of payroll records for the five Counciliar Houses represented at the meeting in Manco House. It was the first thing she’d checked after entering the Councilors’ databases.

    “Perhaps,” said Krychek. “He’s a reformer, this Corius. He thinks the common people of Bennaria should have some of the cream themselves. A victory on Dunbar’s World would give him greater status.”

    “Do you mean that he says the common people should have more?” Adele said harshly. “What other evidence is there that he believes what he says?”

    Lucius Mundy had said similar things as head of the Popular Party, but he’d literally ridden on the backs of his supporters down Straight Street to the Senate House a month before Adele left to complete her schooling on Bryce. Representatives of the poor districts of Xenos dined at the Mundy table in the run-up to every election that Adele could remember… but they were clients dining with Mundy of Chatsworth. None of them was likely to misunderstand the fact that their role was to aid Senator Mundy in his plans for the betterment of their position.

    “You’re a cynical one, Mundy!” Krychek said with a laugh. “More wine, then? No? Well, Corius says the people should have more, I’ll leave it at that. But he’s gathering soldiers, two thousand of them.”

    Adele said nothing for a moment, staring at the graph already on her display. Councilor Waddell had some three hundred armed retainers, allowing for the possibility that she’d misallocated men who might be clerks. None of the other Councilors had more than two hundred, putting Corius’ private army on a different scale from those of his rivals.

    “Do you think he’s planning a coup here on Bennaria, then?” she asked, meeting Krychek’s eyes calmly. She didn’t bother asking whether he was sure of his figures; that would simply insult his intelligence and make him less forthcoming. Besides, the numbers matched the capacity of the transports Corius had rented.

    “No,” said Krychek. “No, he doesn’t have men enough to defeat all the Councilors put together–and they’ll unite against him if he tries, you can be sure of that.”

    He snorted. “Corius is sure of that, he’ll have no doubt,” he went on. “His family’s always been powerful here, so he was born knowing how the rest of the Councilors think. And besides….”

    Krychek rose swiftly and smoothly to his feet. His right arm lashed out, hurling his empty glass into the dummy fireplace set into the bulkhead across from him. He was a strong man; the impact smashed the glass to little more than dust.

    “And besides,” Krychek resumed calmly, looking down at Adele, “if Corius intended a coup, he would hire me and my good fellows, would he not? A hundred and eighty men, trained as shock troops and long experienced in crewing a ship, this ship. Experienced in holding their own among the dregs of the galaxy.”

    Adele took her left hand out of her pocket. She bent to retrieve the wand she’d dropped when her host moved unexpectedly, but she didn’t take her eyes off his face.

    She didn’t speak, either. A matter that so raised Krychek’s emotional temperature was nothing for her to start dabbling in verbally unless she had to.

    “I owe you an explanation,” Krychek said, though from his tone he was more bragging than apologizing. “Why I behave in this way.”

    “You owe me nothing but common courtesy,” said Adele calmly. “If you want to break a glass in your own residence, the reasons are none of my business.”

    Though if you startle me like that again, she thought, you may not survive the experience. Which will pose problems for me as well.

    “We had to leave Port Dunbar very suddenly,” Krychek said, turning to stare at a display of pipes. “We were the only ship to lift from the harbor after the invasion. Their shots were hitting our hull and pierced an outrigger. There was danger, yes, but less danger. Arruns would certainly have hung us all had he captured the city. Maurice didn’t come with us–he went by land to Ollarville and took commercial transport from there.”

    The flamboyance was gone from Krychek’s tone and demeanor. He seemed a sharp man; Adele suspected he’d noticed that her reaction to violence wasn’t to cower.

    “I recall him saying that,” Adele said, a politely neutral comment. She met her host’s eyes, but the little data unit was busy gathering all the information available from the Mazeppa.

    “We’d just come back from a trading voyage,” Krychek continued, facing Adele again with a leisurely movement that couldn’t be mistaken for a threat. “We hadn’t restocked yet, and our thruster nozzles were thin. Very thin, I learned, but there was no choice. We lifted for Bennaria while the Pellegrinians shot at us, and landed as quickly as we could.”



    He shrugged expressively. "There was no choice," he repeated. "Two thrusters failed as we landed, and we cannot lift until the whole set is replaced. Or at least half–we can manage with twelve. We have no payload, you see."

    "Are there no yards on Bennaria that can do the repairs?" Adele said. She knew full well that there were–docks and repair facilities were among the first subjects she researched on any new planetfall–but it seemed a useful comment to keep the conversation flowing.

    "Ah, but that will be expensive," Krychek said. "The bankers here are the Councilors themselves, you knew that?"

