Back | Next
Contents


CHAPTER 1

Adele Mundy wore for the first time her white Republic of Cinnabar Navy dress uniform. The sleeves had the chevrons of a warrant officer, the lightning bolt of the Signals Branch, and a black ribbon of mourning. She paused to check herself in the mirror in the entryway of her townhouse.


Three generations of Mundys had lived in Chatsworth Minor, ever since the family became so politically prominent that Adele's grandfather replaced their previous townhouse in Xenos with these imposing four stories of brick, stone, and ornate carvings. Adele had grown up here, but she'd been off-planet continuing her education as an archivist the night sixteen years ago when the Three Circles Conspiracy unraveled and gangs arrived to carry off the remainder of her family for execution.


She'd never expected to see Chatsworth Minor—or Cinnabar—again. When she learned that the heads of not only her parents but also her 10-year-old sister Agatha had been displayed on the Speaker's Rock, she hadn't wanted to see any relic of her previous life.


She smiled faintly into the mirror. Times change, but people change as well. The stern-looking naval officer with splashes of medal ribbons on the bosom of her tunic wasn't the reserved girl who'd left Cinnabar for the Academic Collections on Bryce just in time to save her life. They shared facial features and a trim build, that was all.


Or almost all; because both the officer and the girl lived with the bone-deep certainty that they were Mundys of Chatsworth. Adele's parents had been egalitarians and members of the People's Party, but there'd never been any doubt in their minds that the Mundys were first among equals . . . and no doubt in their daughter's mind that whether she was a scholar or a street-cleaner, she was a Mundy. There'd been times after her parents were killed and their property confiscated for treason that Adele believed a street-cleaner probably lived better; but that didn't change anything that really mattered.


Adele's servant Tovera—if servant was the right word—glanced at her mistress briefly in the mirror; her eyes flicked on, never resting anywhere very long. If Adele was prim, then Tovera was so colorless that casual observers generally paid her less attention than they did the wallpaper. For the funeral she wore a gray dress suit of good quality, also with a mourning ribbon. Her only other ornamentation was a blue-and-silver collar flash that proclaimed her a retainer—the sole retainer at the present time—of the Mundys of Chatsworth.


Tovera missed little but cared about even less; perhaps she cared about nothing except whatever task she'd been set or had set herself. Having Tovera around was much like carrying a pistol with a trigger as light as thistledown.


The pistol in the sidepocket of Adele's tunic was so flat it didn't bulge even a dress uniform. Its trigger was indeed light.


Smiling again Adele said, "I didn't have to check myself, did I, Tovera? You'd have told me if something was wrong."


Tovera shrugged. "If you wanted me to, mistress," she said. "I don't imagine we'll attract much attention at this affair."


Adele adjusted the set of her own black ribbon. "No," she said, "I don't suppose we will. But Daniel loved his Uncle Stacey, and I wouldn't care to fail Daniel."


I'd rather die than fail Daniel . . . But she didn't say that aloud, and Tovera wouldn't have cared anyway.


Adele glanced at the footmen, waiting patiently as she'd known they would be, and then to the doorman. The house servants wore Mundy livery, but unlike Tovera they were employed by the bank which on paper leased the townhouse. That was one of the perquisites which had fallen to Adele by virtue of her friendship with Lieutenant Daniel Leary, RCN; the son of Corder Leary, Speaker Leary to his associates even though he'd given up the speakership of the Assembly years before.


"I believe we're ready, then," she said. The doorman bowed and swung open the front door of softly gleaming beewood cut on what had been the Mundy country estate of Chatsworth Major. With the four footmen ahead of her and Tovera trailing a polite pace behind, Adele stepped into the court.


Times indeed change. Speaker Leary had been primarily responsible for crushing the Three Circles Conspiracy—and Adele's family—into a smear of blood . . . but it was his influence acting through the agency of Daniel's elder sister Deirdre which had returned the townhouse to Adele's ownership when she decided she wanted it after all. Ligier Rolfe, the distant cousin who'd taken possession of the truncated estate after the Proscriptions, probably didn't to this day know what had happened to ownership.


The tram stop was at the mouth of the court, now quiet, which had acted as an assembly room when Lucius Mundy addressed his supporters from the fourth floor balcony of Chatsworth Minor. Political power had never meant anything to Adele; indeed, so long as she had enough to feed her and the freedom of a large archive in which to indulge her passion for knowledge in the abstract, she didn't care about money. Even so it pleased her to think of how furious her cousin's wife, Marina Casaubon Rolfe, must have been when she was evicted from a house to which the mere wealth of her merchant family would never have entitled her.


