Death’s Bright Day – Snippet 06

Daniel followed Hogg into the alley. He’d heard what happened while he was unconscious above Cacique. Adele knew nothing about shiphandling or naval tactics or any of the other subjects which the instructors at the Academy taught, but she knew a more important thing: to go for the throat.

You can’t really teach that, but the great commanders are born knowing it. Forbes had indeed showed her ability when she brevetted Signal Officer Mundy to admiral in the chaos of the damaged flagship.

The alley at the back of Chatsworth Minor ran between two major thoroughfares and served six culs-de-sac — three on either side — for garbage pickup and bulk deliveries. There were twenty or thirty people crowded into this one; mostly men, mostly servants, and most holding liquor bottles. Those who saw Daniel or anyway recognized his uniform grew quieter, but they weren’t really doing anything wrong.

Daniel grinned. Or anything he hadn’t been doing himself a few minutes before.

Commander Huxford was wearing his Grays, a 2nd Class uniform; proper garb for public functions — including command of a ship — but not formal wear for any officer who could afford a 1st Class uniform. Even hopeless officers who had been on the beach for decades tried to scrape up enough florins for a set of Whites when they sat in the Audience Hall at Navy House, hoping against hope that their names would be called for a posting.

“Thank you, Hogg,” Huxford said. “Captain Leary, his lordship requested that I bring you to him — for the privacy, of course, but also to avoid the –”

He nodded toward the house, presumably meaning the crowded cul-de-sac beyond.

“Yes, of course,” Daniel agreed. He’d never met Huxford, though he’d seen him twice. Huxford had acted as messenger for people in the same line of work as Mistress Sand, though probably in a parallel organization out of Navy House.

Huxford had a history with Adele, which had ended in Adele’s favor. Hogg probably knew more of the details than Daniel did; Tovera certainly knew them, and the two servants talked. All Daniel cared was that it had ended and that his friend was satisfied with the outcome.

They walked out of the group behind Chatsworth Minor and to Daniel’s surprise turned into a feeder alley serving the close facing a parallel boulevard. A husky looking man with naval tattoos stood at a back door which he pulled open when Huxford approached.

“I’ll leave you now, Captain,” Huxford said. His salute was curt but proper — they were both in uniform. “His lordship asked me to invite you, but his business is none of mine.”

Daniel paused in the doorway. He would show due respect for any superior officer, but he felt respect for George Anston beyond anything to do with a uniform. Anston had kept the RCN operating during fifteen years of grinding war with the Alliance, finding crews where there were none and convincing the Senate to build ships with money that had to be squeezed out of taxpayers — much of it from the wealthy Senators themselves.

“Hogg,” he said, “why don’t you wait here? I…that is, I don’t need help to see the admiral.”

“Right,” said Hogg, eyeing the burly spacer. “We’ll chat about opera, shall we buddy?”

“Down the hall and second on the left, sir,” the guard said, ignoring Hogg. He closed the outside door behind Daniel.

The man waiting in the hall was as tall as Woetjans and big where the bosun was rangy. He opened the door beside him and stood rigidly, staring over Daniel’s head as though he were being inspected by his commander in chief.

The hinges squealed slightly. That was the only sound Daniel heard. The other doors onto the hall were closed; either the house was empty or the inhabitants were holding complete silence. Daniel was feeling a little uneasy as he looked in, but there was Lord Anston. He’d rolled his wheelchair beside rather than behind the central table.

“Close the door and sit down, Leary,” Anston said. “When you’re fixing yourself a brandy and soda –”

He gestured to the paraphernalia in the center of the table.

“– you can fix me one too. You drink brandy, I hope?”

“Sir, I’m RCN,” Daniel said. “I drink anything. Some things I won’t drink — ” he was thinking of peppermint schnapps, which had tasted even worse when it came back up than when it had topped off a night of drinking ” — unless I’ve got a load on already.”

Which I do now, come to think.

