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Some Golden Harbor: Chapter One

       Last updated: Thursday, March 2, 2006 10:37 EST



Xenos on Cinnabar

    "This way, mistress," said the hostess of Pleasaunce Style, dipping slightly at the knees before turning to lead Adele Mundy into the restaurant. "Your luncheon companion is waiting. Ah...?"

    She turned, a look of question if not concern on her perfectly formed face. "Your companion requested a table in the Sky Room where you'll be seen by all. You were aware of that, mistress?"

    The hostess was slender and had been tall even before she'd teased her brunette hair up on stiffeners of mauve feathers that matched her dress. The coiffeur formed a curtained cage in which an insect the size of Adele's thumb sat and shrieked. That would've been irritating enough by itself, but all the waitresses were wearing similar hairdos. The insects sang in stridently different keys.

    "I didn't know that," Adele said, trying not to sound snappish, "but it doesn't matter."

    "Of course, mistress," the hostess said and resumed her smooth progress into the restaurant.

    Adele supposed the question had been a criticism of her suit, light gray with a thin black stripe. Though as expensive as the clothing of the other diners, it was conservatively cut. The hostess might've preferred rags--which could've been a cutting edge fashion statement--to Adele's muted respectability.

    Adele smiled thinly, wondering if she might be able to convince the hostess that she was really a trend-setter; that in the past several weeks her severe garments had become the rage on Bryce and Pleasaunce, respectively the intellectual and political centers of the Alliance of Free Stars. She very possibly could--she could ape a Bryce accent flawlessly--but it'd be a pointless thing to do.

    Given that life generally appeared to be pointless, though.... She'd see whether the idea continued to appeal to her after she'd met with Maurice Claverhouse.

    The hostess led Adele up a sweeping staircase to the mezzanine hanging over the middle of the regular dining area. People on the main floor followed them with their eyes. Under other circumstances that would've irritated her, but this meeting was work. Adele was a Signals Officer in the Republic of Cinnabar Navy and an agent for Mistress Bernis Sand, the Republic's spymaster. Both appointments had put her in situations more uncomfortable than lunching in a trendy restaurant.

    "Watch your step," the hostess warned, gesturing toward the flared landing at the top of the stairs. It joined the mezzanine proper on a thin curved line: the Sky Room must rotate. Though the floor had a cloudy presence when viewed from below, it was clear when Adele looked down.

    There were only six tables in the Sky Room, arranged to put the diners on display. A reservation here obviously required more than money, making Adele wonder again why Claverhouse had chosen this venue for their meeting. Several of those present were dressed in fashions as extreme as those of the servers, though they didn't have insects in their hair.

    Adele permitted herself a minuscule grin. Not deliberately, at any rate, and in this company the likelihood of lice was slight compared to the sort of places in which poverty had forced Adele to eat and sleep for many years.

    The Mundys of Chatsworth had been among the wealthiest and most powerful nobles on Cinnabar, but their property'd been confiscated when they were executed for treason during the Three Circles Conspiracy seventeen standard years ago. Adele, then sixteen, had survived because she was on Bryce to continue her education in the Academic Collections there. The Director, Mistress Boileau, had acted as Adele's protector as well as mentor, but she herself wasn't wealthy.

    Adele kept a straight face as she glanced past the man at the adjacent table wearing diaphanous garments trimmed with what seemed to be random patches of fur. If it hadn't been for the Three Circles Conspiracy, Adele Mundy'd would've had a circle of acquaintances who'd keep her abreast of current fashions like those. She'd continue to manage to live with her ignorance, however.

    The hostess stopped beside a table whose present occupant, a man in what looked at first glance like a uniform in gold braid and puce, rose to greet her. "Little Adele," he said. "Still the studious little girl, I see."

    "Good day, Maurice," Adele said. What was proper etiquette in greeting a man who'd been old when you last met him as a child? "I'm still studious, yes. And probably as girlish as I ever was."

    Which meant not girlish at all, as people generally defined such things. Adele'd been quiet and serious from as far back as she could remember. Her best friends had always been books and the knowledge books brought her. Her little sister Agatha, though, had liked dolls and people and games. When Agatha was ten years old, two soldiers had identified her as a Mundy and therefore a traitor; and they'd cut her head off with their knives.



    The hostess drew a chair out for her. Adele found such displays of empty subservience irritating, but objecting would simply delay matters and might offend the man from whom she hoped to glean current information about the situation on Dunbar's World.

    Why had Claverhouse picked a place like this to meet, though? Adele didn't care, but she'd have thought he'd have been more comfortable in Chatsworth Minor, now her townhouse and a familiar resort for Claverhouse in the days when her father, Lucius Mundy, led the Popular Party.

    The old man sat back heavily. The years had weighed on him. He wasn't overweight in the usual sense, but flesh seemed to hang in soft masses from the rack of his bones. He wheezed slightly as he said, "Little Adele. I was more surprised than I can say to hear from you as soon as I arrived back on Cinnabar after all these years. I hadn't realized that you--"

    He paused, meeting Adele's eyes; his breath caught again and his hand tightened on his glass. He'd been waiting long enough--though Adele was precisely on time--to have gotten a drink layered in liqueurs of differing colors.