    "Yes," said Adele. She would've expected it anyway, since close-knit oligarchies rarely gave outsiders a chance to become wealthy.

    "None of them will loan me enough for the repairs," he said, glowering. "Our latest cargo was just off-loaded into warehouses in Port Dunbar. The banks won't accept it as collateral, even at a ruinous discount; nor will they loan money against the Mazeppa herself."

    Krychek stalked back to the sideboard. Instead of pouring more wine from the Tantalus, he opened the cabinet underneath and took out a squat green bottle. Adele sipped from her glass, until now barely tasted, to forestall being offered some of the liquor. She needn't have bothered; for the moment Krychek appeared to have forgotten her.

    He took a deep draft of the oily, pale yellow fluid and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "It is not just business, you must see," he said harshly to a bookcase. "They fear me. They will not accept the sworn oath of a Landholder of Infanta!"

    Krychek threw himself into his chair again. There was something innately theatrical about the man. He wasn't putting on a show for Adele, high emotion was simply so much of his nature that he couldn't help but put on a show.

    "If the thrusters would lift us, I would take us to Ferguson," Krychek said, his voice rising and falling in measured periods. "The new Headman would treat us as we deserve! He knows the Cispalans will stop at nothing to renew their tyranny over Ferguson."

    Adele hadn't studied Ferguson in detail, but current events were her trade. From what she'd gathered in passing, Daunus Fonk had been the notably rapacious Cispalan governor of the wealthy Cispalan colony of Ferguson. He'd changed his name to Headman Ferguson when he declared the planet independent, using his whole administrative budget to hire mercenaries–and then used those mercenaries to raise additional money. The wool from Terran sheep raised on Ferguson grew up to eighteen inches long and was remarkably fine, but the Headman was shearing his citizenry closer than ever they did their sheep.

    "As it is," Krychek said, "were I to try the thrusters, we would rise only to plunge to the ground like a doomed comet. Yet what choice is there? If we stay here, I will shortly be unable to purchase even food for my men. Better to die in flaming glory, do you not think?"

    Headman Ferguson was at best unbalanced, at worst certifiably psychotic. He was hiring mercenaries, though, and Adele appreciated that a former pirate trader was unlikely to have a delicate conscience. Still, Ferguson didn't seem the best available choice for employer.

    "I'm puzzled," she said, ignoring what she assumed was a rhetorical question, "as to why Councilor Corius isn't willing to hire your men. No matter what he intends to do with them."

    Krychek looked at her. The half-full liquor glass in his hand seemed forgotten. "Corius would hire my men," he said. His faint smile hardened as he spoke. "Buy them from me, if you will. But he would not allow me to lead them. Am I such a brute that I should sell my own people?"

    No, thought Adele as she put away her data unit, you wouldn't sell your retainers. But God help anybody who got in the way of you taking care of yourself and those retainers. Yuli Corius seems to understand that too.

    Adele stood, setting her glass on the end table beside her chair. "Master Krychek…," she said.

    "Krychek, just Krychek," her host interjected, rising also.

    "You've been of great help to me," she said. "I'll do what I can about your problem if a means occurs to me, but I'm afraid that at present I don't see one."

    "No man can escape his fate," said Krychek portentously. "Perhaps this is mine, to die in flames on this wretched planet!"

    Adele looked at the man; he was posed as though modeling for a heroic statue. For all his histrionics, Krychek was just as sharp as she'd have expected a partner of Maurice Claverhouse to be. He'd made the connection that many would've missed: if Yuli Corius were planning a coup on Bennaria, he'd have hired the Infantans under Krychek simply to prevent his rivals from doing so as soon as the fighting started.

    "I won't discuss religion with you or anyone else," Adele said aloud. "I have neither knowledge nor interest in the subject. But speaking analytically, Krychek, I will point out that the situation on Bennaria strikes me as very unstable. If I were you, I wouldn't be in too great a hurry to convert myself into a fireball."

    Krychek laughed with honest gusto. "Come," he said, offering Adele his arm. "I will have my men take you back to your ship. We have a crawler–from our business, you see–that does very well on muck like this island. The places we met our clients to trade were ones that others did not visit, you see?"

    "I do see," Adele said, mounting the steps arm in arm with her host. She'd intended to have the water taxi wait for her, but it seemed unlikely that the boatman would ever come within impeller range of the Infantans again. "And thank you."

    Krychek's information meant that Corius planned to take his private army to Dunbar's World. That didn't mean she and Daniel could trust Corius, but they could trust his intentions and act accordingly.

    "Now shine your cheeks like milk and wine…," sang the chorus as Krychek pulled the hatch open. "But ah! all roses wither."

    Tovera turned out to be a lyric soprano.

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