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What Distant Deeps: Chapter Seven

       Last updated: Wednesday, June 16, 2010 07:19 EDT



Raphael Harbor on Stahl’s World

    Daniel lengthened his stride. A commander wearing Whites had gotten out of the aircar. Instead of waiting, he marched down the quay to the base of the cantilevered bridge which had been swung out to meet the Sissie’s boarding ramp. There he chatted with the riggers under Woetjans who were lashing the free end to bitts on the ramp.

    “Do you want an escort today, Six?” the bosun asked as Daniel approached.

    “In case I have to shoot my way out of the party, Woetjans?” he answered with a grin. “Thank you, but I hope that won’t be necessary.”

    “Aw, not that, Six,” Woetjans said. She obviously wasn’t sure whether Daniel really believed that was what she’d had in mind. “Just to show you’re important.”

    “Carry on, bosun,” Daniel said, hoping that Woetjans didn’t understand his smile. To base personnel, let alone civilians, twenty Sissies with their weapons of choice would be seen as ragged tramps — an embarrassment rather than an honor. Only people who had been in hard places themselves could understand what it meant to have a crew like that at your back.

    The commander started down the bridge. It was wide enough for even three to walk abreast, but his steps and Daniel’s made the tubular frame flex awkwardly.

    If I’d had my choice, I’d just as soon we’d met on the concrete, Daniel thought. But then, if he’d had his choice, he wouldn’t be rigged out like this to meet what passed for the Great and Good of the Qaboosh Region.

    He grinned. The son of a Cinnabar senator knew who counted in this universe. It wasn’t anybody he’d be meeting today.

    “Captain Leary?” the commander called. “I’m Milch, and I’m honored to meet you. Or — should I have saluted? Bloody hell, Leary, I apologize! We don’t stand much on ceremony out here, you know.”

    Milch was a little taller than Daniel and a little plumper, but he looked both alert and friendly. Sometimes the officers you found in posts like this were people who for one reason or another — booze was a frequent one — couldn’t be trusted anywhere they might actually have to do the job of an RCN officer.

    “I don’t stand much on ceremony either, Commander,” Daniel said, “because I’m so bloody poor at it. Even when I’m not wearing this clown suit –”

    He flicked the sash again with a grimace.

    “– for which I apologize, but I understood it was the admiral’s orders that I wear foreign decorations.”

    “Oh, don’t apologize, Leary,” said Milch as they walked back alongside one another toward the car. “You’re quite a coup for us. The Palmyrenes have been making all the running at this Assembly, but you’ve just given Admiral Mainwaring a way to top the Autocrator. The only thing better would be if you’d come in a bloody great battleship instead of a corvette.”

    “I think a battleship would rather defeat the intention of delivering the new Commissioner to Zenobia in a quiet and courteous fashion, Commander,” Daniel said dryly. “Though I’m surprised that Palmyra is, well, so important. I had the impression that it was merely a regional power, and the Qaboosh Region isn’t — you’ll forgive me?”

    Milch chuckled and said, “Isn’t worth mentioning in the same sentence as, oh –”

    He gestured to the aigrette on Daniel’s left shoulder, the Order of Strymon.

    “– Strymon, you mean? Or Kostroma? Well, you’d be right — but the people here, in the region, don’t know that. The Qaboosh is so far from Cinnabar — or Pleasaunce — that the Autocrator gets taken at her own valuation because nobody knows any better. Including her.”

    Daniel found the quay a subconscious relief because it didn’t spring up and down in response to the commander’s forceful strides. A starship under way vibrates on many simultaneous frequencies, but one whose hull actually bounces is in very serious trouble indeed.

    “But surely one heavy cruiser, even out here . . . ,” he said. “And a local crew, I assume?”

