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CHAPTER 1

Xenos on Cinnabar

The pair of footmen at the head of the stairs bowed to Daniel; the older one said, "Senator Kearnes will be most pleased that you're able to attend, Lieutenant Leary."


"Pleased to be here," Daniel said. He smiled as he passed into the ballroom which took up most of the second floor of the Kearnes townhouse. Indeed, he was pleased.


The invitation to Lira Kearnes' fortieth birthday gala specified that officers were to wear full medals rather than ribbons. The request might well have been intended to display Lieutenant Daniel Leary at his most splendid; certainly it had that effect.


The Republic of Cinnabar Navy was the sword of the republic, not a weapon of party politics. High RCN officers couldn't attend this ball because Bruno Kearnes was the central figure in several political battles of the sort that the RCN kept out of. The unspoken ban on attendance didn't apply to a twenty-four-year-old lieutenant. The fruit salad on the breast of Daniel's Dress Whites would've been impressive even for an admiral, however.


Daniel, lately commanding the corvette Princess Cecile, had returned with dispatches from Admiral Keith's squadron just in time to give Senator Kearnes his show. Daniel in turn was getting the kind of adulation that came to those whom the citizens of Cinnabar decided were genuine heroes. It was Lira Kearnes' gala, but it was Daniel Leary's night.


Daniel scanned the crowd, checking for anyone he might know among those present. The invitation had been to all four officers from the Princess Cecile: Midshipmen Dorst and Vesey, and First Lieutenant Conn Medorn, who not coincidentally was the nephew of Admiral Keith.


The Princess Cecile's signals officer, Adele Mundy, had been invited also—but not because she was an RCN warrant officer. Adele was Mundy of Chatsworth, head and sole survivor of one of the most noble families in the Republic. Her father—before his execution for treason—had been leader of the Popular Party. That was the territory if not precisely the title which Bruno Kearnes appeared to have marked for his own.


Daniel didn't see any of his fellows from the Sissie, but there was plenty of room in this swirling crowd to get lost. Besides, Daniel hadn't come here to find shipmates. . . .


The small orchestra in the loft above the balcony swung into a polacca. Couples who weren't up to the lively music left the dance floor in the center of the enormous hall, but others took their place.


A portly banker with investments in shipbuilding remained with the younger couples, however; he danced with an enthusiasm that made up for his limited skills. His partner was probably closer to his granddaughter's age than that of his daughter. She complemented the banker's steps perfectly, just as the tiara of sapphires she wore complemented her blue eyes.


And those blue eyes caught Daniel's across the room as she dipped and spun.


Much of the Republic's wealth and beauty was here tonight. Daniel Leary could have any share of it he chose, any share, simply by stretching out his hand.


He grinned: which he'd likely do before long. He was a healthy young man, and the voyage back from the Galactic North with Admiral Keith's dispatches had been a long one.


"Leary!" called a saturnine man in a red velvet suit; his waistcoat flashed with metallic gold. Mawhire of Rondolet, recalled a rarely visited portion of Daniel's mind; an acquaintance of Daniel's father. Mawhire's clothing had made an impression on a child who even at seven was more comfortable hunting on the family estate than he was with the much crueler games that politicians got up to. "Daniel Leary! Come over here, boy, and let me introduce you to some friends of mine. My but you've grown since I last saw you!"


Which would've been about seventeen years ago, when Speaker Corder Leary broke the Three Circles Conspiracy and drowned it in blood. Daniel vaguely recalled that Mawhire had lost a cousin in the Proscriptions. . . .


"Daniel Leary, may I present Senator Russell—that's Russell of Walsingham, you know . . ." Mawhire said. Daniel bowed—nodded deeply—to a man with vacant eyes and more facets glittering on his fingers than there were in the crystal chandeliers above.


" . . . and Tomas Bayard of Bayard and Sons." Daniel bowed again, this time to an ancient man—he supposed Bayard was male—supporting himself in a walker. Stone-faced servants stood at either elbow just in case they were needed.


"Surprised to see you here, Leary," Bayard said in a cracked voice. "Given how your father and Bruno Kearnes get along. Don't get along."


He turned his head toward Mawhire, a quick motion that reminded Daniel of an ancient, poisonous, lizard casting for prey. "You know that story, Mawhire?" he demanded.