    "--survived. If you don't mind an old man saying so."

    Why don't the layers mix? As the question popped into her mind, Adele reached reflexively for the personal data unit she carried in a pocket specially sewn into the right thigh of every pair of trousers she owned. The little unit probably held the answer. Even if it didn't, she'd coupled it to every major data base here in Xenos--including those whose access was supposedly restricted.

    Some people said that knowledge was power. To Adele Mundy, knowledge was life itself.

    But the knowledge she'd come to gather had nothing to do with drink preparation, so she managed to restrain her hand. Smiling to herself, she said, "I was off-planet during the Proscriptions. Your assumption would've been correct for the other members of the family, however."

    Maybe the smile was the wrong expression under the circumstances. Claverhouse looked stricken and gulped down half the contents of his tall glass.

    Adele grimaced, wishing she were better at social interactions. She never seemed to say or do the right thing. For pity's sake, he'd brought the subject up!

    "I was surprised to see the name of an old acquaintance--"

    Should she have said 'friend'?

    "--when I was checking records of recent arrivals from Dunbar's World, Maurice," she said, plowing ahead because she couldn't think of any better way to proceed. "I've been assigned to assist Commander Leary--I'm an RCN officer myself, warrant officer that is--in his mission to Dunbar's World, so I need information on the present situation there. The invasion by Pellegrino, that is."

    "You said as much when you asked for a meeting," Claverhouse said heavily. "Among the other surprises that gave me was was learning that Lucius' elder daughter had joined the Navy."

    'Navy' was the civilian term for what anyone in the service called the RCN. Adele didn't correct him--the old man was a civilian, after all--but her smile was a touch stiffer than it might otherwise have been. Clavernhouse had reminded her how much she'd had to change because the world into which she'd been born had changed.

    The odd thing was, the thing that Adele would never have believed at the moment she learned that the heads of her parents and most of their friends were displayed on the Speaker's Rock in the center of Xenos, was that the change was largely for the better. Better by the terms in which she judged things now. The RCN had become more of a family than her blood relatives would ever have been, and she had a remarkably close friend in Daniel Leary.

    Even though his father, Speaker Leary, was the man whose proscriptions had ended the Three Circles Conspiracy and most of the Mundy family.

    "Would mistress like a drink before her meal?" asked a waitress. This one's fine blond hair gave Adele a better view of the caged bug. It had six legs, large, clear wings, and a thoroughly unpleasant voice.

    Daniel would be interested: he liked both natural history and pretty young blondes. As well as pretty young brunettes, pretty young red-heads, and any other variety of pretty young woman.

    "Yes," said Adele, taking the wine list and indicating the first offering under the heading WHITE WINES. She didn't care, not even a little bit, but she'd long since learned that saying, "I don't care," to a waiter would only create more delay. "A glass of that. Thank you."

    "And another Volcano for me," said Claverhouse. An amber half inch remained of his drink; he finished it and shoved the glass toward the waitress.

    His eyes remained on Adele. When the blond and her insect took themselves away, he said, "Do you suppose that they really do dress like that on Pleasaunce? Or is it an elaborate joke?"

    Adele shrugged. "In my experience," she said, "the people who really care about fashion don't have a sense of humor. Yes, I think a certain class of people on Pleasaunce goes about with bugs in its hair... or did recently, at any rate. I suppose there's some delay in information since war's become open again."

    The Republic of Cinnabar and the Alliance of Free Stars were the major groupings that'd appeared since the thousand-year Hiatus from star travel. There was always rivalry and often war, but even during war there was a degree of social and artistic intercourse. There was nothing surprising about a restaurant in Xenos, the capital of the Republic, naming and modeling itself on the style of the chief planet of the Alliance; nor was it surprising that Adele Mundy had studied for a decade on Bryce while the RCN battled Alliance squadrons across the whole human galaxy.

    "Sometimes it's difficult to keep a sense of humor," Claverhouse said, his eyes unfocused. He cleared his throat and went on more purposefully, "You said, 'the Pellegrinian invasion of Dunbar's World' but that's not precisely what happened. Pellegrino isn't within Ganpat's Reach the way Dunbar's World and Bennaria are; it's just outside. Pellegrino's a significant trade hub, but the Reach itself--and certainly Dunbar's World--was a backwater where an exile could carry on a business without attracting attention."

    He smiled at a memory, looking suddenly younger. "Miroslav Krychek had been an Alliance colonel," he went on. "He killed one of Guarantor Porra's favorites in a duel and arrived on Dunbar's World at almost the same time I did following the Proscriptions. I had a considerable amount of cash from liquidating assets that weren't on Cinnabar proper, and Miroslav had two hundred armed retainers. We went into partnership."

    The waitress brought the drinks with a chirping flourish. The bugs seemed to make the sound with their legs instead of their mouths. Adele firmly believed that there was no useless knowledge, so she'd gotten something out of the experience... but she certainly wished that Claverhouse had come to Chatsworth Minor instead.

    "And then the Pellegrinians invaded," Adele prompted, since her host appeared to be concentrating on the fresh drink. She couldn't imagine how Claverhouse had gotten to his present age if he drank like this as a regular thing; perhaps the shock of being driven from his home again had overwhelmed him.

