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Chapter  One

Lieutenant Daniel Leary rolled his uncle's wheelchair to the end of the catwalk and paused, gazing back at the corvette Princess Cecile nestled in the center of the graving dock. He turned the wheelchair. "Now that you've inspected her, Uncle Stacey," he said, "wouldn't you agree there's no finer ship in the RCN?"


The battleship Aristotle in the next bay lowered over them: seventy thousand tons empty, with a crew of two thousand and missile magazines sufficient for a day-long engagement. The eight-inch plasma cannon of the Aristotle's defensive battery could not only divert incoming projectiles but also devour ships the corvette's size in rainbow cascades of stripped nuclei.


Daniel was as oblivious of the battleship as he was of the wisps of cirrus cloud in the high heavens. For him, the twelve-hundred ton Princess Cecile was the only ship in Harbor Three. He'd commanded her, after all. Commanded her and fought her and—by the grace of God and the best crew ever to come a captain's way—destroyed an Alliance cruiser of many times the corvette's strength.


"Didn't we, Adele?" Daniel said, forgetting how little of his previous thoughts had made it to his lips. He grinned over his shoulder at the severe-looking woman of thirty-one who'd joined him and Uncle Stacey on their excursion.


Adele Mundy smiled in response—it was hard not to smile when Daniel was full of happy enthusiasm, as he was at most times—but her expression gave no sign that she knew what he was talking about. Like Daniel she wore a 2nd Class RCN dress uniform, gray with black piping. Her collars bore the crossed lightning bolts of a signals officer, a senior warrant rank with pay and allowances equal to those of a bosun.


Adele's handheld data unit slipped into a fitted pocket on her right thigh. That modification to her uniform was absolutely nonstandard and the sort of thing that would send an inspecting officer ballistic if it were noticed.


Daniel didn't even bother to wince any more. Adele without her data unit would be like Adele without hands, personally miserable and of no value to the RCN. Whereas with the unit—and with the little pistol, also nonstandard, nestled in a side pocket—neither Daniel nor Cinnabar ever had a better bulwark.


Adele Mundy was an RCN officer by grace of the Republic's warrant. By training and inclination she was an archival librarian, a task she'd performed with skill amounting to genius before circumstances required her to accept other duties. By birth, she was a Mundy of Chatsworth, one of the wealthiest and most politically powerful houses in the Republic before the Three Circles Conspiracy had forfeited the money and cost the head of every adult Mundy but one.


Adele had been at school off Cinnabar when the cycle of treason and proscriptions played itself out in blood. Distance had preserved her life; not her fortune, but she wasn't the sort to whom money meant much one way or the other.


For that matter, Daniel sometimes suspected that life didn't mean much to Adele either; but duty did, and craftsmanship. Daniel didn't try to remake his friends.


"She's a trim craft," Uncle Stacey said, assessing the corvette with a mind no less sharp for being confined to a wheelchair-bound body. Commander Stacey Bergen, the finest astrogator of his day, had opened or resurveyed half the routes in the Sailing Directions for Ships of the Republic. "I've never seen a Kostroman-built ship that wasn't as pretty as anything of her class, though some of them use lighter scantlings than I'd have chosen for anything coming out of my yard."


The old man cocked his head over his shoulder to catch his nephew's eye with the implied question.


"The frames and hull plating are at RCN specifications, Uncle Stacey," Daniel said quickly. "The only problem we've had in the conversion was that all the astrogational equipment is calibrated in Kostroman AUs instead of Sol standard like us and the Alliance. Granted of course that the Sissie's a fighting corvette, not a dedicated survey ship built to accept stresses that'd turn a battleship inside out."


The Princess Cecile's hull was a rough cylinder two hundred and thirty feet long and fifty-five feet wide, with bluntly rounded ends. Here in the graving dock she was clamped bow and stern by collars like the chucks of a gigantic lathe. They could rotate her into any attitude, so that the antennas that lined her hull in four rows of six each could be extended and canted throughout their range of motion.