"I recall rumors," Senator Mawhire said, having the decency to look uncomfortable. "But it's not really a matter—"


"Speaker Leary and young Kearnes there don't get along because Leary and Lira Kearnes got along too well!" Bayard continued in glee. "Far too well!"


He broke into cackling laughter; it ended abruptly in a paroxysm of coughing. One of Bayard's attendants held his shoulders while the other slipped a large handkerchief over his mouth.


Daniel smiled pleasantly. I hope you bring your lungs up, you nasty little bastard, he thought. Aloud he said, "That would've been before my time, sir. And of course it's not the sort of thing a gentleman talks about."


"Gentlemen!" Bayard sneered. "All a gentleman's good for is feeding the worms!"


"That's the common lot of mankind, my dear Tomas," said a woman suddenly standing at Daniel's right elbow. Her voice was cultured and as smoothly cutting as a scalpel. "However the lieutenant here has already accomplished things that will keep his name alive after the worms have devoured what the doctors have left. Not so?"


"Faugh, glory!" Bayard said. "Women and fools set great store by it, I understand."


He started to turn away, but stiffness and the walker prevented him from doing so quickly enough. The woman added sweetly, "I suppose women you've had to learn about second hand, haven't you, you poor dear?"


Daniel allowed himself a satisfied smile toward the magnate's back. He wouldn't have responded to Bayard directly, out of courtesy toward a sick old man—however nasty—and from the sense of propriety ingrained by living within the rigid order of the RCN. He certainly wasn't displeased to watch somebody else kick the old bastard in the balls, though—and then put the boot in as he writhed on the floor.


He turned to the woman. She looked to be in her thirties, but that was probably as much a medical marvel as the fact Tomas Bayard was alive at all. She was undeniably handsome, but even "the thirties" was far too old for Daniel's taste.


"Mistress Jacopus," said Mawhire to the lady, "allow me to present the Lieutenant Daniel Leary of whom we've heard so much. I'd say Daniel was an old family friend, but in fact I can't claim to be any closer to Speaker Leary today than Kearnes is—or you are yourself, boy, from what I hear? Had quite a falling out with your father when you joined the navy, I heard?"


"I haven't spoken to my father in some years, that's true," Daniel said, letting his eyes rise as if to view the frescos of the high ceiling. Cherubs were teasing lions in various fashions in each panel, while between the paintings were stucco moldings of furious giants straining to burst through the frames they supported. He supposed the scenes were allegorical; another way of saying they were without interest to him. "I wonder if there's something to dr—"


"Do let me be your guide, Lieutenant," Mistress Jacopus said, taking his right arm in both hands; gently, but in a proprietary fashion nonetheless. "I have so many questions to ask you about your medals!"


The Jacopus family was famous for wealth and a determined neutrality in the Republic's rough-and-tumble—sometimes very rough—politics. Daniel had heard that one member of the family was the most famous hostess in Xenos; he didn't doubt that he'd just met her.


The orchestra was playing a hornpipe, but it was a restrained thing compared to what went by the same name in the spacers' bars around Harbor Three—or any other RCN liberty port. Daniel had spent his time in those bars when he was a midshipman, an officer by courtesy but not yet commissioned. Since fame had brought him invitations to dos like this one, he'd found little to regret about no longer being poor and obscure. The liquor was better and the women were much prettier. He'd never had much interest in dancing anyway.


Mistress Jacopus led him toward the refreshment table which was set in a corner, in front of double doors onto a parterre. Servants passed in and out, exchanging full trays and bottles to replace the those that had been browsed and drunk empty.


Jacopus was taking him by the long route, however, and at each step she nodded graciously and smiled to another guest. Occasionally she murmured a first name—"Dear Janni . . . "—or title—"Senator, how nice,"—as they passed, savoring the looks of respect and—from some of the women—fury.


"I hope you don't mind me showing off my trophy, Lieutenant," she said in his ear as though murmuring endearments. "Because you are quite a trophy, you know."


"Ah, mistress—" Daniel said.


"Christine, please," she said. "And you needn't worry that I'll embarrass you later. I know quite a lot about your tastes, including the sort of young friends you prefer for recreation. I'd offer to help you there, but I'm sure a handsome hero like yourself is capable of making his own arrangements."