    "Not exactly," said Claverhouse, looking at her shrewdly. "You really are interested in Dunbar's World, aren't you?"

    "Yes, of course," Adele said, holding her temper with some difficulty. If he isn't drunk, is he senile? "I'm accompanying Commander Leary to help our ally Bennaria oppose the invasion of their ally, Dunbar's World."

    "In the middle of war with the Alliance, the Navy is sending one of its most successful young officers off to the back side of nowhere?" Claverhouse said. "You see, I've done some checking myself. And I'm afraid I don't find your story convincing, Mistress Mundy."

    Adele felt her face stiffen. She carried a pistol in her left tunic pocket, its weight as familiar and comforting to her as that of the personal data unit. She'd killed with it in the past, killed more times than she could count. An old man who'd called her a liar would be a slight additional burden to her soul.

    Then instead she smiled. "Maurice," she said, "I wouldn't have thought I had to tell you that Cinnabar politics can be harsh. Commander Leary was thought, perhaps with justification, to be a favorite of Admiral Anston, the former Chief of the Navy Board. Anston retired after a heart attack shortly before Commander Leary returned to Cinnabar in a captured prize. The new Chief, Admiral Vocaine, is most definitely not a partisan of Commander Leary. One might surmise that this mission to 'the back side of nowhere' was a Godsend to both men."



    Adele paused and licked her lips; they'd gone dry with the rush of adrenalin that had urged her hand toward her pistol. "I tell you that," she continued, "on my honor as a Mundy. I hope you won't question my word, Maurice."

    Claverhouse set his drink back on the table and met her eyes. "No, of course not," he said. "My apologies, dear girl. My sincere apologies. As for Dunbar's World--"

    Skre-e-ell! "Would you care to hear the specials on today's luncheon menu?"

    Claverhouse gave the waitress a look of cold fury and said, "No, we would not. Bill me for two soups and salads and eat them yourself while leaving us alone."

    He glanced at Adele. "Unless you, my dear...?"

    "No, quite right," said Adele.

    "Then be gone, " Claverhouse snapped to the waitress. "And take you vermin with you!"

    He cleared his throat and went on, "Yes, Dunbar's World. Chancellor Arruns, the leader of Pellegrino, has a son named Nataniel. Nataniel Arruns is an active, ambitious young man. He's not ideally suited to living quietly at home and waiting to rule Pellegrino when his father dies in the normal course of events. Nataniel has gone to Dunbar's World with ten thousand mercenaries to conquer a base for himself."

    "So it's not a Pellegrinian invasion after all?" Adele said, frowning. Mistress Sand hadn't been able to provide much information, but that much at least had seemed certain.

    "Technically, no," said Claverhouse. He smiled coldly. "But those mercenaries were until a month or so ago members of the Defense Forces of Pellegrino, and I have suspicions as to where their pay is coming from even now. The fact that it's not legally war between states is useful for all concerned, however. It'd wreck Pellegrino's economy if vessels trading to Ganpat's Reach couldn't stop there as they ordinarily do."

    "Ah," said Adele, nodding. This was a legal fiction which, like so many other things that looked like lies, made normal human interactions possible. That was much of the reason that Adele was uncomfortable with human interactions.

    She brought out her data unit now--properly, because they'd gotten onto the business of the meeting and she didn't have to worry that she'd offend Claverhouse. What the staff of Pleasaunce Style thought of her was another matter, but she really didn't worry about that.

    "Ten thousand troops is a large force to transport even a relatively short interstellar distance...," she said as the unit's holographic display bloomed in pearly readiness. Daniel had told her Pellegrino was from three to five days from Dunbar's World as a civilian vessel would make the voyage. "But Dunbar's World has a population of half a million according to my information. Is that correct?"

    "Close enough," Claverhouse said. "There's no army, there wasn't, I mean, but if everybody'd been behind the govern...."

    His voice trailed off as he stared at Adele. "What in God's name are you doing?" he demanded. "Are those chopsticks?" Adele grimaced in embarrassment; another person might have forced a smile instead. "These are the wands I use to control my personal data unit," she said. "With practice they're much faster and more accurate than a virtual keyboard. I, ah, prefer them."

    Claverhouse shook his head in wonder. "I always thought you were a clever little girl," he said. In a different tone he added, "So much has changed. So very much."

    Adele shrugged. "I suppose times always change," she said. She smiled faintly. "Sometimes they even change for the better."

    Her amusement was not at the thought itself but because the thought'd come into the mind of Adele Mundy. A few years ago--before she met Daniel and became part of the RCN--it would've been beyond her conception; and that was the best evidence of change for the better that there could be.

    "Do they?" said Claverhouse. "Well, perhaps you're right. But you want to hear about Dunbar's World."

    Adele nodded crisply, then smiled again--this time at the serious way she'd responded to what Claverhouse had meant as a mild joke. Fashion-conscious people weren't the only ones who had difficulty finding humor in their specialties.

    "The planet has one temperate continent," Claverhouse said. "Most people live there, three quarters of them at least and probably more. But there's islands, more than anybody's counted so far as I know, with villages and individual farms. The islanders're pretty much ignored by the national government, but they have to trade with merchants on the mainland, especially in Port Dunbar on the west coast."

