Death’s Bright Day – Snippet 04


Xenos on Cinnabar

Adele would rather have been in her library with the door shut, but today she was a hostess. Lady Mundy therefore stood on the steps of Chatsworth Minor where she could be seen.

A rigger named Chabat lurched out of the scrum at the nearest refreshment tables. She had a mug of ale in one hand and the other arm around a civilian youth who would probably look better after a few more drinks.

“Hey, Mistress!” Chabat called. “Anything I can bring you? So you don’t get your dress mussed, you know?”

“Thank you, Chabat,” Adele said. She waved, since she wasn’t sure the rigger could hear her even though she was — by her standards — shouting. “I’m all right.”

Chabat turned away. The young man seemed bored but willing.

Even better than being in her own room would be to be transported to the Academic Collections and her carrel on the top floor of the Old Stacks. Nobody came there.…

Deirdre approached, escorted by a much more impressive man — but also a professional. The blue of her dress complemented her reddish hair. Like Daniel she fought a tendency to plumpness; which was odd, Adele realized, because Corder Leary was a lean, craggy man and considerably taller than his children as well.

“I hope my brother doesn’t do this again for a long while,” she said. “I’ve merged three trading houses with less effort.”

She climbed the three steps to stand beside Adele. Tovera moved to the sidewalk to make more room.

A group of people — three couples, none of the six familiar to Adele — came out of the building and moved past, talking brightly without apparently listening to one another. Spirits were available on the ground floor for those who chose to ask, and these folk had clearly been sampling them.

“I was surprised when Daniel asked that only beer be served in the open and that he’d direct his spacers not to go into the houses,” Deirdre said. “Don’t spacers drink?”

“RCN ships use ninety percent ethanol as a working fluid in the Power Rooms,” Adele said, allowing herself another slight smile. “It’s ethanol because the crews are going to drink it anyway, so it may as well be a poison to which the human species has acquired a degree of resistance.”

“But?” said Deirdre.

“Mixing drunken spacers with drunken civilians is a separate problem,” Adele said. “As a matter of loyalty I would bet on the RCN, of course; but it wasn’t the sort of entertainment Daniel wanted for his wedding. His only wedding, I hope and believe.”

A young man approached but waited politely on the sidewalk until Adele noticed him and met his eyes. He moved to the bottom of the steps, nodded to Tovera and then to Deirdre, and said, “Lady Mundy? A friend said she hopes to talk with you today if you have a moment.”

“Ah?” Adele said, glancing at Deirdre.

Deirdre gestured her toward the messenger and said, “By all means. I’m sure I’ll manage to occupy myself.”

“You’re to guide me?” Adele said as she joined the young man.

“If you don’t mind,” he said, turning toward the head of the close. Adele didn’t know his name but she had seen him working as the doorman of Oriel House, the Sand residence. He had been a very good doorman, but she doubted that he considered that his primary occupation.

Behind them two men and a very mannish woman converged on Deirdre. Lady Mundy’s presence had kept others at a distance, but as soon as Daniel’s sister was free they moved in with their Very Important Questions. Presumably Deirdre really liked that sort of environment or she would live a different life, but Adele found the fact hard to fathom.

Aloud to her guide, she said, “Deirdre probably wouldn’t be happy researching pre-Hiatus texts.”

“Probably not,” he said equably. “But judging from Mistress Leary’s performance in other lines, I expect she would be good at it.”

He gestured toward the steps of middle house of the three on the right of the close. The entrance was on the side rather than facing the street. A young civilian — another of the “servants” at Oriel House — and Midshipman (Passed Lieutenant) Cazelet stood on opposite sides of the doorway.

The civilian — if he was one — bowed to Adele, and Cazelet drew himself to attention with a grin. He was the grandson of Adele’s mentor and protector when she arrived on Bryce as an orphan, though she didn’t realize her status until the news from Cinnabar arrived by the next ship. Cazelet’s parents had incurred the wrath — or possibly just the greed — of Guarantor Porra, which was as fatal a condition as plotting against a government led by Speaker Leary.

Adele had gained a protégé, and the RCN had gained a very useful junior officer.

“I’ll leave you on your own, your ladyship,” Adele’s guide said. “She’s waiting on the top floor.” He bowed and was gone into the crowd.

Cazelet pulled open the door to the house for Adele. “Good to see you, ma’am,” he said.

She nodded. If Cazelet had a fault as an officer, it was that his training had come from working his way up in the family shipping business. He treated Adele with the respect he owed a skilled colleague, not as a person of a particular rank in the RCN. Since Adele was of a similar mindset, they meshed well.

There were a number of people sitting in the entrance hall, including two RCN officers in their Whites who were drinking spirits and talking to the much younger women seated to either side of them. Bottles clinked down the hall to the right, and voices came from the drawing room directly ahead.

A plush rope closed the staircase beside the hall, but the servant waiting there unhooked it when Adele entered. She didn’t recognize him, but he was cut from the same polite, well-born cloth as her guide and the man outside with Cazelet. When she and Tovera had started up the stairs, the servant dropped the loop back over the newel post behind them.

This house was three floors rather than the four of Chatsworth Minor, though there may have been a windowless garret under the high peak. Adele rather liked climbing stairs. They reminded her of her youth in the Old Stacks when she had no responsibilities except to learn, and — because warships had companionways rather than elevators — of the Princess Cecile where for the first time in her life she was part of a family.

Another servant, a trim young woman this time instead of an athletic young man, stood by the closed door to the left of the stairhead. She bowed to Adele and walked down the hall into an open room.

“I’ll go chat with her,” Tovera said, nodding after the servant. “Maybe we have friends in common.”

“All right,” said Adele. She tapped on the closed door.

Tovera was not a spy. She had been trained by the 5th Bureau as a bodyguard and killer, support staff for the spy she had accompanied to Kostroma. When her previous principal died, she had attached herself to Adele.

This wasn’t a change in allegiance: Tovera had been a tool of the Alliance when she worked for the 5th Bureau, and she was a tool of Adele Mundy now. She had no more patriotism than the pistol in Adele’s tunic pocket, and she was just as willing to kill whoever Adele pointed her at.

Tovera did have a degree of self-preservation, though; she had become Adele’s retainer because she saw a familiar ruthlessness in Adele. Adele would supply the direction which would keep Tovera within social norms: an external conscience for a killer with no conscience of her own.

Adele’s smile was cold. She had a perfectly good conscience, one which regularly awakened her in the small hours of darkness with a parade of faces she had last seen over her pistol sights as her trigger finger took up the final pressure. Tovera’s character flaw allowed her to sleep soundly.

“Come in and sit down,” called a familiar voice.

Adele entered what had probably been meant as a servant’s room. The original furnishings had been replaced with a table, two straight chairs, and a side table with a decanter, siphon, and glasses. Mistress Sand was in the chair across the table from the door; a half full glass sat on the table in front of her.

“I ought to get up,” Sand said with a lopsided smile, but she made no attempt to move. “Will you have one yourself?”

If I drink, she’ll drink with me, Adele thought. And she really doesn’t need more.

“I’ll have a short one,” she said aloud and sat down. I’m not responsible for Mistress Sand’s private life. “I saw your husband earlier to nod to, but I wasn’t surprised to see him — either of you — at Daniel’s wedding.”

Mistress Sand took a second glass and poured into it a more than the two fingers which Adele had meant by a short one. “If this hadn’t come up,” she said, “I would’ve arranged to see you anyway. Just to talk.”