Two twin four-inch plasma cannon provided the corvette's defensive armament in turrets offset toward the starboard bow and sternwards to port. Their bolts of charged particles could deflect incoming missiles by vaporizing portions of the projectile and converting that mass into slewing thrust. Offensively, a practiced crew in the Princess Cecile could launch her twenty missiles in pairs at one minute intervals. The crew which Daniel had brought from Kostroma was trained very well in that and every other aspect of war.


As a boy, Daniel had listened to Uncle Stacey and the naval friends who came to chat with him in the shipyard he ran after retirement. They'd talked of shifts in the Matrix, of sheared antennas, torqued hulls; of days at a time spent in the glare of Casimir radiation, picking a course where none was known before.


It was those tales, told by master astrogators to other masters of the art, that had led Daniel to join the RCN at age sixteen after the flaming row he'd had with his father, Corder. The Learys weren't a naval family: they were politicians, movers and shakers of the Republic, and never a one of them had risen higher than Corder Leary, Speaker Leary, himself.


Daniel laughed, surprising Adele and his uncle both. Grinning apologetically at their surprise he explained, "I was just thinking that six years on, there's no decision I'm more glad of than that I joined the RCN, but it could be that my reasons for making that decision had more to do with spiting my father than they did with making a name for myself."


"I've never noticed that the reasons people do things have much connection with how well or badly matters turn out," Adele said. "For example, I'm confident that my parents entered the Three Circles Conspiracy with the full intention of saving the Republic from men who couldn't be trusted with power."


She smiled. Adele gave the impression of being dispassionate about everything except knowledge, and then only knowledge in the form of marks on paper or electronic potentials. That wasn't true—the passion was there, Daniel knew, as surely as it was in his own explosive outbursts—but Adele's analysis would always be as cold and clean as the blade of a scalpel.


That was true even at times like this one, when Adele was analyzing the factors that led to the severed heads of every member of her family, including her ten-year-old sister, being displayed from Speaker's Rock.


"Your Lieutenant Mon's a good man," Stacey said. "Who did the yard assign for a supervisor? Archbolt, I suppose? Or did they give you Berol?"


"Yes, Archbolt," said Daniel, watching members of the Princess Cecile's crew—the Sissies—clambering over the antennas with tool belts.


Harbor Three had a regular dockyard staff, but the strain of fitting out the fleet in anticipation of full-scale war with the Alliance had overstrained their capacity. There would have been jobs for three times the number of workmen, and there were no trained personnel to hire into the new slots.


One way around the problem was to use a vessel's own crewmen to perform all but the specialist yard work. Normally crews were paid off when their ship docked in its home port; now, a third of the Princess Cecile's crew was at work refitting the vessel under the command of a ship's officer who also was kept on full pay.


Daniel, as the corvette's captain, would normally have been that officer. He'd passed the posting down to his first lieutenant, Lt. Mon, who would otherwise have been trying to support his family on half pay and no other resources. Mon had been a prisoner during the capture of the Princess Cecile; therefore he had no share of the prize money which the Navy Office would eventually adjudge for the ship.


Daniel had two eighths of the prize money coming to him. That would be months or years in the future, but his bank was more than happy to advance him funds against the event. Daniel didn't have the expense of a wife, and he did have a great personal interest in meeting young women who might be impressed by a dashing naval officer. Leaving the full-time duties to Mon gave both officers what was best suited to their circumstances; an idyllic situation so far as Daniel was concerned.


"A trim ship," Uncle Stacey repeated, "and very well found."


In his present state of health, Stacey hadn't been able to walk the telescoping antennas and yards, so now he locked a pair of naval goggles down over his eyes to use their electronic enhancement to view them. They determined the position, attitude, and expanse of sails of charged dielectric fabric which created imbalances in Casimir radiation and drove the vessel through the Matrix.


Raising the goggles, the old man looked up at his nephew again. "Are they going to give you command again after she's commissioned, lad?" he asked.