    Milch didn’t bridle, exactly, but there was a slight sharpness in his tone as he said, “Local crew except for specialists, yes, by and large. And you won’t find better spacers than the Palmyrenes, Captain. As for the Piri Reis, that’s the cruiser, she’s enough to handle everything else in the region, ours or the Alliance’s. But it’s the cutters that make Palmyra important. I’ll show you when we get aloft. Simmons?”

    “Sir?” replied the driver, opening the car’s middle door for the officers. Milch gestured Daniel to a front-facing seat of the middle pairs, then took the one opposite him as the driver got in.

    “Take us up to a hundred feet and circle the Civil basin clockwise instead of going straight to the Palmyrene do,” Milch said. To Daniel he went on, “Palmyra was independent for five hundred years following the Hiatus, but Pleasaunce took over in the First Expansion and held the planet till the Consolidation Wars. It was their regional HQ.”

    The driver had left his fans idling at zero incidence while waiting instead of shutting down. That allowed him to lift off as soon as he got in, simply by running up the throttle with one hand and coarsening the blade pitch with the other. The lightly loaded car rose in steep curve.

    “The Pleasaunce governor,” Milch said, “revolted and declared independence. The regional forces went along with him. By the time the Alliance of Free Stars had formed around Pleasaunce and Blythe thirty years later, it would have taken a major expedition to recover the place. Nothing in the Qaboosh Region was worth the effort.”

    Daniel grinned wryly. A certain amount of grit had blown over the tops of his ankle boots — the footgear of 1st Class uniforms was standard space boots in design, though they were glossy black instead of gray suede — but it wouldn’t have time to work down to where it would raise blisters. What was presumably good enough for the Squadron Commander was perforce good enough for the captain of a private yacht.

    “I’ll grant you the Autocrator has been putting on airs — Odin was bad enough, but to listen to his widow Irene you’d think you were hearing the Speaker of the Senate,” Milch said. “But it’s a bloody good thing the Horde is out there or the region’d be overrun with pirates. There’s not much we could do with four patrol sloops — when none of them are in the yard — and an old gunboat. The Alliance has two modern destroyers on Zenobia, but besides that it’s a handful of gunboats scattered through the region.”

    “I noticed the Z 46,” Daniel said. The aircar’s wide circle had brought them around to the destroyer’s berth. “Frankly, I was a little surprised. The Peace of Rheims is fresh enough –”

    He meant “fragile enough.”

    “– that there aren’t likely to be courtesy calls to most squadron bases for a while yet.”

    “Oh, we’ve always been more relaxed here,” the commander said. “Neither side was strong enough to push matters, and until the past year Irene was busy with two of her husband’s sons by mistresses who had their own ideas about who should be the new Autocrator. But the reason the Z 46 is here is Hergo Belisande, the Founder of Zenobia. He’s a very small fish, as you might expect, but he’s as noisy as if he counted for something. He’s been raising holy hell at the Assembly, claiming that Palmyra plans to attack him and that he wouldn’t be safe travelling by anything but an Alliance warship.”

    Milch shrugged. “The Fleet commander on Zenobia, Lieutenant Commander von Gleuck, asked Admiral Mainwaring through a back channel if it would be all right — it’s not a decision for the Governor, you see. And we didn’t see any reason why not.”



    “Are those the Palmyrene cutters?” Daniel said suddenly as the car continued its circle. “There, the slip alongside the cruiser, the six of them?”

    “Ah, you noticed, did you?” Milch said in a pleased tone. “I wondered if you would. Yes, they are — and it’s just what it looks like. There’s a full set of hydraulic linkages for the sails and yards in the dorsal bow, not just a semaphore keypad. The ships can be conned from the hull while they’re in the Matrix.”

    “I’ll be buggered,” Daniel said. “I’ve never seen that, though my Uncle Stacy said that it could be done. Some of the little clusters he’d found had people who did it.”

    He looked from the cutters below to Milch. “Pirates,” he said. “It’s not good for much except piracy, is it?”