"That's generally been the case in the past, ah, Christine," Daniel said. "And I do appreciate you, ah, helping me out of an awkwardness."


Daniel didn't like to talk about his father for a number of reasons, not least that he didn't have anything to say about Corder Leary. They'd had little contact even before the break—which was over Corder's remarriage, not Daniel's career. He'd joined the RCN in reaction to that blazing row, not as the cause of it.


Daniel had spent his childhood on the family estate of Bantry, learning a little about decorum from his mother—a saint, as everybody agreed—and a great deal about hunting, fishing and manhood from Hogg, a family retainer. There'd been Hoggs poaching on Bantry from the days of the first human settlement, long before the Hiatus in star travel drew a thousand-year line through history.


In the eight years since the row, Daniel and Corder Leary'd had no contact whatever. Words had been said that would've meant pistols at dawn if those speaking hadn't been father and son, but even beyond that . . .


Corder Leary was a stiff-necked, stubborn man who'd never backed down in a fight. Daniel wasn't his father and wouldn't have wanted to be him; but much as Daniel revered his late mother, he knew very well that his temper and his backbone hadn't come from her side of the family.


There was a crush at the refreshments table. Daniel hadn't really been thirsty, just uncomfortable at the direction Mawhire had taken the conversation, and Christine Jacopus simply wanted to be seen with the lion of the evening. Instead of forcing his way through, he paused to look around again.


By the etiquette of upper-class Xenos, the only regular servants on the floor were those behind the refreshments table. The guests' personal attendants were in the balcony above. They could be summoned to meet their employer in a hallway if required or even escorted onto the floor by a member of the Kearnes household in event of an outside emergency.


Many of the guests—perhaps a quarter of the total, Daniel guessed, smiling faintly—were accompanied by silent men and women in simple dress. If you didn't know who they were, they could pass for poor relations of the glittering guests they stayed close to.


In fact they were . . . well, calling them guards would be harsh but not inaccurate. They were employed by various couturiers, jewelers, and pawn brokers. They accompanied not the guests but rather the clothing and accouterments which the guests wore and hadn't paid for; that they very probably couldn't pay for. By convention, nobody "noticed" them.


"What is this one, Daniel?" Christine said, touching the spray of gold feathers dusted with real rubies waving from the peak of his dress hat. She leaned against him a little more closely than she need to have done.


"Oh, the aigrette?" said Daniel, squinting sideways. "That's the Kostroma Star, a, ah, foreign decoration. From an allied foreign power, of course, or I wouldn't be permitted to wear it."


Though in truth the fourragere of gold and silver cords across his left breast was the Order of Strymon in Diamonds; the stones on the clasp at his epaulette were the size of a child's teeth. In theory it entitled the wearer to the freedom of Strymon, a planet Daniel didn't expect ever to visit again as an RCN officer.


It was stretching the point a good deal to describe President Delos Vaughn as an ally of Cinnabar, as the events that put him in power had been not only unauthorized by Cinnabar's Ministry of External Affairs but actively hindered by those well-meaning diplomats. Still, the award was too striking for Daniel not to wear it unless he were flatly forbidden.


Foreigners had vulgar taste, far inferior to that of Cinnabar, of course. But Daniel had learned that girls—the girls he found attractive—didn't object to a bit of vulgarity; and truth to tell, the taste of rural districts like Bantry wasn't nearly as muted as that here in Xenos, the capital.


Christine touched one medal after another, her lips working silently. A circle of guests was forming about them like mother-of-pearl coating a sand grain in the mantle of a shellfish; not pressing, but rapt in anticipation of what they might hear. Powerful nobles and very beautiful women, wondering what the heroic Lieutenant Leary might say!


Daniel knew it didn't matter. These same people would howl and kick his naked body down the street tomorrow if he were disgraced and executed; they'd done that with many of those implicated in the Three Circles Conspiracy. The folk quickest to spurn the fallen were those who'd cheered the loudest in the days before their overthrow.


It didn't matter—but he was young and he was human. "That . . ." Daniel said as Christine ran the sash of red silk and cloth-of-gold between her fingers. He spoke to the older woman, but his eyes met those of the petite blonde beaming from just beyond her. " . . . makes me a Royal Companion of Novy Sverdlovsk as I understand it. I was fortunate enough to recover a valuable artifact for the throne and gained Sverdlovsk's support for a Cinnabar initiative in the Galactic North as a result."