Daniel shrugged. Civilians assumed the answer was obvious: of course the Hero of Kostroma would be returned to command. An RCN officer, however, knew there was much more to the question.


"I don't know," he said. "I performed well, but there're many skilled officers senior to me."


He smiled at a sudden thought. "Lieutenant Mon among them."


It was a grim joke, of course, because Mon would never have a command of his own. He didn't have the interest of a senior officer nor the sort of family money that would allow him to cut a figure socially and call attention to his undoubted abilities.


Worst of all, Mon had bad luck: he'd always been at the wrong place when there were prizes or honors to be won nearby. And there he differed from Daniel Leary, who'd been sent to Kostroma with no interest and no money, but whose good fortune had handsomely made up for those lacks.


"Short of Admiral Anston," Adele said dryly, "there's no better-known officer in the RCN today. You won't be the wonder of Cinnabar forever, but I think you still have some of your nine days left."


Daniel grinned, but he said, "That's not an unmixed blessing, you know, Adele. There'll be some who think I've carried myself a little higher since my return than an officer so junior ought to do. And they may be right."


Uncle Stacey nodded, his lips pursed. "You're young, Daniel, you're young, and they'll understand that. But still . . ."


"You carried yourself here with the same well-justified confidence that you showed on Kostroma," Adele said, raising her voice slightly. Her words had the precision of the teeth of a saw cutting timber to the proper fit. "The reason we're not in an Alliance prison—or dead—is that you never let any of us doubt that you were going to get us free. I have far too much respect for the organization of which I'm now an officer—"


She touched a fingertip to the rank flash on her collar with a thin smile.


"—to doubt that those in charge can also see the merit of a more extroverted personality than mine when the task involves leading others into battle."


A plume of steam expanded from a berth halfway across the port. The ground trembled for several seconds before the roar of a ship lifting off reached Daniel's party through the air. He slipped his goggles down to protect his eyes—the optics blocked UV completely and filtered white light to a safe intensity—and looked toward the event.


In truth, Daniel was glad to have an excuse not to respond. He was comfortable with the praise of his peers and generally amused by the compliments of civilians who hadn't the least notion of what they were talking about. Adele's words were disconcerting, though. He couldn't equate her cold analysis with the confused bumbling he remembered going through; to ultimate success, agreed, but that was due less to Daniel's own efforts than to luck and the expert assistance which Adele and so many others provided.


The ship lifted high enough that its plasma motors no longer licked a shroud of steam from the pool on which the vessel had floated. The plume of ions flaring from the thrusters was a rainbow beauty over which a long steel cigar continued to lift. She was an Archaeologist-class heavy cruiser, an old ship with a greater length-to-beam ratio than more modern vessels of the type. If Daniel had wanted to, his goggles would have let him read the pennant number to identify her.


The plasma motors stripped atoms and voided them as ions to provide thrust. Any reaction mass would do, but water was ideal as well as being available generally on human-habitable worlds. Permanent harbor facilities were usually on seas or lakes which absorbed the plasma roaring from the thrusters at stellar heat and made refueling a matter of extending a hose.


When the vessel was well above the surface of the planet, she would switch to her High Drive, which used matter-antimatter conversion to provide sufficient inertial velocity to enter the Matrix. The High Drive was efficient but not perfect. If exhausted into an atmosphere, atoms of antimatter would flare and eat away the vessel itself.


The trio let the throb of the cruiser's liftoff drop back from its plateau before any of them tried to talk over it. Harbor Three was a huge installation with frequent movements, but the sound of a heavy ship taking off or landing made it impossible to speak in a normal voice anywhere within the perimeter.


Uncle Stacey took out his hundred-florin touchpiece—part of an issue struck twenty-two years before to mark the birth of Speaker Leary's son Daniel. He spun it so that the internal diffraction grating caught the light.


