Death’s Bright Day – Snippet 05

She set the decanter back on the serving table, then slid the glass toward Adele without picking it up. The decanter was down by about a third, but it might not have been full when it was brought here.

She looks older every time I see her, Adele thought as she sipped the drink; as expected, it was very good whiskey. But then, I suppose I do too.

Sand stared at her own glass. “I’m cutting back,” she said — to the glass rather than to Adele. She raised her eyes and went on, “I decided I’d been putting away more than was good for me. It’s…”

Sand smiled, looking more like the woman who had recruited Adele not so many years ago. She leaned back in her chair: stocky and solid in a dark suit for the occasion rather than the tweeds she had favored most of the other times Adele had met with her.

“You’d think that with the Republic at peace things would be easier,” Sand said. Her hand touched the poured drink, then snatched back. “That’s not…not what I feel. Before the Treaty of Amiens, you knew where you stood with the Alliance. Now I’m certainly not ready to consider Guarantor Porra our friend, but in some cases the policies of his government may be aligned with the interests of the Republic…”

“Yes,” said Adele, sipping more of her whiskey.

Mistress Sand knew that she and Daniel had worked with Alliance officials in the past; she probably realized that they would do so again if circumstances required it. Daniel was better about following orders than she was, but neither of them cared much about the judgment of a fool in authority.

“You’ve made it clear in the past…” Sand said, keeping her eyes on Adele by sheer determination when she obviously wanted to look away. “That you don’t work for me or for the Republic. Nothing you do has to be taken as an expression of Cinnabar policy. You have a long history of acting on your own.”

Adele’s personal data unit wouldn’t tell her any more about what was going on than her pistol would. Instead she squeezed the whiskey glass and wished she were somewhere else.

Aloud she said, “Mistress, if there’s something you’d like me to do, tell me. As you say, I’ve never felt a great respect for Cinnabar policy in the abstract.”

She pursed her lips as she considered her next words, then said, “To be honest, if the Republic has ever had a consistent policy, I’ve missed it in my reading of history.”

“You’re consistent,” Sand said. She touched her glass again but she didn’t raise it. “Someone who didn’t know you would think that consistency would make you easier to deal with.”

“Mistress, tell me what you want,” Adele repeated. She wasn’t sure she knew the person she was talking to any more. “I need information. When you give me that information, I will make my decision.”

“I don’t want you to do anything,” Sand said fiercely. “I want you to know that if someone makes you a proposition which in your opinion would be to the benefit of the Republic, I hope you will follow your own judgment in the matter.”

“I see,” Adele said, sipping a little more of the whiskey.

She did see. Her friend, Bernis Sand, had told her what Mistress Sand, the head of intelligence for the Republic of Cinnabar, could not have said. A task would shortly be offered to Adele, and Bernis Sand hoped that Adele would accept that task.

“You realize…” Sand said, speaking to her drink again. “I won’t be holding my present position forever.”

She looked up and met Adele’s eyes. “I would like to believe,” Sand said, “that I would be succeeded by an experienced person whose judgment I trust.”

Adele put down her empty glass and rose to her feet. “I hope matters go well for you, mistress,” she said. “Speaking for myself –”

She was turning to the door as she spoke.

“– I hope I’m not around when that question has to be decided.”

Adele closed the door behind her. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Mistress Sand raising her glass.

* * *

Daniel and three officers he knew from the Academy — Commander Vondrian and Lieutenants Pennyroyal and Ames — linked arms and bellowed, “Then he kissed her on the lips, and the crew began to roar.…”

Though Daniel had lived at Chatsworth Minor for several years, whenever he was in Xenos, he didn’t recall ever having been in the kitchen at the back of the ground floor in the past. Servants had guided him and his friends here where the cabinets had been converted to sideboards for the reception.

It would have been churlish not to join old friends when they wanted something harder than ale to drink. They’d started with Oriel County rye — Pennyroyal’s choice; she came from Oriel County — and proceeded according to the whim of whoever’s turn it was to pick.

“Oh! Oh! Up she goes! We’re bound for Baltimore!”

Vondrian commanded a destroyer flotilla with Ames as his flag lieutenant and Pennyroyal the first officer of his flagship. They were attached to the Cinnabar Squadron, the portion of the RCN still in commission after the Treaty of Amiens. Vondrian had family money. Going on half pay wouldn’t have seriously affected him, but he also had enough influence to secure an active commission. His friends Ames and Pennyroyal would have been up against it if they’d been landed on the beach for any length of time.

“So then his kissed her on the nose…”

Daniel hadn’t partied like this in years. When he’d happened to share a landfall with his friends on Tattersall, they’d hoisted a few — more than a few — drinks together, but they were in the presence of their direct superiors and a number of admirals. Here on Xenos they were friends attending the wedding of one of them, and nothing that happened would be seen as adversely affecting the good name of the RCN.

“– and the crew began to roar!”

Hogg came into the room from the back, the door onto the alley. He was dressed like a Bantry tenant, which is how he’d been raised, with an enormous budget to buy finery for the Squire’s wedding. His blue pantaloons and loose green shirt were bright and of thin, hard fabric, and his high leather boots and belt were dyed the same shade of red.

The same was true of the brimless leather cap which he took off and waved to catch Daniel’s eye.

“Oh! Oh! Up she goes! We’re bound for Baltimore!”

Daniel squeezed his friends’ shoulders — he stood between Vondrian and Pennyroyal — and muttered, “Duty calls!” as he disengaged himself. He felt younger than he had since, since —

Since I was given my first command, he realized. A road had forked then, and Daniel Leary had been very fortunate in the direction his branch had taken him; but…But. There was always a ‘but’ in life.

His friends closed together and resumed singing. The dozen or so others in the kitchen made way for Daniel, but nobody paid particular attention. He bent close so that Hogg could speak without raising his voice.

Hogg spoke loudly enough to be heard by anybody on this side of the room anyway: “There’s a fellow out back wants to see you, master. Name’s Huxford, and if it was just him he could get his ass gone. He says he’s from Lord Anston, though, and I know that’s different.”

“Ah,” said Daniel, nodding. He wished he’d gone a little lighter on the spirits, but he was glad he had old friends. “Yes, that’s different. Let’s see Commander Huxford.”

Admiral Anston had been in frail health since the heart attack which had forced his retirement as Chief of the Navy Board. Daniel had been pleased to see him on a wheelchair in the temple, but he hadn’t expected the older man to attend the reception.

He tugged his uniform tunic down and settled his bright sash. Well, Anston had seen a half-drunk officer before. Like as not he’d been one a time or two.

“I saw Forbes here too,” Hogg said. He blocked the door with the side of his foot and straightened the aiguillette of feathers and tiny diamonds on Daniel’s right shoulder. “Nice to see that she hasn’t forgotten who put her where she is.”

Forbes had lost the Speakership of the Senate and had been sent — had been exiled — as envoy to Karst to greet the new Headman who had just succeeded his uncle. The embassy had not gone well through no fault of Forbes — or of Daniel, who was captain of the ship which carried her to Karst.

“We were very fortunate to have the ambassador with us when things went belly up, Hogg,” Daniel said mildly. “The good result was as much political as naval, you know.”

“That’s not how I remember what happened at Cacique,” Hogg growled. He put his hand on the doorknob, then paused and met Daniel’s eyes. “There’s one thing I’ll give her, master,” he said. “Forbes put the mistress in charge when you got knocked silly, made her an admiral. She knew to do that, at least.”