The artifact was a diamond engraved with the continents of Old Earth before the wars in which asteroids had smashed the planet out of its former shape. Daniel had traded it for a warship, and with that ship he—and the finest crew that ever blessed an RCN captain—had smashed an Alliance squadron. The sash was showy. For the same incident Admiral Keith had awarded Daniel the Medal of the Republic in Red—a small bronze cross with a ruby point in the center.


Civilians marveled at the sash. RCN officers braced to attention and saluted when they saw the medal.


The orchestra played a few bars as a signal. Couples began forming for a sarabande.


"Now, Daniel," Christine said, holding his right hand with her left but turning to take the hand of the blonde beside her. "May I present Thora, the daughter of my great friend Senator Bencini?"


She brought their hands together. Thora simpered becomingly; her fingers gripped Daniel with more than formal enthusiasm.


"RCN forever," called a dry, carrying voice from across the circle of spectators. Daniel looked from Thora for a moment and caught the cool, amused eyes of Adele Mundy as she marched past them into the stately paces of the sarabande beside a fifties-ish man corseted into a Fencibles uniform.


"RCN forever," Daniel echoed gaily, raising the blonde's hand high in enthusiastic triumph.


It was good to be young and an RCN officer. It was good to be alive!


RCN forever!  


* * *

If asked, Adele Mundy would've said she found dancing considerably less interesting than shelf-reading: going through the stacks of a library and placing misfiled volumes in their correct location. Still, dancing was an accomplishment expected in a noblewoman, so she'd learned it. Though Adele's parents were the leading lights of the Popular Party, they'd never permitted their children to forget that the Mundys of Chatsworth were among the first families of the Republic.


"Were" being the operative word there. Every Mundy save Adele herself, studying in the Academic Collections on Blythe—a member of the Alliance of Free Stars—had died in the Proscriptions by which Corder Leary had crushed the Three Circles Conspiracy. Adele's sister Agatha had been ten years old when her head was taken to decorate the Speaker's Rock in the ancient center of Xenos.


The music ended. Adele's partner was in the building construction trade. He turned to her and wheezed, "Mistress Mundy, it's been a pleasure to dance with you. A great pleasure!"


He bowed as deeply as his corset allowed him, which of course wasn't very deep. Even without the undergarment, his bright green Fencibles uniform had enough gold piping that it could stand up itself.


"Thank you, Colonel," Adele said, miming a curtsey by spreading her hands with a bare dip of her head. "The pleasure was mutual."


Which was more or less true: he hadn't trodden on her, always a possibility when Adele danced with out-of-condition men who were determined to show off. It was a worse problem off-planet, of course. Here in Xenos she was Mundy of Chatsworth, a person of rank but no particular importance. On the distant worlds where the Princess Cecile might land, Adele Mundy was a sophisticate from the capital, a personage of greater status than any other woman present . . . even in the minds of those women.


The latest style for the sarabande was to keep the toes of the forward foot straight down while executing the steps in slow motion. Adele filed the information as she filed all information. She'd be called on to demonstrate Xenos fashion soon enough, she was sure, in a ballroom of unpainted wood or on an open pavement under unfamiliar stars.


"Mistress Mundy?" said an attractive woman somewhat older than Adele's own thirty-two standard—that is, Earth—years. "I was told . . . well, are you Mundy of Chatsworth? I don't mean to intrude, but . . . ?"


The woman, a complete stranger to Adele, was dressed at the height of current style: her neck and wrist ruffs would make it impossible for her to feed herself. That was probably the point, of course, rather like the shoes you couldn't walk in that had been a fad among the nobility when Adele was a child.


"Yes," said Adele, knowing her voice held a hint of challenge. She didn't intend that—whoever this woman was, she clearly wasn't an enemy in the sense that Adele would need the small pistol in the side-pocket of her tunic.


But there had been enemies of that sort in Adele's life, even before she joined the RCN and became part of the Republic's most powerful instrument of policy. Reflexes you've gained on battlefields don't go away because you're standing in a ballroom now. "I'm Adele Mundy."