"People talk about how pretty Cinnabar coins are," he said as they watched the cruiser rise. "There's nothing as lovely as a well-tuned plasma motor, nothing. Unless maybe it's the way the universe shines on you as you drop into the Matrix."


"That reminds me," Adele said with a faint smile. "I need to talk to my banker again. It's time to make another draft on my prize account."


Uncle Stacey snorted. "Bankers!" he said. "The worst risk one of that lot faces is that the wine he orders with dinner won't be properly chilled."


He twisted his head one way, then the other to look back at Adele; she politely stepped out to the side and nodded to him.


"My brother-in-law interests himself in banking," Stacey said. "That's Daniel's father, you know. Though the lad's turned out an honor to his Bergen blood, I say."


His tone wasn't usually so sharp. Daniel would have been surprised, but he knew that Uncle Stacey was in Xenos to render on behalf of Bergen and Associates, Shipfitters his quarterly accounts to the company's financial backer . . . who was Corder Leary.


Speaker Leary's financial interests were widespread. The only thing unusual about his share in Bergen and Associates was that the involvement was direct instead of being filtered through one or more holding companies. Daniel knew his father wasn't a cruel man, but he was extremely punctilious about power relationships, especially when kinship was involved. You always knew where you stood with Corder Leary; or, more precisely, where at his feet you were to kneel.


An open four-wheeled jitney was leaving the Aristotle, probably to pick up Daniel and his party. Aircars weren't permitted within Harbor Three for safety reasons: the risk of starships maneuvering in close proximity was great enough without adding aircraft to the mix. Heavy machinery and laborers at shift changes used the slow-moving overhead rail system circling the whole installation; branches led off the central line and snaked through sectors of six to ten bays, with shunts where carloads could wait until required.


The jitneys carried light cargo and small groups of people along the roadway beneath the rails. One had dropped Daniel and his party here at Dock 37, then whined off to make a delivery to the Aristotle in Dock 36 before returning. The driver claimed he was carrying urgent medical supplies in the hampers, but Daniel strongly suspected that liquor was arriving in trade for some item of the battleship's furnishings.


That was the way of the world, and Lt. Daniel Leary had no desire to complain. The Princess Cecile's fire control system had been converted to RCN standard by means of similar off-book transactions.


A pair of limousines and a van with the pennon of the Harbor Administrator's office pulled up in front of Dock 37. Brass of some sort, obviously, but civilian brass by the look of the vehicles. Perhaps a Treasury delegation, checking on the way the Navy Office spent its appropriations? Though they wouldn't run to limousines, surely.


"Let's get you safely aboard the tram to home, Uncle Stacey," Daniel said. "As shorthanded as the RCN is with the number of ships going into service, there's a risk that some bosun'll snatch you up for a rigger and you'll be off-planet before you can catch your breath."


Uncle Stacey couldn't walk thirty feet unaided any more, though he seemed more resigned to his weakness than Daniel himself was. Some of Daniel's earliest memories were of being carried in his uncle's arms along the yards of a ship being refitted, hopping from spar to spar over what seemed like chasms—and probably were six feet or more. It had been a good upbringing for a boy who was to enter the RCN, not that anybody had imagined that at the time.


Daniel pushed the wheelchair down the concrete apron, glad to be off the catwalk which crossed the open dock to the corvette's main hatch. It was a steel grating and not much wider than the chair, though that didn't concern either Daniel or his uncle.


What had concerned Daniel was Adele. His signals officer—his friend—had many skills beyond those to be expected from one trained as a librarian, but a sense of balance was noticeably not one of those.


"Leary!" called one of the new arrivals. "By God, that's Daniel Leary, isn't it?"


Daniel turned, rotating the wheelchair to the side with one hand. That gave Uncle Stacey a clear view also instead of him trying to look over his shoulder in desperate isolation.


Mixed groups of civilians and senior officers in 1st Class uniforms were getting out of the limousines, but the speaker was the lieutenant in charge of the detachment of ratings from the van. He was of middling height with a florid face and a few extra pounds—like Daniel himself. Daniel found him half-recognizable but not really familiar.