He squirted seltzer into two brandies and put Anston’s beside him before sitting down. He was pretty sure that the older man wasn’t supposed to have alcohol, but that was a matter between him and his doctors — none of whom were in the room at present.

Anston looked frail enough to have dissolved in the drink. Daniel would regret that, but it might be the kindest thing that could happen.

Anston sipped the brandy with relish. He set the glass down and said, “Well, Leary, I’ll get to the point in good RCN fashion. The Republic is in a bad state, a bloody bad state, and the politicians are pouring us straight down the piss tube.”

Daniel stiffened and sat upright; he’d been leaning toward Anston without being aware of the fact. “Ah, I, ah…” he said. “I don’t pay much attention to politics, sir. I’m a serving officer and I’m, ah, forbidden to be involved in politics.”

Telling Anston that was like offering to teach a bird how to fly. The words were a measure of how disturbed Daniel was.

“Well, it’s time and past time for that to change,” Anston said forcefully. “The Senate will shortly be replaced by a Supreme Council drawn from the RCN and the Land Forces of the Republic. I’ll be President of the Council, but you can see that I’m a clapped out old crock. That’s where you come in, Leary.”

Daniel stood up, sliding his chair back. It fell over. His skin prickled as it had when he regained consciousness after pinching a nerve.

“We need you to run operations,” Anston said. “All the real power will be in your hands, and no one better to use it, we think.”

“I’m very sorry, Admiral,” Daniel said. His ears were buzzing. “I’ve suddenly been struck deaf. I haven’t heard a word since I sat down. I’m off to find a doctor immediately.”

He had to get off Cinnabar; he couldn’t possibly remain neutral if he stayed. Indeed, he probably needed to get out of the Cinnabar sphere of influence.

Do I tell Adele? I have to. But do I tell Deirdre, which means telling my father; which means…

“Leary, come back here,” Anston said, somewhere in the far distance.

Daniel jerked the door open. The doorman stood in his way.

“Now, the gentleman says –” the big man said.

Daniel head-butted him, breaking his nose, backed a step, and kicked the guard in the crotch. That would have been more effective with heavy boots, but the low quarters he wore with his Whites had rigid soles unlike the spacer’s boots worn with utilities and meant to fit within a riggers’ suit.

“Hogg!” Daniel shouted, hurling the doubled-over guard into the room. He wouldn’t have had a chance against the bigger man in a fair fight, but the guard hadn’t expected the mindless fury Daniel had unleashed on him. He couldn’t hit Anston — he would die before he hit Anston, even if the old man had gone mad — but hitting anybody else was a relief.

They can’t let us live now, Daniel realized. If he could get to Harbor Three, he might have a chance. There were spacers who would help Captain Leary regardless of what the high brass were saying, but the chance of getting there in torn Whites — he’d burst the seams of both his tunic and his trousers — wasn’t good.

There was a loud thump from the alley and the door swung open. The outer guard was down. Hogg held his folding knuckleduster knife open in his right hand. Daniel didn’t see blood on the blade, but that didn’t necessarily mean the guard was still alive.

“Leary, come back!” Anston called. “I apologize for being a bloody fool!”

The door to the left between Daniel and Hogg opened. Hogg shuffled forward, his knife held low to stab through a kidney toward the heart.

Mistress Forbes stepped into the hallway.

“Stop, Hogg!” Daniel shouted, but Hogg had frozen when he saw the Minister of Defense. He put his back against the wall and darted glances in both directions.

Daniel looked over his shoulder. Admiral Anston was out of his chair and standing in the doorway, gripping the jamb to stay upright. “It’s my bloody fault,” Anston said, but he was wheezing now.

“No, it is not,” said Minister Forbes. “I’m the one who insisted, because I didn’t trust the admiral’s certainty that no offer could shake your loyalty to the Republic.”

Daniel felt weak with reaction and relief. He braced the flat of his hand on the wall.

“Well, mistress,” he said. “I’m not the Leary to be tempted by offering to make me a politician.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Forbes said. “Now, can we join the admiral in the room with the brandy and discuss the real proposition I came to offer you?”