"I'm Lira Kearnes, Mistress Mundy," the woman said, obviously embarrassed. "I'd hoped to talk with you because you're a naval officer. Ah . . . I expected you to be in uniform, so though you were pointed out to me I wasn't sure. . . ."


"Oh!" said Adele in considerably greater embarrassment than Mistress Kearnes and for better reason. Here she was treating her hostess like a potential enemy, simply because the woman had wanted to talk with her. Though why had she mentioned the RCN? "I'm very sorry, I was thinking of other things."


And so she had been, thinking about things that had no business in polite society. Even without the hardships that resulted from her family's ruin, Adele Mundy wouldn't have grown into a person whom acquaintances would've described as cheerful and outgoing. She regarded courtesy as the most important social virtue, however, and she'd just been discourteous to her hostess.


Quickly she went on before Lira Kearnes could resume speaking, "I received an invitation as Mundy of Chatsworth, mistress. The invitation to the officers of the Princess Cecile was limited to the commissioned officers. Or in the case of the midshipmen, those who will be commissioned. I'm a technician; a warrant officer, in RCN terms."


The orchestra was playing a rigadoon. It was more sprightly than most of the guests cared to attempt, but Midshipman Dorst of the Princess Cecile danced with the athletic grace with which he'd carried out any task requiring physical strength and dexterity. His partner was a red-haired civilian, strikingly attractive and just as good a dancer as Dorst was.


Midshipman Vesey, also of the Sissie and Dorst's lover, watched from the edge of the dance floor with a careful lack of expression. Daniel regarded Vesey as a very respectable astrogator. That was high praise, as it came from a man whom the RCN held the near equal of the incomparable Stacey Bergen, Daniel's uncle and the man who'd trained him in everything to do with a starship. Vesey was even attractive . . . but not the way the redhead was attractive.


As best Adele could tell, Dorst loved Vesey; certainly he'd willingly put his tall, muscular body between her and any danger. But tonight was likely to be a difficult time for Vesey, who seemed completely oblivious of the bevy of civilian nobles trying to catch her attention.


Adele sighed. She herself had no more interest in sex than the busts on either side of the marble mantelpiece did. There were others—Daniel Leary was a member of the class—who had an obvious animal enthusiasm for the business but then got on with the rest of their lives, utterly unscathed by those activities.


And then there were the Midshipman Veseys and apparently the majority of humanity, who were regularly turned inside out by what could've been a matter of simple biology. Adele's philosophy hadn't had room for a deity even before the slaughter of her family, but it sometimes seemed to her that the whole business was too illogical not to have been Something's cruel joke.


"Mistress Mundy . . . ?"


"I'm very sorry," Adele said, curtseying to Kearnes in honest contrition. "I'm afraid I'm distracted by the—"


She didn't know how to go on. Not with what she was really thinking, not to this woman who'd no more understand than if Adele began chattering in the language of a just-discovered planet which'd fallen into savagery at the Hiatus and never recovered.


"We don't have much occasion for events like this," Adele continued in a flash of inspiration. It wasn't exactly a lie. Not exactly. She made a gesture of cultured restraint to the glittering crowd. "I haven't seen anything to equal it since, that is, in a very long time."


Since my family was massacred; but that was another thing not to say here.


"Would you like to go . . ." Kearnes began. She caught herself and amended her words to, "Would you mind stepping into a drawing room with me, Mistress Mundy? I know it's my party and I shouldn't, but I really do want to talk with you. It's about my son, you see."


Adele went blank-faced. Her son? 


"Yes, of course," she said aloud, meaning the private discussion rather than that she had any idea of what Lira Kearnes was talking about. It took conscious restraint to prevent Adele from pulling out her personal data unit and squatting on the floor to check the Kearnes family in a detail greater than what she'd thought necessary on receiving the invitation. It was always a mistake not to search deeply when you had the time!


Adele wore a double tunic and skirt. The translucent outer fabric was a misty gray which slightly blurred the geometric patterns embroidered in black on her inner garments. The data unit in a pocket on the inner skirt was hidden from view but instantly accessible. Through the unit's controlling wands—less bulky than a keypad—Adele had access to the wider universe in the only form she could really accept it: as tabulated information.