    “And anti-pirate operations,” Milch said, nodding. “Which is what the Palmyrenes do now. But that’s a reason we don’t get shirty about the unique glory of Cinnabar here in the Qaboosh Region. An RCN battlegroup could take care of the Piri Reis without blinking, but a couple hundred cutters like that — the Horde and private ventures — would pretty much shut down trade in the region for as long as they wanted to.”

    His face suddenly blank, Daniel glanced at the commander. He’d been mildly contemptuous of the Qaboosh Region and the Cinnabar officials here. Oh, it was natural enough — inevitable, he supposed, for an officer who’d been in the thick of things and had done very well for himself and for the Republic.

    But Commander Milch’s strategic appraisal was completely valid — and would have been beyond the imagination of most RCN officers whose service had been limited to big ships and important regions. And those Palmyrene cutters were remarkable by any standards, even Daniel’s own.

    They were small, displacing five hundred tons or even less. They were armed with clusters of unguided rockets whose only purpose was to damage the rigging of other ships in sidereal space. The more sophisticated rockets had proximity fuses, though pirates often made do with contact fuses and simply got close enough that one or more rockets hit the hull or rigging.

    When that happened, a 20-pound bursting charge blew a cloud of shrapnel in all directions, cutting cables and clawing sails to rags whether they were spread or furled against the yards. The hull — even of a lightly built merchantman — was unlikely to sustain any damage worse than scars and perhaps a sprung seam. Pirates didn’t want to damage cargos, and the ships might also be of value if only for spare parts.

    For the rockets to hit, they had to be launched at knife range. Pirates achieved that by tracking their prey in the Matrix dropping into sidereal space on top of them. Spacers who’d soaked themselves in the feel of the Matrix could pick up the linear anomalies of other ships passing close to their own. Daniel could do that, and he’d taught the art — it wasn’t a skill — to some of his midshipmen.

    But to actually conn a ship from the hull instead of depending on computed solutions — that would have been beyond even Uncle Stacy’s abilities. All six of the Horde cutters were fitted to do that, and a quick survey of similar cutters in the harbor showed that at least half of them had similar installations. Ordinary warships would be as useless against such enemies as cannon would be to deal with flies.

    Daniel pursed his lips and nodded in understanding. “I take your point, Commander,” he said. “I surely do. Now I suppose I’m ready to go be a performing monkey for Admiral Mainwaring.”

    “Take us down, Simmons,” Milch said in obvious satisfaction. As the aircar curved toward a parking area near where the Piri Reis floated at the west end of the harbor, he added, “The Qaboosh isn’t like Cinnabar, not by a long run, I’ll admit. But it has its interesting points.”

    Daniel nodded. Milch was right about that.



    Adele was busy and therefore content. Thirty-two separate worlds had sent delegations to the Qaboosh Assembly. Dakota had sent two, from the East Continent and the West Continent respectively, both of which had spent the event in their hotel rooms with liquor and prostitutes. Adele was gathering information on everyone attending, using payment records, imagery, and security logs as well as the Assembly minutes.

    Her console whirred softly. She dipped into what blurred past, but for the most part this was a job for machinery. The data couldn’t really be digested until there was a use for it. Was it significant that Mortonsonia’s President of the Conference was having an affair with the Hereditary Queen of Isis? Perhaps, but not until at least one of those worlds became important — which certainly wasn’t the present case.

    Adele smiled. In a perfect universe, her data banks would contain all the information there was on every subject. As soon as someone had a use for the information, she would provide it to them.

    Information wasn’t of any intrinsic use to her, of course. She just wanted to have it available.

    Tovera was at the console’s training station, viewing feeds from the security cameras recording the Autocrator’s gala. Adele had unlocked the station for her, of course, but Tovera could have used another console if she had wished to — the two of them were alone on the bridge. Apparently she found the jump-seat adequately comfortable. Besides, like her mistress, Tovera considered comfort to be a matter of small importance.