"Tom Ireland, Leary," the fellow called, striding down the apron with his hand out to clasp Daniel's. "Two years ahead of you at the Academy, but in South Battalion while you were in North."


Good God, Ireland claiming his acquaintance! To the junior cadets upperclassmen at the Academy were generally aloof strangers, sometimes slavering monsters. Ireland had been in the former category, a vague presence to Cadet Daniel Leary; and Daniel Leary would have been less than the paving stones of the Quad to Ireland. Suddenly they'd become fellow schoolmates. . . .


"I heard about your little affair on Kostroma," Ireland said, seizing Daniel's hand and pumping it. Behind him the passengers from the limousines were drifting toward them with the sort of meaningful aimlessness of goats grazing across a field. "Well handled, I'll tell the world! Though you had a bit of luck come your way, it seems to me. Not so?"


"Very definitely so," Daniel said, feeling his lips form a smile hard enough to cut glass. "Permit me to introduce you to a great part of that luck, my signals officer, Mistress Mundy."


Ireland blinked with mild confusion; his little mustache twitched. If he'd noticed Adele at all it was as a signalman; a specialist, a technician, a category necessary for the proper functioning of the RCN but which operated on a different plane from commissioned officers like himself and Daniel.


"That's Mundy of Chatsworth, of course," Daniel added. "Death masks in the front hall from ancestors back to before the Hiatus, isn't that right, Adele?"


He was surprised at the anger which he hoped he covered with his bantering tone. Ireland had never harmed him at the Academy, and if he wanted to scrape acquaintance now with the Hero of Kostroma, well, that wasn't a terrible crime. Though flattery had begun to pall on Daniel from its constant repetition.


It was the comment about luck that had tripped a switch in Daniel's mind. Luck there'd been in plenty, and Daniel Leary would be the first to say that; but when the words came from a stranger who hadn't seen men die to make that luck a reality . . .


"Those Mundys?" Ireland said. The name would be familiar, though unless he were more politically attuned than the RCN encouraged its junior officers to be, he wouldn't remember the names and details of the Three Circles Conspiracy. "Ah, I see!"


Which of course he didn't; he just saw that he'd misjudged the status of Lt. Leary's companion.


Ireland started to extend his hand to Adele. Before the gesture was more than a hint, she crossed her arms behind her back and gave him an icily polite nod of greeting. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Ireland," she said. "You're a tour guide for the Harbor Administrator, I gather?"


"I, ah . . . " Ireland said. He looked over his shoulder. The mixture of dress uniforms and still-more-splendid civilian garb had almost reached him. "Yes, I'm in charge of the escort for some officials from the Foreign Ministry and their liaison with the Navy Office. I, ah . . . they, that is, are showing the son of the President of Strymon around."


The dignitaries were on them. Ireland opened his mouth again, perhaps to introduce Daniel to the rank of dress uniforms, but the squat, jowly captain in front said, "Well, by my hope of a flag! Commander Bergen, isn't it? Mr. Vaughn, let me introduce you to the man who mapped a route to Strymon that cut three weeks sailing off the previous time!"


Uncle Stacey squeezed the arms of his chair. Daniel—and Adele to the other side, as smoothly as if they'd rehearsed the maneuver—each slid a forearm under the old man's hands and lifted him to his feet as soon as he'd transferred his grip.


"Young Wenslow, isn't it?" Stacey said with close to the old fullness in his voice. "You served under me on the Queensland."


"Senior midshipman and fourth lieutenant after Broker got his own command on Tuttel's World," agreed Wenslow—no longer young, and as Daniel knew, secretary of the RCN's planning council. He drew forward the slim young man at his side. "Delos Vaughn, allow me to introduce you to Commander Stacey Bergen. Commander Bergen has forgotten more about astrogation than anyone else in the RCN ever knew!"