But it would be impolite to bring out the flat rectangle now, and Adele had already come uncomfortably close to being impolite to Lira Kearnes. Besides, there was a better—if not as natural to Adele—way to learn what the lady was talking about: she could ask.


"I'm not aware of having met your son, mistress," Adele said as footmen in violet frock coats swept open an unobtrusive door and closed it behind them. The drawing room beyond was tiled in patterns of circles, whorls, and multi-pointed stars. Instead of ordinary light fixtures, a screen brightened into the holographic image of an arched double window looking out onto a palm-fringed beach. Beyond, the sea combed over sand toward the window.


"Do sit, please," Kearnes said. There were chairs and a table, but she gestured instead to the ottoman beneath the "window."


Adele seated herself carefully, folding her hands in her lap. The tips of her fingers rested on the hard, hidden outlines of her data unit.


Kearnes sat on the other end of the ottoman and stared at the upholstery between them for a moment. When she looked up, she began, "It's my third son, Oller. He's joined the navy, you see. I didn't want him to go, but . . . Oller's a very high-spirited boy, extremely bright but, well, he has his own ideas. He'd signed on with a privateer, and it was only because my husband agreed to get him a special appointment as a midshipman that Oller gave up that plan."


"The RCN can be a fine career for a high-spirited youth, mistress," Adele said, choosing her words carefully. "It has been for my friend Lieutenant Leary, certainly."


But Daniel was high spirited. Reading between the lines of a mother's description, Oller Kearnes was a spoiled brat with romantic notions of what it meant to be one of scores or hundreds of people sealed in a metal box so full of equipment that even to turn around required caution.


Danger is another thing that's more romantic to read about than the reality of blood and burns and the screams transcending age and gender and even humanity. Pain can be a sound, pure sound, and pictures can't prepare you for the smell of a man trying to stuff his intestines back into his ripped abdomen.


"Yes, I know that," Lira Kearnes said. "That's why I wanted to talk with you, one of the reasons. I don't suppose you're a mother . . . ?"


And despite the wording, Kearnes obviously hoped Adele would say, "Yes."


"No," Adele said primly. "I am not."


"Ah," Kearnes said. "Well, I was sure you weren't. I couldn't talk to Lieutenant Leary directly. He, ah, his father was an associate of my husband's at one time, but they had a falling out. I thought you might be able to tell me what life's like for a midshipman on shipboard. And, well . . ."


She reached out impulsively and touched her fingertips to the back of Adele's right hand. "It helps that you're a woman," she blurted.


In biological terms you're no doubt correct, Adele thought. With some difficulty she controlled the instinctive curl of her lip. But that wasn't fair, because Kearnes was really saying it was easier for her to talk to a woman about her fears for her offspring. It didn't imply anything about the woman she confided in.


"I might better introduce you to Midshipman Dorst, whom you've invited tonight," Adele said. "But . . . midshipman is a responsible job. He'll be treated as an officer under most circumstances, but he's still in training and he'll be expected to pay attention to whoever may be instructing him. And of course RCN discipline is strict even for officers; perhaps especially for officers. Lives may depend on obedience to orders."


"Yes, that's what worries me," Kearnes admitted to her interlaced fingers. "Oller isn't a bad boy, please understand me, and he's very bright on so many subjects. But . . ."


Oller is a willful brat who's never stuck to anything long enough to learn if he has an aptitude for it, Adele translated silently. Aloud she said, "It's possible that discipline imposed by his superiors will teach your son the importance of self-discipline, mistress. That often happens."


Certainly being clouted across the deck by a bosun who took exception to your smart mouth would be a learning experience beyond anything a well-born youth was likely to have gotten at home. Woetjans, the Princess Cecile's bosun, was also biologically female. She was six and a half feet tall and showed no hesitation whatever in using her immense strength to advance an argument with someone whom RCN regulations made her responsibility. As Chief of Rig, those responsibilities included teaching midshipmen the ropes as surely as they did teaching enlisted recruits.


"Yes, well . . ." Kearnes said. She forced a smile as she met Adele's eyes again. "Oller is on a cruise to Sexburga in the Bainbridge under Commander Slidell. They're taking dispatches for distribution there, but I gather it's really a training cruise. It should be a good experience."


The poor fool almost choked getting that last sentence out, Adele thought; half in pity, half in disgust. Did the woman have any conception of what real hardship amounted to? 