    "The capital," Adele said. She wasn't looking at her display, but it helped her concentrate to have the unit live and the wands in her hands.

    "Until the invasion, yes," Claverhouse said. "The islanders have no reason to love the folk in Port Dunbar. Some are helping Arruns, and even those who aren't probably don't think they'd be any worse off under him than under the mainland government. Arruns landed on Mandelfarne Island, a dozen miles off the coast from Port Dunbar, then attacked across the strait. He gets food from the islanders, and I've heard that military supplies still come from Pellegrino."

    "The Pellegrinians haven't captured Port Dunbar, though?" Adele said. "Some of the reports said they had."

    The only information on what was happening in Ganpat's Reach had arrived with an ambassador from Bennaria, whose sun circled a common point with the sun of Dunbar's World. The two planets had close relations, and Bennaria was technically allied to Cinnabar--the Senate had declared it a Friend of the Republic.

    The Bennarian ambassador had asked Cinnabar for aid against the threat to the region. Ordinarily--particularly in the middle of all-out war with the Alliance--the Senate would've responded with polite regrets. Because the Manco family drew much of its wealth from Bennaria and Senator Manco was a member of the Republic's current administration, the Senate had instead directed the Navy Board to provide all help possible during the present emergency.

    The Navy Board was responding by sending an advisory mission. Rather than a retired admiral to head the mission or perhaps a senior captain with a drinking problem, Admiral Vocaine had picked Commander Leary, an officer with a brilliant record despite his youth.

    "Arruns very nearly did capture Port Dunbar," Claverhouse said. "He took the northern suburbs and made the harbor too dangerous to use, but then he bogged down. It's all street fighting now, that and Arruns shelling the city. The government's moved to Sinclos in the middle of the continent."

    Claverhouse drank, but this time he was simply wetting his lips after talking rather than trying to gulp himself into oblivion. His voice had strengthened; Adele saw signs of the man she'd met in her former life, one of her father's closest associates.



    "Ollarville on the east coast is a starport too," Claverhouse continued. "There's always been rivalry between the regions, and the war's made it worse. I don't know that Dunbar's World can survive as a single state no matter how the fighting comes out."

    He shrugged and smiled with bitter humor. "Not that it matters to me, of course," he said. "I'll stay on Cinnabar till I die. I didn't particularly want to come back, but thanks to the Edict of Reconciliation I could. Poor Miroslav can't go home so long as Porra lives; he's on Bennaria now. My share of what we salted away will keep me for the rest of my life, but he's got a household of two hundred to care for."

    "Perhaps Colonel Krychek can resume business on Dunbar's World after the war," Adele said. "Even if Pellegrinians win, there's no reason they should object to third-planet traders, is there?"

    Claverhouse laughed until he started to cough; he bent over the table to catch himself. Straightening, he sipped from his drink and met Adele's gaze.

    "There's a problem for Miroslav and me, yes," he said, speaking with a hint of challenge. "We met our suppliers on uninhabited worlds, moons often enough, and traded them food and liquor for their merchandize. Then we sold the merchandize to landowners on Dunbar's World."

    "You dealt with pirates," said Adele, her eyes on Claverhouse but her fingers cascading images across the data unit display. Piracy was common outside the center of the human-settled galaxy, and Ganpat's Reach was well on the fringes.

    "Very likely we did, yes," Claverhouse agreed coolly. "We didn't touch Bennarian goods, not when we could tell, but most of our stock probably came from Pellegrino."

    He drank again and continued, "Our freighter, the Mazeppa, was well armed, and Miroslav's retainers were well able to convince our suppliers that it wouldn't be worth the effort to try robbing us instead of trading. Mind, we were honest businessmen. We dealt fairly on both ends of our transactions. But when Arruns arrived, well--the firm of Claverhouse and Krychek closed, and the principals got off-planet very quickly."

    "I see," said Adele. "Will Bennarian support be enough to drive Arruns back to Pellegrino? I'd think that the Bennarian fleet operating so close to home would be able to intervene."

    "I've never known the Bennarian fleet to put more than one ship in orbit at a time," Claverhouse said, curling his lip. "And I don't imagine there's much enthusiasm for open war among members of the Council. They're the heads of the wealthy families, and all their trade passes through Pellegrino, remember."

    "I see," Adele repeated, and of course she did. The leaders of Bennaria didn't like what was happening on Dunbar's World, but neither were they willing to pay the cost of stopping it. If an RCN squadron set things right, everything would be fine; and were it not that the present war stretched RCN resources rather beyond their limits, that might well have happened.

    Except--because Adele saw things from a wider perspective than parochial bumpkins in Ganpat's Reach did--RCN intervention would probably have been followed by a Commissioner from the Bureau of External Affairs in Xenos; who'd in turn be followed by a Senatorial Advisor to oversee the activities of the Bennarian government. Cinnabar would have to make assessments, of course, to pay for administrative costs and for a proportion of the expenses of the RCN which defended Bennarian interests so ably.

    And the Bennarians would pay and obey. If they didn't, the RCN would be back.

    Adele looked up from her display. She'd been running estimates of Bennarian trade and the potential income to the Republic from tribute based on that trade. It was an empty exercise now since the RCN wasn't sending a squadron, but Adele couldn't help following a chain of causation when it suggested itself.