Tovera must have noticed her expression. "Mistress?" she asked mildly.


"Do you remember Mistress Rolfe?" Adele said.


"Yes," Tovera said. "A fat worm."


"I was recalling," Adele explained, "that she saw fit to insult a Mundy of Chatsworth."


Tovera didn't comment. Perhaps she smiled.


Servants lounging at the entrances of other houses fronting on the court rose and doffed their caps, standing with their heads bowed as Adele passed by. In Lucius Mundy's day, all these houses had been owned by supporters of the People's Party. They'd suffered accordingly, but those who bought the properties in the aftermath of the Proscriptions were generally social climbers like Marina Rolfe. To them Adele's return gave the neighborhood the cachet of a real aristocrat's presence; they'd made very sure that their servants were properly obsequious.


Adele couldn't imagine what her neighbors made of the fact that Mundy of Chatsworth was a naval officer; and a warrant officer besides, a mere technician instead of a dashing commissioned officer like her tenant, Daniel Leary. Aristocrats were allowed to be eccentric, of course.


"Mistress?" Tovera said again.


"Am I eccentric, Tovera?" Adele asked, glancing over her shoulder.


"I wouldn't know, mistress," Tovera said. "You'd have to ask someone who understands what 'normal' means."


Adele grimaced. "I'm sorry, Tovera," she said. "It's not something I should joke about."


As Adele and her entourage approached the stop, an east-bound tram pulled onto the siding.Another monorail car clattered past on the main line, heading west toward the great roundabout in the center of Xenos. By law only the Militia, the national police, could own aircars within the municipal limits of the capital; the likelihood that a touchy rival aristocrat would shoot down a private aircar passing overhead made the law more effective than merely legal sanctions could have done.


Many of the great houses had their own tramcars which teams of servants set on the rail when their master or mistress chose to go out. Adele had a respectable nest egg in the form of prize money gathered while under the command of Lieutenant Leary, but she couldn't have afforded such an establishment even if she'd seen any use for it.


She'd gotten used to taking care of herself; she preferred it that way now. She had Tovera, of course, but it was easy to forget that Tovera was human.


A footman ran ahead to engage the tram that'd just stopped, saving Adele the delay before another car arrived in answer to the call button in the kiosk. At this time of day that might be as much as half an hour. The funeral was being held at a chapel near Harbor Three, the great naval base on the northern outskirts of Xenos. Adele had allowed enough time—of course—but she preferred to be a trifle early than to miss the start of the rites because of a run of bad luck.


Adele Mundy had seen a great deal of luck in her 32 years. Quite a lot of it had been bad.


The man who got off the tram wore a hard-used, one might almost say ragged, RCN 2nd class uniform, gray with black piping. It was the minimum standard of dress required for off-duty officers in public, though given its condition—there were oil stains on the left cuff and a mended tear on the right pants leg—the powers that be in the Navy Office might have been better served had the fellow donned clean fatigues instead.


The recent armistice between Cinnabar and the Alliance of Free Stars had led to the decommissioning of many ships and the consequent relegation of officers to half-pay status. For those who didn't have private means, half-pay was a sentence of destitution. This was obviously an unfortunate who couldn't afford to maintain his wardrobe—


"That's Lieutenant Mon," Tovera murmured in her ear.


"Good God, it is," Adele blurted under her breath. She'd unconsciously averted her eyes in embarrassment; poor herself for most of her adult life, she had no desire to wallow in the poverty of others.


Such concerns didn't touch Tovera any more than love or hate did. The man coming toward them was a potential enemy—everyone was a potential enemy to Tovera—so she'd looked carefully and thus recognized Daniel's first lieutenant.


"Good afternoon, Mon!" Adele called, stepping through the line of footmen who'd deliberately placed themselves between her and the disreputable-looking stranger. "What are you doing here? Have you completed the Princess Cecile's repairs already?"


"Mundy?" said Lieutenant Mon. "Thank God I found you. Is Captain Leary here as well? I need to see him soonest. I must see him!"