But of course she didn't, because she hadn't allowed herself to think about uncomfortable things. Lira Kearnes may well have walked past Agatha's head on Speaker's Rock, for example.


"A training cruise will give your son an idea of what service in the RCN really is," Adele said aloud, wondering if she should get up to put a stop to the conversation. Not quite yet. "I don't know what the regulations say formally, but I'm sure that if the boy feels he's really unsuited to a naval career, your husband will be able to arrange his separation easily enough."


"Yes, of course," Kearnes said, her smile real this time but wan. "I know that, but I still, well . . ."


In a change of subject that made Adele reach again for her data unit—and again catch herself—Kearnes continued, "The Captain Slidell commanding the Bainbridge is Aban Slidell. His elder brother Jan was Corder Leary's private secretary when he was Speaker of the Senate."


"Politics have never interested me, mistress," Adele said, tensing herself to rise.


"But you know that your friend Daniel's father is that Leary, don't you?" Kearnes said. Suddenly her voice was firmer. "I was wondering how you two came to be friends."


Adele looked at the holographic image. Waves rolled inshore. If you looked carefully, you could see the line at which the seeming water changed from gray-green to deep blue, following the sea's depth as sharply as anything a surveyor could draw on a map. The palm fronds moved in a pictured breeze as well.


"Mistress . . ." Adele said, choosing her words very carefully. If she hadn't been sure that there was something to this conversation that she hadn't grasped yet, she'd have left the room and this house instantly.


But Lira Kearnes wasn't simply being stupidly offensive. Good heavens, the woman had started crying!


"Mistress Kearnes," Adele said, turning toward the seascape again so that Kearnes could dab at her tears with a tiny handkerchief. "I'm not the sort of person who makes friends easily. This isn't anything to do with events in my life, it's just what I was born. I'm a librarian by instinct and training. Under normal circumstances I'd be running a major research institution now. I'd have the respect of my peers—and not to be unduly boastful, I'd have very few peers. But I'd have no friends at all."


"Please, I didn't mean to offend you," Kearnes said. "Please, I'm very sorry!"


She was reacting to the tone, Adele supposed, but not even Adele could control that now. People sometimes called her emotionless, but that wasn't the case: she was just very controlled, because the emotion Adele Mundy knew best was a cold, murderous rage that had no place in ordinary human society.


"I'm not offended," Adele said, rasping the words. Fighting to take the edge from her voice she repeated, "I'm not offended."


Taking a deep breath, Adele went on, "As you obviously know, my circumstances stopped being normal at the time of the Three Circles Conspiracy. I lost my family, but quite frankly I'd never been close to them either. I can be offended at what happened and I can quarrel intellectually with why it happened, but I don't imagine that I'd have any more contact with my parents and sister in the future I expected than I do in my present existence. I put a flower on the family cenotaph once a year."


Adele laughed. She was a proud woman, she knew that: proud of her intelligence and skills, proud of being a Mundy of Chatsworth; proud that she wore the uniform of the RCN.


But the greatest boast of Adele Mundy's heart was her honesty—and that she was proving tonight, in a fashion that surprised even her.


"But a very odd thing happened, Mistress Kearnes," Adele went on, wry humor suddenly bubbling in her voice. "Events have made me a member of the RCN. I have a family closer than ever my blood relatives could have become. And I have a friend, too. If he happens to be the son of Speaker Leary, then that's nothing to me—or to him either. Because we're friends."


"I . . ." Kearnes said. She smiled wanly and continued, "I think you're very fortunate, mistress."


"Yes, I am," Adele said, standing up at last. "And if what you really started to say is that you don't understand, then let me assure you that I don't understand either. But I'm very glad of the situation."


She turned the door latch but looked back over her shoulder before pulling the panel open. Lira Kearnes was still seated on the ottoman. Her expression was vaguely surprised when she met Adele's gaze.


"The RCN has been very good to me, mistress," Adele said. "I hope it'll prove equally good for your son."


"I hope so too," Kearnes said, rising to her feet with the composure to be expected of a noblewoman like herself. "Thank you very much for your time, Mistress Mundy. And your kindness."


The footmen had stepped to either side when they heard the latch click. After Adele passed between them, they edged back to conceal as well as protecting the doorway.