    Claverhouse was glaring at her. "Maurice?" she said in puzzlement.

    "Aren't you going to lecture me about trading with pirates?" he said. "Tell me that it was unworthy of a Cinnabar noble?"

    Adele smiled faintly. "I'm not your conscience, Maurice," she said. "And the Proscriptions would've taught me what Cinnabar nobles were capable of, even if I knew nothing else about our Republic's history."

    Often in the dark hours after midnight, Adele was visited by people she'd killed. In dreams she saw their faces clearly. When it'd happened--when she'd shot them--they'd been blurs without sex or personality, aiming points in the shattered swirl of a firefight.

    Adele felt her smile broaden, though her lips were as hard as glass. She should object to the way someone else made his living?

    Adele stood, sliding her personal data unit back into its pocket. "Thank you," she said. "This has been very helpful."

    The glass of wine stood to the side where she'd set it out of the way of her data unit. She raised it and drank; she hadn't been doing much of the talking, but her thoughts had dried her mouth.

    "I thought you intended to kill me," Claverhouse said into his own empty glass. "I thought that was why you wanted to meet me."

    Adele stared at him. His face was suddenly that of a corpse.

    "What?" she said. Then, "Why?"

    "They caught me while I was on my way off-planet," Claverhouse said, raising his stricken eyes to her. "Not the Militia--a squad of Speaker Leary's private goons."

    He means the Three Circles Conspiracy, not whatever just happened on Dunbar's World....

    Claverhouse licked his lips. "I made a deal," he whispered. "I gave them names, dates; everything I knew. And afterwards they let me go."

    Adele set her glass down. She hadn't finished the wine. She said nothing.

    "I checked on you, little Adele," Claverhouse said. "I know you're a spy. You knew what I'd done; and I knew that a Mundy of Chatsworth wouldn't let the Edict of Reconciliation or any other law stand in her way."

    "No, I don't suppose I would," Adele said carefully. She'd thought about the implied question before answering it, because she did think things through before she acted. And then she acted, regardless of potential consequences.

    She quirked a smile. At least she now knew why Maurice had chosen the most public venue in Xenos for their meeting. It wouldn't have stopped her, of course.

    "Do you recall my little sister Agatha?" Adele said. "Yes? Did you personally cut her head off, Maurice?"

    "What?" said Claverhouse. His hand twitched, knocking over his empty glass. "What do you mean? Are you joking?"

    "Yes, I suppose I am," Adele said. "That would take a different sort of man, wouldn't it, Maurice? Well, since you didn't, I think I'll leave you to your own ghosts. Thank you again for the information."

    She turned, reminding herself that the stairs down from the Sky Room would have moved... and so they had, but the room had made a full rotation and the stairs were in almost the same place they'd been when she'd come up them.

    That seemed to be generally true of life, Adele had found. If you took the long view.




    "Please come in, Commander," said Madame Dorst, holding the door for Daniel. She wasn't fat, but she'd become a good deal plumper than she'd been the day she'd bought the dress she was in. Her hair was drawn back with a black fillet, mourning for her son.

    "Oh, Commander Leary, Timothy would be so proud!" said the younger woman, Midshipman Dorst's twin sister Miranda. "We're honored that you've taken time to visit us."

    Her dress was simpler than her mother's and probably hand made; she'd sewn a black ribbon around the right cuff. Like her brother, Miranda was tall and fair; not a stunning beauty, but a girl who drew a man's eyes at least once.

    Daniel wore his 1st Class uniform, his Whites, with his medal ribbons. Full medals would've made a much more striking display, particularly because Daniel had a number of gaudy foreign awards, but he wasn't here to show off. Midshipman Dorst had been brave, as was to be expected in an RCN officer. He'd been competent at shiphandling and astrogation, though without the exceptional skills that Midshipman Vesey, his colleague and fiancée, had demonstrated.

    But beyond that, Dorst had shown a unerring instinct in battle. He'd brought his cutter so close to enemy vessels that his salvos were instantly disabling. Despite his lack of brilliance, Dorst would've gone far in the RCN if he'd survived; but it wasn't likely that an officer who put defeating the enemy ahead of every other consideration would survive, and Dorst had not.

    Dorst's attitude had brought his widowed mother and his sister a personal visit from his commanding officer, though, since Daniel had survived against the odds.

    "Thank you, Madam Dorst," Daniel said, bowing with his saucer hat in his hand. "Mistress Dorst. Your Timothy was a valued officer, both to me and to the RCN. I felt I needed to express my condolences in person."

    "Oh, Commander," Madam Dorst said. "Oh, Timothy would be so--"

    She put her hands to her face and turned away, sniffling uncontrollably toward the mirror across the entrance hall. She fumbled for a handkerchief in her sleeve.

    "Please come into the sitting room, Commander," Miranda said, taking Daniel's right hand in her left and guiding him away while the older woman settled herself. "We have tea waiting."

    Softly she added, "Timothy idolized you, you know. That's the only word for it. He hoped... he hoped that someday he...."