    Adele would view the imagery later, after the rout had broken up. She wanted to watch Lady Posthuma Belisande conducting herself in public: with whom she interacted, how much she drank, what her expression was in the moments she wasn’t talking to another guest. All of those things had bearing on how Adele might best get close to her target.

    Her display registered an incoming call via microwave, from RCN Qaboosh Regional Headquarters to CS—not RCS, because the Sissie was a private charter — Princess Cecile, Attention Signals Officer. Adele would have fielded the call anyway, though she supposed she was technically off-duty. The routing had piqued her interest.

    “Qaboosh, this is Princess Cecile,” she said. Tovera had shut down her display and was listening intently to the conversation. “Go ahead, over.”

    “Princess Cecile, I’m Technician Runkle,” said the female voice on the other end of the signal. “The Communications Section here has a problem, and we’ve heard that your Signals Officer is a wizard. Adele Mundy is your Signals Officer, is she not, over?”

    “Qaboosh, that is correct,” Adele said. Her wands flickered as she spoke; the data stream now in the center of her display told her what she had expected. “What sort of assistance are you requesting, over?”

    “We would appreciate it if Officer Mundy would come to the Headquarters Annex 6, that’s the white temporary building to the left of the main building, as soon as she can be spared from her regular duties,” Runkle said. “She’ll be met at the door. Ah — I’m sorry, but we don’t have a car to send, over.”

    “One moment, Qaboosh,” Adele said. “Break. Mundy for officer-in-charge, over.”

    “Vesey here,” the acting captain responded almost instantly. She had remained in the BDC rather than coming forward to take the command console. Either decision would have been proper, but Vesey was extremely punctilious about not seeming to covet the captain’s prerogatives. “Go ahead, over.”

    “Sir,” said Adele, “Tech 8 Runkle has requested that I join her in the Headquarters Annex 6. She stated that the communications section is having a problem which they would like my help with. Do you have any objection to my going to the Annex as requested, over?”

    “Permission granted,” Vesey said crisply. “Do you want any support, Mundy? Or a vehicle? We’re supposed to have the use of a pair of motor pool trucks while we’re here, over?”

    “Thank you, sir, but that won’t be necessary,” Adele said, rising from her console. “It’s only half a mile. Mundy out.”



    “I wondered if you were going to tell her,” Tovera said. Her smile was a smirk most of the time that it didn’t look as though she were a carnivore preparing to leap.

    “I told her everything that was important to her,” Adele said. “I have to change out of utilities before I leave the ship, though.”

    They started for the companionway. Tovera said, “Cory would have known, wouldn’t he?”

    “Yes, I suppose he would,” Adele said. “But he’s still standing on the quay with the Browns, and anyway, it doesn’t matter.”

    Cory would have traced the signal back to its source as a matter of course. He liked signals. And with that cue, he probably would have found a building manifest. That in turn would have told him that the only occupant of Annex 6 was the Regional Intelligence Section.



    The band was playing a song Daniel remembered as being current in Xenos just before he graduated from the Academy, but it had been rescored for what he supposed were Palmyrene instruments: recorders with a swollen air box immediately beneath the mouthpiece; stringed instruments, plucked as well as bowed, with very long necks and rounded bodies; sets of hand-stroked drums; and a sistrum — fourteen pieces in all.

    The Piri Reis floated in the largest slip in the Civil Basin, suitable for a bulk freighter or even a battleship, so there was a good deal of water between the cruiser’s bow and the peripheral quay. That had been decked for a dance floor with steel beams and thick wooden planks instead of the usual thin plating supported by gridwork attached to pontoons.

    Daniel grinned. It didn’t flex, although among the dancers was a circle of twelve men in pantaloons and loose tunics whose whirling was definitely on the acrobatic side. Several of them held in either hand green scarves which fluttered wildly as they spun.

    “They’re from Behistun,” Milch said, leaning close to be heard. “The only reason I know is there was a lieutenant commander in Administration when I was first posted here who was doing a study of them. You couldn’t shut him up in the mess.”