Mon was a dark, close-coupled, morose officer in his early thirties. His technical skills were above the high average of RCN officers, and his doggedness made up for his lack of brilliance. Mon had neither family wealth nor the interest of senior officers to aid him, so his advancement in the service had been embitteringly slow.


Adele respected Mon but she didn't particularly like him. She doubted that many people regarded him as a friend.


Mon's saving grace was the way he'd reacted when Daniel Leary gave him his first taste of honor and prize money. There were officers—many officers—who'd have been envious of the lucky younger superior who swept from success to success while they plodded in his wake. Mon by contrast had shown only gratitude and utter loyalty.


"Daniel's at the Stanislas Chapel," Adele said. "Commander Bergen died, and Daniel's in charge of the arrangements. We're headed there now, but, ah . . ."


The tramcar began to chime in mindless irritation at being held at the stop. Adele glanced at the vehicle but held her tongue; her frustration was with the situation, not one more noise in a city that was full of them.


Mon glanced down at his uniform. "Oh, this?" he said, flicking the stained cuff. "Oh, that's all right. I've got my Whites in storage at Fastinelli's. I'll pick them up and go straight to the chapel—it's only a stop or two away from Stanislas."


He started back into the tram; the footman holding it in place stepped across the doorway to block him. "No, no, that's all right Morris!" Adele said. "My colleague Lieutenant Mon and I will travel together to the chapel. He'll change when he gets there."


They all boarded, the footmen first to clear space for their mistress—though the only others in the car were a disconsolate couple wearing shapeless blue robes. They cowered at the far end. Xenos was the capital not only of Cinnabar but of the empire which Cinnabar ruled. The city drew tourists, workers, and beggars from more worlds than even an information specialist like Adele Mundy could determine without checking the handheld data unit in a discreet thigh pocket on all of her uniforms, even these Dress Whites.


Adele smiled wryly. She'd be less uncomfortable stark naked but holding her data unit than fully clothed without the unit. Yes, she supposed she was eccentric. . . . 


The monorail whined away from the stop, then jolted onto the main line. They'd switch to a northbound line three stops on instead of going west to the main transfer point at the Pentacrest.


She wondered if the foreign couple had a real destination or if they were simply riding the cars for want of other occupation. They didn't look the sort to bury themselves in study as Adele Mundy had done when she was a lonely orphan in a foreign land.


"Ah, Mon?" she said, voicing another awkward topic that thought of poverty had brought to mind. Fastinelli's was the large-volume naval clothier's located near Harbor Three. Strictly speaking the firm didn't have a storage facility, but it did loan money against items of uniform which were surplus to the requirements of temporarily embarrassed officers. "Since you've just landed and won't have collected your pay yet, can I offer you a small loan for your storage fees?"


"What?" said Mon, obviously surprised. Whatever he was furrowing his brows over, it didn't seem to involve settling with the pawnbroker at the end of the tram ride. "Oh. Oh. Thank you, Mundy, quite decent of you, but I'm all right. Count Klimov gave me a drawing account to arrange stores."


Adele's eyes narrowed minusculely. "You did just land, didn't you, then?" she said, knowing that her tone was thin with a justified hint of displeasure. The lieutenant was obviously concerned about something, but that didn't justify what by now amounted to rudeness in ignoring her initial polite question. "You brought the Princess Cecile back to Cinnabar, that is?"


Mon stiffened, then scrunched his face with embarrassment. "Yes, mistress," he said. "Your pardon, please, for being distracted. Yes, we completed repairs to the Princess Cecile four weeks back. I brought her directly from Strymon in accordance to the orders that reached me while she was still in dry-dock. We landed at Harbor One a few hours ago, and I came to see Lieutenant Leary as soon as I'd rendered my accounts to the harbormaster."


"Harbor One?" said Adele, puzzled at mention of the lake northwest of Xenos where the first human colony ship landed. Early in Cinnabar's history Harbor One had sufficed for both her commercial and naval traffic, but those days were long past. Commercial transport had shifted to Harbor Two on the coast a hundred and twenty miles from the capital, while the RCN had built the vast artificial basin of Harbor Three for its operations at the close of the First Alliance War seventy-five years before.


"Why yes, mistress," Mon said. "The Princess Cecile is being sold out of service. I assumed that you—that Lieutenant Leary, at least—had been informed of that?"


"No," Adele said. "Daniel doesn't know that. I'm quite sure he'd have said something."