    "Midshipman Dorst had my full confidence," Daniel said forcefully, hoping to forestall tears. "Passed Lieutenant Dorst, I should say. I was very lucky to've had his support during several commands."

    Daniel had a great deal of experience with women starting to weep. The only thing he knew to do about it was to put his arms around them and hold them, feeling uncomfortable. That wasn't appropriate here, and besides there were two women.

    The room beyond was dim. Curtains draped the windows on the side wall, and there was more furniture of plush and dark wood than that was really comfortable in the available space. Lace doilies protected the backs and arms of the chairs. The sixth floor apartment held the remnants of a much larger establishment, and while this building was respectable, it was hanging onto that status by its fingernails.

    In the center of the room was a low oval table with a top of richly figured wood. A tea service waited there on a matching porcelain tray; a knitted cozy with a design of fish covered the pot of hot water.

    "What an attractive cozy!" Daniel said with false enthusiasm. He bent closer to the service, largely as an excuse to look away from Miranda. "I grew up in Bantry on the west coast. The pattern here takes me back to my childhood."

    "Please do sit, Commander," said Madam Dorst from the doorway, apparently recovered. "Take the maroon chair, please; that's the one Timothy used when he was home. And my dear husband before him."

    Daniel seated himself with care; his Whites were closely tailored. He'd been taken aback by the degree of grief the two women were displaying. Unless something had gone badly wrong at Navy Office, they'd have been informed of Dorst's death at least three months before, and it'd been a quick, clean end. The cutter Dorst commanded had been hit squarely by a pair of 20-cm plasma bolts fired at close range. He and his crew had vaporized before they knew they were in danger.

    Mind, you always said something of the sort to the families. It did no good to tell civilians that their beloved offspring had died coughing his lungs out or had drifted away from the vessel into a bubble universe in which she'd be the only thing human until she screamed herself to death. But in this case, it'd really been true.

    The women sat in the brown chairs to either side of Daniel. As Madam Dorst filled the pot with hot water, she said, "What ship have they given you now, Commander? Surely it'll be an important one after you've accomplished so much with your little corvette as a lieutenant."

    "Now, mother," Miranda said, lifting a plate of little cakes. "Don't embarrass our guest. He may be off on a secret mission that he can't talk about. Commander Leary, will you have a macaroon?"

    "Thank you, mistress," Daniel said, pinching one of the squishy little cakes between thumb and forefinger. "There's nothing mysterious about my present assignment, and in fact I don't have a ship to command. I'm off to Ganpat's Reach as an adviser. A Cinnabar ally's gotten into difficulties and the Navy Office found it easier to spare a very junior commander than a cruiser squadron."

    It was obvious that Dorst'd been talking about him. Very likely the boy had also talked about Adele and the work she did for her civilian mistress. That was unfortunate, but it was bound to happen with a small, tightly knit company like the crew serving with Daniel.

    "See, mother?" Miranda said with a pretty smile. "We mustn't ask him about that or he'll be required to lie. Commander, what will you have in your tea? Mother, it should be ready to pour."

    "A little milk," said Daniel, feeling extremely awkward. "Just a little milk, please."

    He wasn't beyond letting a pretty girl make him out to be a dashing hero; indeed, if she were pretty enough, he wasn't beyond encouraging her. Daniel Leary was 24 years old, and no one who'd known him any length of time doubted that young women were matters of great delight and concern to him. Here though, he was paying his respects to the family of a slain shipmate. It didn't seem right to trade on the situation.



    "In all truth, Mistress Dorst," Daniel said, providing more detail than he normally would've done with civilians, "I don't have many friends in the Navy Office at present. This business arose just in time to get me out of the way, to Admiral Vocaine's benefit and mine as well. I was worried that I'd be assigned to command a guard ship or a logistics base in a quiet sector."

    "Oh, that can't be, Commander!" Madam Dorst said, glancing in horrified amazement from the cup she was turning right side up on its saucer. "Why, Timothy told us that everybody at the highest levels of the RCN was full of your praises. The very highest levels!"

    "I'm sure Timothy believed that, Madame," Daniel said, taking a tiny sip of the tea to wet his lips. "But you'll appreciate that his knowledge of the inner workings of the Navy Office was...."

    He shrugged and gave Madam Dorst a lopsided smile.

    "Not extensive," he concluded.

    "Please call me Miranda, Commander Leary," the younger woman said with a soft smile. "I won't presume to call you Daniel--which Timothy never did. But--"

    "Daniel, of course," Daniel said. "Ah, Miranda. I'm not your superior officer."

    When looking in her direction as he spoke, he noticed a data console sitting between flower vases on the table across from the doorway. It was a tiny folding unit, quite new. The rack of chips beside it included several whose coded striping was familiar to him even from six feet away: Foote's History of the Republic of Cinnabar Navy; The Navy List in its most recent update; and General Regulations and Ordinances Governing the RCN, also updated.

    "My goodness!" Daniel said. "Are those Dorst's?" He cleared his throat in embarrassment. "Timothy's, that is. I hadn't taken him for so studious a--"

    He broke off as the obvious answer struck him. "Ah," he said. "Perhaps to Midshipman Vesey left these books while she was on deployment?"