    The crowd numbered several hundred. Some wore uniforms, but not nearly so many as Daniel had learned to expect on the fringes of — not to put too fine a point on it — civilization, as a citizen of Cinnabar or Pleasaunce would define the state.

    The other surprise was that planetary costumes of various types predominated. Indeed, Daniel would have seen far more women dressed in the latest Pleasaunce fashion at a party in Xenos than he did here. The residents of the Qaboosh Region were so distant from the centers of power that they didn’t realize their customs were quaint and laughable.

    Daniel smiled wryly. Given their ability to navigate in the Matrix, they had reason to be satisfied with who they were.

    “Leary?” someone called. “Daniel Leary, and it’s not half a wonder to find you on Stahl’s World!”

    Coming through the press wearing Grays was Lieutenant Ames, an Academy classmate with whom Daniel had spent a good deal of time when they were both impecunious Cadets. Ames had the same smile and the same unruly black hair. His uniform looked as though it was meant for a larger man and had been cut down inexpertly, so he was probably still impecunious as well.

    “By heavens, it’s good to see you, Ames!” Daniel said, clasping hands with his old friend. “I’m glad to see you’ve –”

    His tongue twitched an instant, then concluded, ” –kept yourself so fit.”

    “The great thing about being out in the boondocks, Leary . . . ,” said Ames with a quirked smile. “Is that the chances are you won’t be thrown on half pay when peace breaks out and your ship is put into ordinary. Our Lords of Navy House can’t run down the Qaboosh Establishment very much and still have an establishment here. So yes, I’m still Second Lieutenant of the Fantome.”

    Daniel nodded in embarrassment. He’d always thought Ames was among the sharpest of his classmates, but his combination of being brash, poor, and unlucky was a bad one.

    “If you don’t mind, Ames,” said Milch, who obviously minded the delay quite a lot himself, “I need to introduce our guest to Admiral Mainwaring. Do you know where he is? Perhaps you can catch up with the captain at some later point; but not, I think, today.”

    “The Admiral is on the quay near the forward boarding ramp, sir,” Ames said. “About as far from the band as he could get, I shouldn’t wonder. Ah — I wonder, Commander Milch?”

    “Well, what is it, boy?” Milch snapped as he started down the quay separating the cruiser’s slip from the adjacent one where the six Palmyrene cutters were berthed. They were small enough in all truth, but against the bulk of a heavy cruiser they looked tiny.

    “I’d appreciate a chance to introduce Captain Leary to the Admiral myself,” Ames said. “We are old friends.”

    He cocked an eyebrow toward Daniel.

    “Hear hear!” Daniel said with honest enthusiasm. “We are indeed, Commander.”

    “And it’s a, well, different context from some of those the Admiral may recall me in,” Ames concluded hopefully.

    Milch guffawed. “You mean, like the time you and Midshipman Jarndyce appeared at the Governor’s Ball in silks, claiming to be the Sultan of Patagonia and his Chief Concubine?” he said. “All right, Ames, you can introduce your friend. But make yourself scarce as soon as you have, got that?”

    “Aye aye, sir!” said Ames. “And here, most honorable captain, is the man we’re fortunate to have as our squadron commander.”

    The admiral stood in the midst of Whites and civilian clothing ranging from tweeds to a barefoot woman wearing a poncho of cerise feathers with a mantilla. Mainwaring was a big man; he certainly carried more weight than he needed to, but Daniel’s first impression was of power rather than flabby indolence. He was holding a drink in his right hand and gesturing forcefully to the befeathered lady with his left.

    “Admiral Mainwaring?” said Ames. “May I have the honor to present my classmate, Captain Daniel Leary?

    “What?” said Mainwaring. He held out his drink to the side; a boy of sixteen or so, wearing Whites without insignia, snatched it away to free the Admiral’s hand. “Ames, are you telling me that the captain was a classmate of yours?”