She sat back on the tram's bench, staring in the direction of the scratched windows while her mind grappled with what Mon had said. She felt the same disbelieving emptiness as she had when she learned that her family had died during the Proscriptions.


The words were simple, the concept quite understandable. The Princess Cecile was a foreign-built corvette, badly damaged in battle off Tanais in the Strymon system. You could never trust a ship after structural repairs, and there were many conservative RCN officers who didn't believe you could really trust a hull built on Kostroma in the first place. Now that Cinnabar and the Alliance were at peace, it made better sense to dispose of the Princess Cecile rather than bear the expense of maintaining her in ordinary.


Oh, yes, Adele could understand the reasoning. The analytical portion of her mind also understood why the heads of the Mundy family and their associates were displayed on Speaker's Rock when their conspiracy came unravelled.


But in both cases, Adele's stomach dropped into a frozen limbo while her mind spun pointlessly around the words and their implications.


The Princess Cecile was simply a small warship. Adele had first seen her less than a year ago, when she was a Kostroman corvette overflying a banal national parade. The Sissie was cramped and uncomfortable even at the best of occasions, and much of the time Adele had spent aboard her had involved danger and discomfort well beyond anything she'd previously experienced in a life with more than its share of squalid poverty.


And yet. . . . 


A year ago Adele Mundy had been a lonely orphan eking out an exile's existence in a third-rate court whose ruler affected to be an intellectual. Her title was Court Librarian, but her duties were those of a performing seal. Now she had her nation and even her childhood home back. She had the whole RCN for a family, and in Daniel Leary she had a friend who would stand with her to death.


None of these things were the Princess Cecile; but they had all come about through the Princess Cecile.


"Mundy?" Lieutenant Mon said in a worried tone. "Are you all right?"


Adele opened her eyes—she didn't recall having closed them—and gave Mon a crisp smile. "Yes indeed, Mon," she said. "A little sad, perhaps, but I'm on my way to a funeral, after all."


Mon nodded solemnly, looking out at the six- to eight-story buildings along the tram route. The top floors were luxury suites with roof gardens; the ground level was given over to shops, often with the owners' apartments on the floor above. In between lived ordinary people, bureaucrats and lieutenants with families larger than their incomes; librarians and mechanics and off-planet beggars jammed a dozen to a room. Lived and in their times died, because everything died.


Rest in peace, Princess Cecile. You too were a friend.


* * *

"Retired Rear Admiral Aussarenes and wife," said the buzzy whisper in Daniel Leary's left ear. A member of the staff of Williams and Son, Undertakers, sat in the back of a discreet van parked across from the Stanislas Chapel. She checked everyone in the receiving line against a database and passing along the information over a radio link. "He commanded the Bourgiba when your uncle was its third lieutenant."


Not its third lieutenant, Daniel corrected mentally. Her third lieutenant. A ship was female, even when she was a cranky heavy cruiser with a penchant for blowing her High Drive motors—as Daniel remembered well from the stories Uncle Stacey and his cronies told in the office of the repair yard while his sister's young son listened agog. Williams and Son specialized in society funerals, but the RCN was a very specialized society.


"Good morning, Admiral Aussarenes," he said aloud. "Uncle Stacey would've been honored to know that you and your good lady have come to pay your respects. May I present you with a ring in remembrance of the occasion?"


He offered the velvet-covered tray. The bezel of each silver ring was a grinning skull surrounded by a banner reading Commander Stacey Harmsworth Bergen, RCN.


Aussarenes took a ring and tried it for size on the little finger of his left hand. He walked stiffly, apparently as the result of back trouble. "I don't need a ring to remember Lieutenant Bergen," he said in a rasping, belligerent voice. "A damned troublesome officer, I don't mind telling you. Apt as not to be up on a mast truck when he was supposed to be on the bridge!"


"Darling," his wife muttered in the tone of exasperated familiarity. "Not here."


"Well, he was!" the admiral snapped. He looked up and met Daniel's eyes. "But he was the best astrogator I ever knew. When Bergen conned us, even the Bitchgiba could show her legs to a well-manned battleship if the course was long enough."


"Thank you, Admiral," Daniel said with a broad smile. "My uncle knew his limitations, but he appreciated praise when he was due it."


"Aye," said Aussarenes as Lady Aussarenes surreptitiously tugged his arm. "I hear you learned astrogation from him, boy. That's well and good, but mind that you stand your watches too!"