    "The books are mine, Daniel," Miranda said, her voice calm but her back suddenly a little straighter in apparent reproach. "I felt I should become familiar with the RCN since Timothy had decided to make it his career."

    "And as for Elspeth Vesey," Madam Dorst said with unexpected sharpness, "she hasn't so much as called on us since she's been in Xenos. I suppose she's just gone on with her life as though Timothy's death meant nothing to her."

    "She always felt she was too good for Timothy, I think," Miranda said with equal venom. "Quite full of herself because she did so well in classes. Well, classwork isn't everything."

    Daniel place his cup on the saucer he held on his right knee. "I really think you're mistaken about Midshipman Vesey," he said. He was trying to imagine the quiet, self-effacing Vesey as being full of herself; it was like trying to visualize Daniel Leary wearing priestly vestments. "She was completely devoted to, ah, Timothy. And him to her, if I'm any judge."

    "They why," said Madam Dorst crisply, "has she not come to see us, Commander? Why?"

    Daniel looked at the older woman, groping for the right words. He needed to explain what he felt was the truth, but he was squeamish about intruding into Vesey's privacy.

    "Madame," he said at last, "I was afraid that the salvo which killed your Timothy had effectively destroyed Vesey as well. In a way, I think it did: she's just as efficient an officer as she was before--a very efficient officer, one whom I'm glad to have with me on the coming mission, just as I'd be glad to have Timothy if the fortunes of war had spared him."

    The women watched him closely. Their expressions were politely reserved, but Daniel had the impression of a pair or cats eying a bird.

    "She's efficient, as I say," he continued, "but she's no longer really alive. For the time being--and I hope that it's only for the time being--she's stepped away from everything except her duties. From what you say, that includes people whom I'm sure she loves and respects a great deal."

    "Well," said Madam Dorst with her lips pursed. "I'll certainly consider your opinion, Commander."

    "I'm shocked that they haven't found you a command, Daniel," said Miranda, thankfully changing the subject... albeit back to another awkward one. "The Alliance outnumbers us badly, and while I know that one of our spacers is worth two of Guarantor Porra's brutes--"

    Daniel sipped. He'd be the last to object to pride in Cinnabar and the RCN, but spacers were spacers and he'd met Alliance officers who were every bit as skilled as anybody who came out of the RCN Academy.

    "--it's still unthinkable that the RCN would waste its finest officer!"

    "Miranda, thank you," Daniel said, lowering his cup to his knee again, "but the RCN has many fine officers, thank the Gods. And I'm not being wasted, I'm being sent to help an ally. It's a very responsible position and one that may be of more importance to the Republic than anything I could do if in command of a destroyer."

    Or even in command of the cruiser Milton, as the captured Scheer had been renamed in RCN service. Ordinarily a heavy cruiser would be commanded by a captain, not a mere commander, but Daniel'd had his hopes. Not only was the Milton foreign built, she was of an oddball design intended for convoy escort and commerce raiding. A commander with the support of Admiral Anston, the Chief of the Navy Board, might very possibly hope to command the Milton when she came out of the shipyard where she was being repaired.

    Miranda'd said she was shocked that Daniel wasn't offered a ship when he brought the damaged Milton back for repair. That was nothing to how Daniel himself had felt when he learned in Cinnabar orbit that his prize crew--spacers who'd been with him in some cases from before he had a ship of his own--were being transferred straight to a receiving ship instead of being paid off to enjoy a well-earned leave in Xenos.

    The response to Daniel's protest had brought him a worse shock: Admiral Anston had retired after a heart attack. His replacement as Chief of the Navy Board was Admiral Vocaine, and one of the latter's first decisions had been to stop all leave. Spacers were kept under guard until they were transferred to an outbound ship.

    It seemed to Daniel that treating people like so many pieces of hardware was unlikely to bring out the best of them in service, but the new Chief wasn't interested in Daniel's opinion. His petition had been heard--and ignored--by a junior clerk in the personnel division.

    Daniel'd initially been so angry about what was happening to his crew--and many thousands of other spacers, of course, but his crew was his responsibility--that he hadn't thought of what the change in the Navy Office meant for him personally. When his sputtering fury had turned to resignation, he'd realized that he was going to pay heavily for having had--or being thought to have--Anston for a supporter.

    "Well, I still think it's a pity," said Miranda. "Another macaroon, Daniel?"

    "Oh, no thank you," Daniel said, smiling. He patted his cummerbund. "We were undercrewed on the voyage back to Cinnabar so everybody with rigging experience, myself included, got plenty of exercise. I lost three pounds, and I intend to keep it off."

    He could've said more, but bragging about his astrogation would've been just as out of place here as hitting on the bereaved. He'd had a crew of seventy-five to manage a cruiser with a normal complement of four hundred. That would've been bad enough, but battle had scoured the masts and yards from the Milton's stern portion besides.

    Despite the short crew and the jury rig, the Milton had made the run from Nikitin to Cinnabar in seventeen days, a week sooner than a vessel in normal commercial service. It wasn't a record run on paper, but it was as nice a piece of sailing as Daniel'd ever managed.



    "How will you get to Ganpat's Reach, Commander?" said Madam Dorst over the rim of her teacup. The porcelain was so thin that her tea with lemon was an amber shadow through the wall of the cup. Like the room's furniture, the service must date back to a more prosperous period in the family's fortunes.