The tiny bead earphone in Adele's right ear blipped minusculely to get her attention. It was Adele's connection with her only servant, Tovera, who was paranoid because at some level she believed that everyone else was exactly like her. Adele suspected nobody was exactly like Tovera, a murderous sociopath with no more personality than a bowl of skimmed milk.


Tovera had knowledge which she'd gained as an agent of the Alliances' Fifth Bureau—the spy agency which reported directly to Guarantor Porra, whose will was law everywhere the military forces of the Alliance could carry it. She'd attached herself to Adele in part because she'd seen that Adele through art and instinct could gain information which Tovera's practiced craftsmanship couldn't reach—


And also because she'd seen Adele kill as emotionlessly as Tovera carried out every aspect of life, killing included. Tovera watched her mistress as an example of how human beings behaved; Adele saw in her servant an example of how easily she herself could become a thing that was human only on the outside.


They both gained by the association. Mistress Bernis Sand, the head of Cinnabar's civil intelligence service, gained even more.


Adele had no way to answer, so she waited the few heartbeats that Tovera always allowed after the attention signal. Three men had noticed her reappearing from the drawing room and were walking toward her: two fellows in their forties, both strangers to her, and a one-time political associate of Adele's father whom she'd thought was an old man even then.


"A messenger from the Navy Office came for Senator Kearnes," Tovera said. Radical signal compression and Adele's tiny earphone would've stripped the emotion from any voice, but in Tovera's case it didn't make much difference. "The Bainbridge has returned from a training cruise under Commander Aban Slidell."


Mistress Kearnes will be pleased, Adele thought.


"The Kearnes' youngest son had been aboard as a midshipman," Tovera continued with the precision that Adele expected and shared—making them a small minority in that fashion as well as many others.


"Mundy of Chatsworth, is it not?" said the first of the three men to reach Adele. The red rose in the lapel of his sharply tailored one-piece suit marked him as a Progressive, a political ally of Senator Kearnes. "I'm glad to meet you at last, mistress. I knew your—"


There was an altercation on the dance floor. Daniel's servant, Hogg, had appeared through a door that must lead from the balcony. Two footmen had tried to prevent him from going to his master without approval and an escort.


Hogg had the face of a half-witted rustic and dressed like an explosion in a trunk of theatrical costumes. When he wanted to, he moved fast; which the footmen who'd grabbed his arms would remember that after they regained consciousness. For now they lay on the floor, bleeding from pressure cuts where Hogg had slammed their foreheads together.


"Slidell executed Midshipman Kearnes for attempted mutiny along with two crewmen," Tovera said.


"What!" shouted a deep-voiced man. "What the hell do you mean!"


Guests stepped aside. The Progressive who'd addressed Adele turned and stared in the direction of the noise. "Why, what's going on?" he said to no one in particular. "Who's the navy man the Senator's talking to?"


Adele hadn't met Senator Kearnes, but she recognized him from the images she'd viewed in researching Kearnes when she received the invitation. She hadn't had any active reason to study her would-be host, but for Adele information was good in and of itself. If only she'd learned more about young Oller! 


"The Hell you say!" Senator Kearnes bellowed. He was a big man with a bull neck and apparently a bull's temper. The slim RCN lieutenant opened his mouth to speak further. Kearnes knocked him down with a clenched fist.


"I think you'd better get out now before something happens," Tovera said.


Daniel looked past Hogg to Adele; they exchanged nods. Adele started for a side door. Daniel called something to Vesey and Dorst, inaudible over the rising babble of the crowd.


The orchestra was still playing. Dorst turned in protest; Daniel grabbed one elbow and Hogg the other, bringing the big midshipman with them regardless of his opinion. The redhead who'd been dancing with Dorst shouted something shrill and ran three steps after them—then sprawled on her face when Vesey stuck a leg between the civilian's ankles.


Tovera was paranoid, of course. She thought anything could be a threat. But when a man as powerful as Senator Kearnes got angry, there was simply no point in staying around to learn what he might be capable of.


"Where's my wife!" Kearnes shouted. "Where's Lira!"


Adele stepped through the door. As worried footmen closed it behind her, she heard the Senator cry, "By God, someone's going to die for this!


No point at all.


 


 


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