Vaughn extended his right hand and shook Uncle Stacey's, showing a care for the old man's frailty that Daniel approved with a minuscule nod. Vaughn wore a severely tailored suit, but the cloth from which it was cut formed a series of chevrons which changed from red to gold alternately depending on the angle of the light. He was as hard to focus on as the flare of a plasma exhaust.


Apart from that he had a handsome, thirty-year-old face and an engaging smile. Three of the other civilians wore clothes of similar style and flamboyant materials; the rest, like the naval officers, were Cinnabar nationals.


"I'm honored to meet you, Commander," Vaughn said, speaking Universal with a better Xenos accent than Daniel—who'd been raised on the Learys' country estate of Bantry—could've managed. "You must have known my father. Your skilled explorations truly made the Sack a part of the greater universe for the first time since the Hiatus."


"President Leland Vaughn," Uncle Stacey said. He was standing without support, now, gaining strength from his memories; though Daniel and Adele kept close to either side in case of sudden weakness. "I sat at his right hand at the banquet on our arrival. Quite clear on the value of exploration for the trade that makes Strymon great. He's keeping well, I hope?"


"My late father, I'm afraid I should have said," Vaughn said with a deprecating rotation of his left hand. "My uncle, Callert Vaughn, succeeded him within a year of my arrival on Xenos, and now that Callert too has passed on, the presidency is in the hands of his daughter, Pleyna."


Momentarily Vaughn's tone became more sardonic than whimsical as he added, "Formally, that is. One assumes that a twelve-year-old is largely guided by her tutor, Friderik Nunes. I recall Nunes from when I last was on Strymon, fifteen years ago. He wasn't of much account . . . then, at any rate."


The hardness left Vaughn's expression, though now that Daniel had seen it once, he knew that it remained a part of the man himself. Delos Vaughn was more than a young foreigner living high in the fleshpots of Cinnabar—though he was probably that as well. Daniel would be the last man to suggest that a taste for liquor and amiable women precluded a man from taking a serious attitude toward his profession.


And what was the profession of Mr. Delos Vaughn?


Strymon had risen to prominence in the Sack, its region of space, following the thousand-year Hiatus from interstellar travel at the end of mankind's first flush of colonization. Strymon had regained links with Earth itself more quickly than most worlds; but, as the intricacies of sailing through the Matrix were laboriously rediscovered, the Sack became a backwater.


Cinnabar expanded its sphere of influence and that influence hardened into something not so very different from an empire; Strymon tried to compete. Twice the competition was military; the RCN had crushed Strymon's forces both times.


Distance from Cinnabar—two months of travel for a merchant ship and half that even for well-found naval vessels—preserved a degree of independence for Strymon, but by treaty her navy was now limited to light craft suitable for suppressing the endemic piracy of the three-star Selma Cluster nearby.


In halving the travel time between Strymon and Cinnabar, Uncle Stacey had done the Vaughns and their subjects a doubtful favor. Still, by forcing Strymon to realize Cinnabar's hegemony, it no doubt prevented the weaker power from wasting its substance in a third hopeless war. Certainly Delos Vaughn seemed friendly enough to the man who'd brought the threat of an RCN punitive expedition weeks closer to his planet.


"If it's not presumptuous of me, Commander," Vaughn continued, "may I ask if this is the Daniel Leary of whom we've begun to hear so much?"


"Mr. Vaughn," Uncle Stacey said, "may I present my nephew, Lieutenant Daniel Leary. He's a credit to the Bergens, though he doesn't bear our name."


Vaughn's handshake was firm, pausing just short of the pressure that would have meant he'd seriously tried to crush Daniel's hand. Daniel's eyes narrowed slightly. Vaughn was testing something more subtle than strength: he was determining whether Daniel was willing to try conclusions with a wealthy, well-connected foreign noble.


Daniel grinned faintly. When he was sixteen, he'd broken with his father in a shouting match that rattled the windows of the Leary townhouse. After that, neither Delos Vaughn nor Hell itself had any terrors for Daniel. He squeezed back till Vaughn released his hand.


