Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 12 

Chapter 9

“So I finally get to meet you, Special Officer Cachat. You made yourself impossible to find when I visited Torch for Berry‘s coronation.” Despite the reproving words, Cathy Montaigne’s tone was friendly and she was smiling. She strode forward and extended her hand.

Victor shook her hand and then executed a flourishing bow; the sort of gesture that had once been part of Haven’s social protocol during the Legislaturalist era and was still part of Manticoran protocol — although you rarely saw it done outside of some formal royal occasions. And then it was done only by some members of the aristocracy and usually done badly. Cachat’s performance, on the other hand, had been flawless.

Startled, Cathy looked at Anton Zilwicki. “You told me he was a rabid republican.”

“I said no such thing. ‘Rabid’ means raving; slavering with fury; downright witless. Victor neither raves nor slavers and he certainly isn’t witless. Setting that aside, yes, he’s a republican. Sort of the way plutonium is radioactive.”

She turned back to Victor. “But he did that perfectly.” She waggled her fingers. “Maybe just a shade too flamboyantly.”

“I figured it was better to err in that direction than the other,” said Cachat. “Given the nature of the exercise.”

“But… you’re too young. From what Anton tells me. You wouldn’t have been more than a boy during the Legislaturalist era.”

“And born and raised in a Dolist slum to boot,” added Anton.

“Then how would you have learned –?”

Anton made a loud snorting noise. The sound conveyed an odd cross of derision and grudging admiration. “He would have practiced it in a simulator on the way here,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe how much faith Victor has in the gadgets. He never travels without one if he can manage it — he even squeezed one into the courier ship — and he spends at least an hour a day in there practicing whatever. I’d accuse him of idolatry and worshipping golden calves except he’s as much of an atheist as he is a republican.”

Oscar St. Just was a monster,” said Victor. “Doesn’t mean he wasn’t smart. He believed in the value of simulator training and I learned it from him.”

Cathy started to make a flippant remark but stopped. A thought had just crossed her mind. She’d never met Victor Cachat before this moment but she had seen him before, in a manner of speaking. One of Jeremy X’s people had made a video recording of the gun fight in the bowels of Old Chicago between Cachat — later joined by Jeremy himself — and a group of Havenite soldiers and their Scrag allies. That had happened during the so-called Manpower Incident.

The quality of the recording had been quite poor; what you’d expect to get from a cheap handheld device in bad lighting conditions. But even so, two things had struck her powerfully when she’d watched afterward. Jeremy hadn’t wanted to show it to her but she’d insisted and he owed her too much to refuse.

The first was the sheer brutality involved. “Gun fight” was far too antiseptic a term for the slaughter produced when people shot each other at literally point blank range and the person doing most of the shooting had been armed with a flechette gun.

He’d known how to use it, too, and that had been the second thing Cathy had been struck by. Once the fight began, Cachat had been nothing but a blur. Partly that was the poor quality of the recording, but mostly it had been Cachat himself. He’d moved quickly, surely, spinning, shifting aside — while every shot he fired went true. He hadn’t seemed like a man so much as a killing machine.

He would have been what, at the time? Twenty-one years old? Twenty-two? Certainly not more than twenty-five.

“The fight in Old Chicago,” she blurted out before she could stop herself. “When you saved Helen. You practiced that in a simulator.”

Victor frowned and glanced at Zilwicki. Who, for his part, spread his hands.

“Don’t look at me. I kept my description vague. Really vague. And it was all over before I got there anyway.”

“Jeremy,” Victor muttered. “Damn him. He told me — I asked, later — that there hadn’t been any recordings made.”

“He’s been known to lie.” That came from Anton.

Cachat’s frown faded into a mildly irritated expression. “Sort of like plutonium is radioactive.”

He looked back at Cathy. “Yes, I trained for it in a simulator. A much bigger and more sophisticated simulator than the portable one I take with me, of course. How else could I have managed it?”

She felt like she was being extremely rude, all of sudden. Whatever might be Victor Cachat’s exotic history and peculiar attitudes, he was the man who had saved the lives of all three of her adopted children. And done so at incredibly great risk to his own.

So she extended both her hands this time and took both of his, in a gesture that was not formal in the least. “Please. Be welcome in this home. Now and always.”

Cachat’s poise faltered for an instant. “Well… thank you,” he said awkwardly, seeming to shed a decade and two inches of psychic armor in the process. Cathy now understood the truth of something Anton had once said to her about his Havenite partner: that somewhere deep underneath Cachat’s ferocious skills and adamantine willpower there remained a shy and lonely boy from the slums. Only a handful of people in the universe were ever made privy to that inner core, he’d told her — and Anton himself wasn’t really one of them. Or only partly so, at any rate.

“I’m not sure if he lets anyone into that sanctum, except Thandi Palane and Ginny Usher,” he’d told her. “Probably Kevin Usher, too.”

Cathy decided then and there that she’d add herself to that small list. First, because she owed the man that much. Second, because she enjoyed a challenge. And finally —

She couldn’t keep herself from giggling. At her age!

“What’s so funny?” asked Anton.

“Never mind.” She didn’t think even Anton would understand, not really. He thought — she was sure almost everyone did, except Jeremy X and Web DuHavel and maybe Empress Elizabeth, who’d been a close childhood friend — that Cathy’s rebellious history stemmed from her deep political principles. And…

That was indeed true enough. But she couldn’t deny that at least a part of the reason for her notorious past was simply a juvenile glee in thumbing her nose at the establishment. Any establishment.

As Countess of the Tor, Cathy’s coat of arms carried the family motto I cannot, which according to family legend referred to the heroic stance taken by an early politician who refused to sign on to a popular but unwise law. Cathy had her doubts about the legend, but the motto suited her well enough. In the interests of full disclosure, though, she’d sometimes thought she should add to the motto Épater la bourgeoisie — or use it altogether as a substitute.

She’d already scandalized Manticoran polite society with her longstanding association with the terrorist madman Jeremy X — now, sadly for polite society’s amour-propre, reborn as a respectable cabinet member of Torch’s government. Now she could add the scandal of a friendship with the man who was rapidly becoming the Republic of Haven’s most notorious secret agent.

How delightful.

She led the way through the foyer and into the rooms beyond. The first of which had the official title of “the salon” but which Anton insisted on calling “the extravagansory.” Or, sometimes, “the playing field.”

Cachat looked around, his expression one of mild interest.

Anton grinned. “Didn’t miss a beat. Congratulations, Victor. The first time I came into this room I said ‘holy shit!’ It took me four hours in here before I worked up the nerve to ask where the bathroom was. Were, as it happens. There are eight of them. Would you believe she calls this a ‘town house’?”