    "Yes, that's a three-week voyage, isn't it?" said Miranda. She'd obviously been studying the Sailing Directions to have been able to pull that--accurate--datum up from memory. "And there's no direct trade, or almost none."

    "I've been studying the route," Daniel said. "The Navy Office is chartering a vessel for the mission, a former corvette now in private hands. We have the full support of Senator Manco, of course."

    What the mission really had was Adele Mundy, whose skill with information resources went beyond even the high standard to be expected of a librarian. The RCN was indeed chartering the Princess Cecile from its owner, Bergen and Associates... Daniel's own company, left him by his uncle, with Speaker Leary as a silent partner. The contract and funding request were on record as having been approved by every necessary office in Navy House and the Exchequer.

    If some months down the road the officials concerned didn't recall granting those approvals, they were still unlikely to call attention to the business. The very best they could expect was questions about the oversight of their department.

    And it wasn't really corruption: the charter was on fair terms and the only practical way Daniel could see to accomplish the task he'd been set. It would've taken months to go through normal approval channels, however, the request probably wouldn't have gone through. As Daniel'd told the women, Admiral Anston's fair-haired boy didn't have any friends in Navy House now.

    He finished his tea, smiled, and added, "I believe it should be possible to shave a little time off the usual voyage with a tight ship and a good crew. I'm actually hoping to make the run in fifteen days. Unless we get to Bennaria quickly, we might as well stay in Xenos."

    "Can you find a good crew in these days, Daniel?" said Miranda with a frown. "Can you find any kind of crew, in fact? I know the situation wasn't as serious when you and Timothy lifted four months ago, but now the RCN is having to strip merchant ships to minimum crews. Even so we're short of spacers."

    She was a very handsome girl, more so than Daniel'd thought at first glance, and she understood the situation better than he'd have expected her brother to. Dorst was a fine officer, a splendid officer, but no one would've called him quick on the uptake.

    "As a matter of fact, my, ah, staff is working on that problem," Daniel said. "I hope to have a solution by mid-morning tomorrow."

    "My staff" again meant Adele using her ability to enter databases and modify the information in them. Her other employer had outfitted her with the very finest tools for the purpose, and she saw nothing wrong with using them in aid of the present mission. It was, after all, a task which the Senate had ordered the RCN to carry out and whose execution the Navy Office in turn had assigned to Commander Daniel Leary.

    Daniel smiled at a thought: Admiral Vocaine would be angry if--and probably when--he learned what'd happened. But he wouldn't complain either.

    The older woman directed the teapot toward Daniel's empty cup. He quickly set his hand over it.

    "No, no--no more tea for me, please, Madame," he said. "I really have to be getting on."

    He set the cup back on the tray carefully and rose. "Ah?" he added. "If I might ask a personal question?"

    "Of course, Daniel," Miranda said. She flushed, and it struck him that she might've misunderstood his purpose. "Of course you may."

    "Your, ah, Timothy was owed a considerable sum in prize money from the Alliance convoy we captured in the Bromley System," he said. "And the escort as well, a heavy cruiser that was bought into service. Has this money been paid you yet?"

    "To tell the truth, Commander," Madam Dorst said, "no one will even tell us if there is money owed. Clerks keep sending us to different offices."

    "We've been approached by some, well, brokers I suppose you'd call them," Miranda said, standing and lacing her fingers together. "They offer to buy our rights and pay us immediately, but it seems to me that they'd be taking an awfully high percentage of the claim for themselves."

    "I probably wouldn't call them brokers, Miranda," Daniel said, feeling the muscles of his jaw clench. "But I won't use that sort of language in front of decent ladies like yourselves."

    He brought out the card he'd slipped into his cummerbund in expectation of the answer. Whites deliberately made no provision for carrying objects, but Daniel hadn't wanted to call on the Dorsts in company of a servant when he knew they couldn't themselves afford one.

    "Go to this bank, the Merchants' and Shippers' Treasury, and ask for the manager, if you will," he went on as Miranda read the card with her mother at her elbow. "She's expert in this sort of matter, and I think you'll find the bank's rates are very moderate."

    "Deirdre Leary," Madam Dorst said. She looked up. "Is she a relation, Commander?"

    "As a matter of fact, she's my sister," Daniel said. "But I assure you, Deirdre would make sure that any member of the RCN got a fair shake."

    What Deirdre wouldn't ordinarily do was immediately pay the full amount of the claim with no discount. That's what would happen in this case, because Daniel had directed her to take all fees out of his own considerably greater share.

    Dorst had been killed carrying out Daniel's orders. Commander Leary would give those same orders again, because they'd been necessary to defeat the enemies of the Republic. But Daniel was also a Leary of Bantry, and as such he wouldn't leave his retainers in want while there was money in his own pocket. Deirdre would understand.

    "Oh," said the older woman. "Oh. Oh." And then she started crying again.

    "I can find my own way out," Daniel said, but as he was turning to the hall Miranda caught his hands in hers and pressed them together.

    "Please come back," she said. "Please do."

    "Yes," said Daniel. "I, ah, I'll be sure to do that."

    She was a remarkably pretty girl on third glance.

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