They passed into the chapel. Daniel continued to smile as he offered thanks and a remembrance ring to the next person in the receiving line, a man whose firm supplied antennas and yards to Bergen and Company. Perhaps a smile wasn't the proper expression for a funeral, but it was more natural to Daniel's ruddy face than a solemn frown.


Besides, the turn-out for the event was remarkable both for the number and the rank of the attendees. Commander Stacey Bergen was the greatest pathfinder and explorer in Cinnabar history. He hadn't gotten the recognition he deserved during his life, but the splendor of his funeral made up for that—at least for his nephew.


"Senator Pakenham and her husband, Lord William Pakenham," Daniel's earpiece whispered. Daniel wouldn't have recognized the hatchet-faced woman with a rotund, very subdued man in tow, but he recognized her name as that of the chair of the Senate's committee on external relations. Pakenham wouldn't have known Uncle Stacey from Noah's bosun, but she was here paying her respects in company with quite a number of the Republic's other top political figures—because they wanted to please Corder Leary.


Speaker Leary hadn't attended the funeral of a man he'd always treated as a poor relation—which Uncle Stacey was, truthfully enough, for all that their partnership Bergen and Associates ran at a profit. Perhaps he was avoiding the awkwardness of meeting the son who hadn't spoken to him in the seven years since their violent argument ended with Daniel enlisting as a midshipman in the RCN. Nevertheless, he'd used his influence to add luster to the funeral of the brother-in-law he'd despised in life; and for that Daniel would thank him if they chanced ever to meet again.


"Captain-of-Space Oliver Semmes," said the undertaker's man over the radio link. "Naval aide to Legislator Jarre's delegation." 


For a moment Daniel's mind failed to grasp the implications of the unfamiliar rank and the green-and-gold uniform of the trim little man bowing to him. His first thought was: Some wealthy landowner wearing the comic-opera uniform of the company of fencibles he commanded by virtue of his rank in his borough.


No, not comic at all: this was the dress uniform of the Fleet of the Alliance of Free Stars. Daniel didn't know his enemies' honors well enough to identify most of the medals on Semmes' tunic, but he recognized the lavaliere dangling from a white and silver ribbon as the Cross of Freedom, which was neither a trivial award nor a political one.


"Captain Semmes, it's a pleasure to see a distinguished member of your service," Daniel said. "Commander Bergen would have been deeply cognizant of the honor."


He cleared his throat while his mind groped for the correct words. It wasn't a situation he'd envisaged dealing with. Uncle Stacey had indeed viewed all Mankind as a single family striving together to rediscover and populate the universe . . . but that wasn't the official position of the RCN, nor the personal opinion of Lieutenant Daniel Leary; and it certainly wasn't the viewpoint of Guarantor Porra, who ruled the so-called Alliance of Free Stars with an iron fist and a security apparatus of legendary brutality.


"Ah . . . may I offer you a ring in remembrance of Commander Bergen?"


Semmes picked up a ring between thumb and forefinger, moving with the precise delicacy of an automaton. "I was privileged to meet your uncle once, Lieutenant," he said, cocking his head sideways to see how Daniel took the revelation. "On Alicia that was. My brother and I were aides to Frigate-Captain Lorenz, and Commander Bergen was surveying routes from Cinnabar to the Commonwealth."


"Ah!" said Daniel. Lorenz was a man whose reputation had spread well beyond the Alliance, a swashbuckling officer as renowned for feats of exploration as he was notorious for greed and utter amorality whenever he wasn't under the direct eye of his superiors. "Yes, that would have been almost thirty standard years ago, would it not?"


"Twenty-seven," Semmes agreed with a nod, fitting the ring he'd chosen onto his finger and holding it out to examine it critically. "We were most impressed by Commander Bergen's skill—as an astrogator."


He met Daniel's eyes squarely. "He was not a fighting officer, though, was he?" Semmes went on. Daniel might have been imagining the sneer beneath the bland assessment. "Your uncle?"


Daniel nodded crisply. "No sir, my uncle was not much of a fighter," he said. "Fortunately, the RCN has never lacked for officers to supply that particular deficiency."


He gestured the Alliance officer on into the chapel; not quite a dismissal, but an unmistakable hint. "Perhaps we'll meet again, Captain Semmes," he added.


