IN THE STORMY RED SKY – snippet 12:

Adele started, realizing that the tapping was a footman trying to get her attention. Her study door stood open, but the fellow quite properly had knocked on the frame instead of entering.

Knocked repeatedly, in fact, which was embarrassing. Adele had been lost in Thirty Years’ Residency in the Veil Stars, a narrative by a Cinnabar merchant of the past century. The events the anonymous writer described were too trivial to be of even historical interest, but Adele had learned that memoirs more accurately gave her the feel of a culture than she could glean from the factual precision of the Sailing Directions and intelligence reports.
“Yes?” she said. From the way the servant winced, she must have sounded as though she wanted to tear his throat out. She didn’t… though she would rather not have been interrupted, now or generally ever.
Servants weren’t allowed to touch anything in the study, which was untidy but not disorganized: Adele knew where to find each of the references she was using. The footman’s eyes were on either the parquet flooring or the books and other documents in stacks on it.
“A Mistress Dorst is below, your ladyship,” he said.
“Miranda Dorst?” Adele said in surprise. She closed the memoir, using a volume of poetry by the late Headman Terl to mark her place. “Daniel’s dining out tonight, I’m afraid.”
“She’s asking for you, your ladyship,” the footman mumbled. “From her comments, I believe she knew that Captain Leary would be absent.”
“Bring her–” Adele said, getting to her feet. “No, I’ll go down. What time is it? Do you suppose she’d like dinner, or… no, never mind that.”
Chatsworth Minor had been the Mundy townhouse when her father was a Senator. It had been confiscated during the Proscriptions, but the Edict of Reconciliation which was passed ten years later had made it possible for Adele to reclaim the property when she returned from exile.
The edict, with the machinations of Daniel’s sister Deirdre, had allowed Adele to reclaim the house. Deirdre’s interests were electoral politics and business, subjects which bored her brother to tears. The siblings shared sharp intelligence and cold ruthlessness in gaining their ends, however.
Adele occupied the second floor of Chatsworth Minor when she was on Cinnabar; Daniel rented the third floor. Her study opened onto the landing, so when she stepped out she could look straight down the staircase to the foyer where Miranda Dorst waited with the doorman.
“Mistress Dorst?” Adele said. “Ah, Miranda, that is. Please come up–”
To where? Certainly not the study. To the screened loggia at the back of the suite. The weather was on the cool side, but Miranda wore a short, fur-trimmed cloak and should be perfectly comfortable.
“Unless, ah, you’d like supper? I’m sure the staff can find something for, ah, us.” What in heaven is she doing here?
Miranda quick-footed up the stairs, smiling pleasantly toward Adele instead of staring at her feet. She held a package which was of a size to be a slim book or a manuscript.
“Please, no,” she said. “This won’t be a minute. I really didn’t want to disturb you, but I wanted to give you this in person.”
“We’ll go onto the porch,” Adele said firmly. Whatever was going on, she wasn’t going to let Daniel’s friend leave a parcel with her and flee into the night without an explanation. “You’ll want to keep your cape. Ah–what would you like to drink?”
Adele reached behind the door and took the thigh-length jacket she kept on a hook there. Though she hadn’t expected visitors, she was neatly dressed as always. Her tunic and trousers were cut like RCN utilities–loose, soft, and with many pockets–but they were light tan instead of the uniform’s blotched gray.
“Well, a little sherry?” Miranda said.
The footman–Adele wasn’t sure of his name–was hovering close. “Sherry, then, on the porch,” she snapped. “And bring the decanter.”
Tovera was off for the evening. Adele made a point of not learning what her servant did in her free time. There was almost no chance that she’d be happier to know; and if the recreations of a murderous sociopath turned out to involve something that Adele couldn’t accept, the result would be bad all round. Tovera was useful to Adele, useful to Daniel (though he quite reasonably preferred to keep his eyes averted), and useful to the Republic of Cinnabar.
Which wouldn’t prevent Adele from making an ethical though costly decision if she had to. Therefore she avoided the question.
Adele led down the hallway, past another sitting room–now a library–a second bedroom–now another library–and the master bedroom, which had room for a number of book cases also. She had an urge to take out her data unit, though it couldn’t possibly tell her anything that had bearing on Miranda’s visit. It could only be a security blanket, and a proper effort of will would suffice in its place.
A thought made her smile as she opened the door to the loggia. She gestured her guest through.
“Ah, Adele?” Miranda said, pausing at Adele’s expression.
“I was thinking that it’s a good sign…,” Adele said. She was generally honest, and though she genuinely liked the girl, it was even more necessary that Miranda know how Officer Mundy’s mind really worked. “That I want to take out my data unit–”
She tapped the thigh pocket.
“–instead of reaching into the other pocket.”
Her left hand lifted the little pistol from her tunic, then let it slip back out of sight. It was light and very flat; you had to know it was there to notice it.
Miranda nodded, then smiled with what Adele thought was a touch of sadness. “Yes,” she said. “I’m glad that you didn’t think that was necessary too.”
The loggia was shallow but the full width of the townhouse. It could be lighted to daylight brilliance, but at the moment a strip in the ceiling glowed just brightly enough to show color. The screens were anodized to matte black. They shadowed the vista beyond, but you could see through them even when the porch was illuminated.
Four wicker chairs with a small round table in the middle stood in line. Adele gestured her guest to a middle chair, then settled herself in the one across the table from it.
Before either of them could speak, a different footman appeared with two glasses and a decanter. Adele gestured him to set his tray on the table, then waited till the door into the house had closed behind him.
The servants–all but Tovera–were employed by the Shippers’ and Merchants’ Treasury. The bank rented the townhouse for private meetings when Adele and Daniel were off-planet. Deirdre Leary was the bank’s managing director, and her father was the majority owner.
Daniel didn’t known that. Adele had long ago learned to live with unpleasant truths when it was necessary. She’d decided that this was necessary.
“What did you wish to see me about, then?” Adele said as she filled the glasses. She appeared to be giving her whole attention to the task.
“Adele,” Miranda said. She held the packet in her left hand, not quite offering it but obviously intending to. “My uncle Toby–my mother’s brother–was a district observer for the Beneficial Party. A ward heeler. He retired recently.”
“I’ve met many officials of the sort,” Adele said dryly. “Not, of course, members of the Beneficial Party. Before each election, my father would give a dinner for his leading supporters. The family was expected to attend these as a mark of honor to his guests. Even those of us–”
Adele smiled slightly, but it wasn’t comfortable to force her mind back to those days. Even worse was remembering how she’d viewed the world then.
“–who weren’t at all interested in politics.”
Adele retained the smile despite the direction her mind was going, because it kept her next words from being too brutally a challenge. “I have a better appreciation of the importance of politics now than I did before the Proscriptions,” she said. “But I only become involved in them as a part of my job.”
“Yes, I assumed that was the case,” said Miranda. She coughed; she was over five-foot eight inches tall and more athletic than willowy. Adele wonder if she played field sports.