    “He was indeed, sir,” said Daniel. By regulation, salutes weren’t to be exchanged in civilian venues, but he’d held himself ready to try if Mainwaring’s scowl had showed that the admiral was expecting one. “And you can take most of his stories for true, because Cadet Ames was generally in the lead when the more interesting incidents were happening.”

    Mainwaring laughed, but he gave the lieutenant an appraising look. Ames nodded politely, then said, “I’ll be off then, sir. Leary, it’s a pleasure to see you, as always.”

    “You and he really did run around together, Leary?” Mainwaring said.

    “Yes sir,” Daniel said. “And based on my experience of Ames at the Academy, I’d venture that Midshipman Jarndyce is a comely young lady.”

    A lieutenant commander laughed. “You got that in one, sir,” he said. “I’m Paxston — ” which Daniel had already determined from the tag on his left breast “– of the Fantome, young Ames’ CO.”

    Not for the first time it struck Daniel that people were referring to him with deference and his classmates — Ames was thirty-seven days his senior — as “young this-or-that.” Apparently success added not only laurels but years.

    “Now,” said Mainwaring, “we need to find the Autocrator. Milch, do you see anybody in a yellow cap?”

    To Daniel he added, “Those would be Palmyrene officers. One of them ought to know.”

    Milch disappeared on his implied errand. Daniel spread a smile across the group around the admiral, feeling uncomfortable.



    One learned in the RCN that a superior officer’s whim was the word of god, but he’d much rather that Mainwaring had taken a moment to introduce him at least to the Cinnabar officers present. Nobody likes to be ignored, and — quite apart from being a generally courteous person himself — Daniel had learned that nobody was so insignificant that their resentment couldn’t matter.

    It also struck him that the quickest way of learning where Autocrator Irene was would be to ask Adele over microphone concealed under his left epaulette and get the answer through the bud in his right ear. He didn’t want to call attention to himself — or to Adele — in that fashion, but the idea was tempting.

    “I believe I can help you there, Admiral Mainwaring,” said a cultured baritone behind Daniel’s left shoulder. “Autocrator Irene is in conference with your Regional Governor, Master Wenzel, in the Admiral’s Suite on A Level of the Piri Reis.”

    Daniel turned and backed slightly, though he kept his smile. The speaker, a man of about thirty Standard years, was, by leaning slightly backward, being punctiliously careful not to crowd. That didn’t make much change in the distance, but the body language was clear.

    His costume was remarkable: loose pantaloons gathered above the ankles and an equally billowy shirt with full sleeves but a deeply cut Vee neck that displayed quite a lot of muscular chest. Over it he wore a gold chain whose links looked so buttery pure that Daniel suspected he could bend them with his fingers.

    “This is Zenobian national costume,” the man said, facing Daniel with an engaging smile. They were of a height, but the stranger was undeniably trimmer. Daniel controlled his urge to suck his gut in; he was better off not to try to compete on those terms.

    “The colors aren’t,” said the woman touching the fellow’s arm. “If you can even call those colors.”

    “I’d suspected as much,” Daniel said, smiling in growing amusement. The pantaloons were light gray and the tunic was gray-green — field gray, if you were describing a Fleet dress uniform, whose hues the outfit perfectly mimicked. The golden bangle hanging from the chain was three crossed tridents: the rank insignia of a Fleet lieutenant commander.

    “Thank you, sir!” said Admiral Mainwaring. “And now if I may ask, who the bloody hell are you?”

    The stranger turned and made a half bow to Mainwaring. “Your pardon, Admiral,” he said. “I am Fregattenkapitan Otto von Gleuck, commanding Z 46. We have no friends in common, I fear, so I chose to approach you without a proper introduction. I of course knew of you and likewise knew of Captain Leary.”

    He glanced again to Daniel and nodded, not as formal an acknowledgment but an apparently friendly one.

    “I’m very pleased to meet you both.”