"He's the sort who'd try to swim off with fifty feet of log chain back in Bantry," Hogg muttered into Daniel's ear from behind. "Thinking about it, something along those lines might happen right here in Xenos, young master. Eh?"


The voice from Williams and Son was identifying the next man in line as the recording secretary to the Senate committee on finance—quite an important fellow as Daniel well knew. Daniel had other business that was more important yet.


"Hogg," he said, turning to fix his servant with a baleful eye, "there'll be none of that, even in jest! An officer of the RCN cannot—and I will not—have a servant who acts like a street thug!"


"Begging your pardon, master," said Hogg. He sounded at least vaguely contrite, for all that he met Daniel's glare with level eyes. "It shan't happen again, I'm sure. I was a might put out by the fellow's disrespect for Master Stacey, is all."


Daniel nodded, forced up the corner of his lips in a smile, and returned to the receiving line. "A pleasure to see you, Major Hattersly," he said. The recording secretary had a commission in the Trained Bands. "May I offer you a ring in remembrance of Commander Bergen?"


The trouble in dealing with Hogg was that he wasn't so much of a servant as the tough older brother who'd raised Daniel in the country while Corder Leary busied himself with money and politics in Xenos. Daniel had a countryman's instinctive love for Bantry, the family estate. Money was useful only to spend, generally on friends, and as for politics—well, young Daniel had spent days watching the colony of rock cavies on the banks of Tule Creek. So far as he was concerned, they were not only far more interesting than his father's associates, they were on average a good deal smarter.


Corder Leary didn't think often about his son. Deirdre, the elder of his two children, was stamped from the mold of her father and absorbed his tutelage with a flair of her own. Daniel's mother was a saint—everybody agreed that, even her husband, which was perhaps the reason he only saw her on the few times a year when he was in Bantry for other business. But a saint doesn't have the temperament or the skills to handle a very active, very male, child . . . and Hogg had both in abundance.


Mistress Leary would've been horrified to learn not only what Hogg had taught the boy but even more by the way Hogg disciplined him. She never did learn, however, because one of the things Daniel learned from Hogg was how to be a man and not go blubbering to his mommy when he got clouted for doing something stupid.


Daniel didn't want to face the task of covering for a retainer who'd misguidedly scragged a high representative of a power with whom Cinnabar was for the moment at peace. He'd deal with the situation if it arose, though, because he was a Leary and understood his duties to his retainers . . . another thing he'd learned from Hogg.


Besides, Daniel hadn't been any happier than Hogg was to hear the implied sneer at Uncle Daniel's lack of credentials as a warrior. Particularly since the gibe was justified.


"Admiral and Lady Anston," said Daniel's earpiece. "He's head of the Navy Board, but he has no connection with Commander Bergen that I can find." 


Great God almighty! Daniel thought. He had a momentary fear that he'd blurted that aloud in the face of the head of the RCN—though Anston had heard worse and said worse in his time, there was no doubt about that.


He'd been a fighting admiral and a lucky admiral; the two in combination had made him extremely wealthy. Instead of retiring to spend the rest of his life indulging whatever whim struck his fancy—porcelain, politics, or pubescent girls—Anston had for the past eighteen years turned his very considerable talents to the organization and preservation of the Republic of Cinnabar Navy.


As head of the Navy Board he kept the RCN out of politics and kept politicians of every stripe out of the RCN. Everybody knew that naval contracts were awarded to the suppliers who best benefited the RCN and that ships and commands were allocated according to the needs and resources of the Republic—as determined by the head of Navy Board.


Anston was a florid man in his mid sixties. He ate and drank with the same enthusiasm he had fifty years earlier when he was a midshipman running up and down the rigging of his training battleship. Some day he'd die. That would be a worse blow to the RCN and the Republic than anything the Alliance had managed in the past century of off-and-on warfare.


But Anston was alive now, the most important man in the RCN and one of the most important in all Cinnabar; and he'd come to Commander Bergen's funeral.


"Good morning, Admiral Anston," Daniel said. An analytical part of his mind watched the proceedings dispassionately. It noted that Daniel's voice was pleasant and well modulated, and it marvelled at the fact. "Uncle Stacey is greatly honored to see you here."


"Is he?" said Anston, grinning grimly at Daniel—one spacer talking to another. "Well, I wouldn't know about that, boy; I leave those questions to the priests. I do know that I used the route Lieutenant Bergen charted through the Straw Pile to reach the fullerene convoy from the Webster Stars before it met its Alliance escort. The profits paid the RCN's budget for a year and didn't do me personally so badly either, eh, Maggie?"