"And I believe I heard you identify this officer as Ms. Mundy," Vaughn went on, offering his hand demurely, fingertips only, to make it clear that he wasn't going to attempt to bully the slightly built woman. "Allow me to say how pleased I am to see members of two of the noblest houses in the Republic standing together in the uniform of the Republic's staunchest defense."


There was no doubt from Vaughn's phrasing that he knew Speaker Leary had pushed through the proscriptions which crushed the Three Circles Conspiracy and with it the Mundys of Chatsworth. That wasn't knowledge to be expected of a foreigner.


"Delos, your schedule for this evening . . . " said one of his aides, a dark-haired man older than Vaughn who'd been fidgeting in the background ever since the conversation started. "If we're to inspect the . . . ?"


Delos Vaughn displayed the same imperturbable gloss as the throat of a plasma thruster fresh from the shipping crate. People like that seemed to make the folks around them worry double-time.


Now Vaughn shrugged easily. He gave Daniel and his companions a "you-know-how-it-is" grin and said, "Yes, Tredegar, I'm not forgetting that the caterer and the Gardens' representative will be coming by for final approval tonight."


Returning his attention to Daniel he went on, "I wonder, Lieutenant Leary, if you'd care to guide us through your command here. I wouldn't have thought of imposing, but since you're present . . . ?"


Daniel wouldn't claim to be a politician, but Corder Leary's son couldn't help but have learned that no matter is simple when there are human beings on both sides of the equation. It was an awareness which had proved useful in his dealings with women, also.


"Why, under other circumstances I'd be delighted to show you about the Princess Cecile," Daniel said with a smile of regret. "I'm afraid I have other commitments, however."


Uncle Stacey was trembling with fatigue; Adele, thank goodness, was easing him down into the wheelchair. The officers in Vaughn's own party didn't look pleased at the notion of being upstaged by a junior lieutenant. And as a matter of RCN regulation, not to mention fairness, the officer commanding the Princess Cecile was—


"Lieutenant Mon, the present captain, will be more than happy to do the job, though," Daniel continued, gesturing toward the corvette. "As for myself, I'm on half pay at the pleasure of the Navy Board for now."


Vaughn chuckled, then bowed to put a period to the discussion. "Perhaps I can hear about your adventures at some other time, Lieutenant," he said, allowing Captain Wenslow's slow movement to ease him toward the catwalk. "It'll have to be soon, though, I'm sure. The chiefs of your navy will never permit an officer of your demonstrated abilities to remain unemployed for long."


Adele started the wheelchair briskly toward the waiting jitney; it looked rather forlorn among its larger, flashier fellows. Daniel glanced over his shoulder as he took the wheelchair's handles himself a little farther down the apron. Vaughn was negotiating the catwalk with aplomb, but one of his aides and two Foreign Ministry officials had frozen at the edge of the dock like a trio of statues.


"The poor devil's an exile, I suppose," Uncle Stacey said as they neared the jitney. "Brought here as a hostage for his father's good behavior. Strymon isn't as bad as the Selma Cluster next door to it—the Pirate Cluster, you know—but his life still wouldn't be worth a zinc florin if he tried to go home now."


"He seems a personable fellow," Daniel offered as he paused for Adele to open the door. He might have to hand his uncle into the vehicle; meeting the delegation had been as much of a strain on Stacey as the whole rest of the outing. "I wonder why he wanted to see the Princess Cecile, though?"


"Mr. Vaughn didn't strike me as a man who's often bored," Adele said without emphasis as she walked around to the other side where she could help if needed, "or one who gathers information without a good reason. Which is a good reason for me . . ."


Uncle Stacey lurched onto the bench seat without touching the arm Adele crooked for him to grip. Daniel began folding the wheelchair to set in the roof cargo rack.


" . . . to learn what I can about Mr. Vaughn, I think," Adele concluded.


 


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