    “Pleased as well,” said Daniel with a comparable nod and an equally friendly smile. “I hope that now that our peoples are at peace, there’ll be more chance for the professionals on both sides to socialize.”

    He offered his hand as though they were civilians meeting; von Gleuck gripped it firmly, but without attempting the silly game of trying to crush a stranger’s fingers. They stepped back from one another.

    Admiral Mainwaring was turning red. Von Gleuck bowed again to him and said, “Admiral, may I have the honor of presenting Lady Posthuma Belisande of Zenobia. Her brother Hergo, you may know, is the Founder of her planet; so to speak, the President for Life. She has recently returned home from a stay on Pleasaunce.”

    That explains her fashion sense, thought Daniel. He’d seen his share of attractive women, but no more than a handful whom he would put in Lady Posthuma’s class. Her poise gave her a presence beyond what her exceptional face and body could have done by themselves.

    She curtseyed to Mainwaring and rose with a smile that could have lighted an arena. “Admiral,” she said, “it truly is an honor to meet you. And do please call me Posy. All my friends do.”

    Daniel smiled ruefully. Mainwaring would have had to be a better man than Captain Daniel Leary to resist charm on that level. But from the proprietorial way the lady’s hand had rested on von Gleuck’s arm as they approached, the Alliance had already won this battle.

    “Enchanted, your ladyship,” Mainwaring said, bending over Posy’s hand with the enthusiasm of a starving cannibal. “Is your brother here, then? Not that anyone would care when your lovely self is present.”

    Commander Milch reappeared with a sharp-featured man of fifty who wore a round, brimless yellow cap. His uniform was tan with silver buttons but no other markings. There was a five-pointed star on the cap, also silver.

    “Sir?” said Milch. “This is Commander Bailey, the Chief Gunnery Officer of the Piri Reis. The Autocrator gave him a message for you.”

    “Right you are, Admiral,” Bailey said in an accent straight from the spacers’ tenements around Harbor Three. “She was just going into conference with your Governor Wenzel when she heard that the ship what just landed had brought Captain Leary. She asked could I show him around the cruiser till she was through, because she really wanted to meet him.”

    Mainwaring looked thunderous again; then his face cleared. “Well, I wanted to show you off to the Autocrator myself, but it seems she’s stolen a march on me,” he said. “Run along, Leary, and I’ll catch up with you later. I trust you to uphold the honor of the RCN without me nurse maiding you.”

    “Aye aye, sir!” Daniel said brightly. He had been in an awkward situation for a moment. It was Mainwaring who’d created the problem, by ordering him to be present at the gala and thereby giving his hostess a right to request his attendance. One didn’t need much experience of the RCN or of life more generally to know that admirals and their civilian equivalents tended not to blame themselves when their wishes were thwarted, however.

    “I wonder, Commander Bailey?” said von Gleuck. “Would you mind if Lady Belisande and I joined you? If it’s all right with Captain Leary, that is.”

    “Perfectly all right, ah, Master von Gleuck,” Daniel said, gesturing toward the lieutenant commander’s civilian tunic. “The more the merrier, wouldn’t you say, Bailey?”

    Bailey looked stricken, but he swallowed his confusion and mumbled, “Well, I suppose it’d be all right. Come along, then.”

    As they followed Bailey up the forward boarding ramp, Posy giggled and whispered, “You men! You’re being cruel to the poor little fellow! He’ll get in trouble.”

    “Now, now,” von Gleuck said. “I just wanted to chat with Leary here.”

    Daniel gave the woman a shamefaced grin, knowing that she was right: the Autocrator might be very unhappy when she learned that Bailey had given an enemy officer a tour of her flagship. But whatever Bailey’s Palmyrene rank might be, he was clearly an oik from the Xenos slums; there was no way he was going to resist the double-teaming of two aristocrats.

    And apart from anything else, Daniel wanted to get to know von Gleuck.

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