He beamed at his wife, as near a double to him as their different sexes would allow. Her pants suit was covered with lace and ruffles—but all of them black, so from any distance she was merely a pudgy older woman instead of the clown she'd have looked in contrasting colors. "Josh, don't call me Maggie in public!" she said in a furious whisper.


Anston clapped her on the buttock. Lady Anston affected not to notice, but the admiral's aide—a lieutenant commander of aristocratic bearing—winced in social agony.


"What was Semmes saying to you?" the admiral demanded in a lowered voice. "He came calling at my office—for courtesy, he said. I was out and I'll damned well be out any other time he comes by!"


"Nothing that matters, your lordship," Daniel said. Behind him, Hogg grunted agreement with the admiral's comments. "He met Uncle Stacey on Alicia, when the Alliance expedition under Lorenz arrived just after the government had signed a treaty of friendship with the Republic."


"I guess he wouldn't forget that," Anston said with an approving guffaw. "They had no idea we were operating within ten days Transit of there—and we wouldn't have been except for your uncle's nose for a route where nobody else could see one."


"Josh, we're holding up the line," Lady Anston said, glaring at Daniel as though he and her husband were co-conspirators in a plot to embarrass her.


"Well, Commander Bergen isn't complaining, is he?" the admiral said in a testy voice. Then to Daniel he continued, "Listen, Lieutenant. The Senate doesn't want a war with the Alliance so it pretends there won't be one. I don't want a war either, but I know sure as the sun rises that war's coming. Coming whenever Guarantor Porra decides it's in his interest, and that won't be long. You needn't worry about being put on half pay—you're the sort of young officer the RCN needs even in peacetime. And when it's war, you'll have a command that'll raise you up or use you up, depending on the sort of grit you show. On my oath!"


The admiral passed on into the church, guided to the front by one of the corps of ushers provided by Willams and Son. The rhythms of his wife's harangue were intelligible even though the words themselves were not.


"A navy warrant officer," said the undertaker's prompter. Then, testily, "She should have been directed to the gallery via the back stairs!" 


"Hello, Adele," Daniel said, gripping Mundy's right hand with his and clasping his left over it. "By God, I'm glad you could see this! They've turned out for Uncle Stacey, by God they have! He'd be so proud to see this!"


Adele nodded with her usual neutral expression. Tovera, as pale as something poisonous from under a rock, stood just behind and to the side of her mistress. Daniel had a fleeting vision of the scene when an undertaker's functionary tried to shunt Adele to the gallery as a person of no account; he grinned broadly.


"Daniel," Adele said, "Lieutenant Mon's back with the Princess Cecile and seems in a desperate rush to see you. He'll be here for the service as soon as he changes into his dress uniform."


"Ah?" Daniel said, letting his left hand drop to his side. He met Adele's gaze calmly. She didn't show emotion as a general rule, but they were good enough friends that he could see when the emotion was present regardless. "I'll be glad to see him, of course—but what's wrong?"


Adele cleared her throat. "He says the Sissie is to be sold as excess to RCN requirements," she said. "I gather it will happen very soon. In a matter of days."


"Ah," Daniel said, nodding his understanding. "They must have a buyer, then. I regret the matter, though of course I understand the advantages to the Republic."


"Of course," Adele agreed. "I'll see you after the service, then. Back at the house, I suppose?"


Daniel nodded, though he wasn't really listening. All he could think of for the moment was the light of the firmament blazing about him as he stood on the deck of his first command—the RCS Princess Cecile.


"Come along, mistress," Hogg said. "I'll sit you down in front."


"I hardly think—" said the chief usher, a severe figure imbued with a mincing, sexless aura of disapproval.


"That's right, boyo," Hogg snapped, "you hardly do. Put a sock in it while I take the master's friend down t' the best seat in the house!"


Hogg and Mundy disappeared into the nave of the chapel; the chief usher fulminated at an underling.


"Good morning, Captain Churchill," Daniel said to the next in line, an old man wobbling in the grip of a worried younger relative. Churchill had been a midshipman with Uncle Stacey.


The fabric of the universe distorting around the gleaming prow of the Princess Cecile, under the command of Lieutenant Daniel Leary. . . . 


 


 


Back | Next
Contents
Framed