IN THE STORMY RED SKY – snippet 46:

Adele sat on a three-legged stool. While the others murmured greetings she brought her data unit live, ignoring the surprised looks of the Hydriotes and the scowl she drew from Senator Forbes. First things first, and here proprieties could wait on information.

“These are my friends Captains Christopher Weber and Thor Christianson–”
The goateed man and the walking cadaver, respectively.
“–whom I’m glad we’ve chanced upon this afternoon,” Gambardella said. “Good conversation makes a meal more tasty, I’ve always found.”
A boy came with four-ounce glasses of clear spirit. Adele ignored hers and got to work. She’d used distilled alcohol to purify water often in her life, but she had neither a taste nor the head for it.
Mistress Sand’s files on Hydriote hierarchy weren’t as complete or up-to-date as those on members of the Alliance bureaucracy, but Adele had already identified Captain Gambardella as the head of one of the Fifteen Families of Hydra. He was a shipper in the same sense that Senator Forbes was a Cinnabar politician.
Weber and Christianson commanded two of the dozen Hydriote ships in the harbor, but each was a member of a leading Family. The trio couldn’t speak for Hydra, exactly, but its members were important enough to carry the Cinnabar position in the House of Families if they were themselves convinced.
“Did you have a good voyage from Paton, Captain Leary?” Weber asked.
“We had a topmast bend the first time it carried sail,” Daniel said. “It was from stores and I suspect had been taken from a ship that was being broken up. It was the only one, so it wasn’t a serious problem.”
Adele looked up. Daniel was deferring to the Senator, and the Senator was waiting for a suitable moment. In Adele’s opinion, the present moment was the most suitable.
“This area…,” Adele said. She swung her head side to side, because she held the data unit’s controls in both hands. “This plaza, was the forecourt of a Terran sector headquarters before the Hiatus. These pillars–”
Nodding again.
“–are well over two thousand years old.”
“That’s right,” said Gambardella with a quizzical expression. “The foundations of our offices are made from the stones from the headquarters as well.”
He coughed. “You’re a historian, Lady Mundy?” he said.
“An antiquarian,” Adele said primly. “And Captain Leary as a naturalist might be interested to learn that the coin-like buttons that compose the limestone are the skeletons of plankton from fifty million standard years ago. But neither of those things is the reason we’re meeting here. Senator?”
Forbes looked at her with a flash of anger; it subsided into a smile of respect, albeit grudging respect. Returning her attention to the Hydriotes she said, “Lady Mundy is of course correct. Gentlemen, we wish to arrange for the transport of approximately five thousand workers. They can travel in spartan conditions, though they should be better treated than the cargoes of slave ships. Not that Hydriotes would be engaged in slaving, of course.”
“Over what distance?” Christianson said, staring into his open palm. It was empty.
Forbes glanced at Daniel. He nodded and said, “I would ordinarily say twelve days for a merchantman, but you’re Hydriotes. Perhaps you can make the run in ten.”
He raised an eyebrow in question. “Am I able to speak in confidence?” he said.
“Yes,” said Gambardella. He didn’t have to consult his fellows. “Anything said at this table is in confidence.”
“Good,” said Daniel, bobbing his head twice in understanding. “Captains,” he said, “we wish to transport laborers from Fonthill to Bolton.”
The waiter arrived with three flat bowls along each arm and a round of bread on his head; his right hand clutched six spoons. He bent over the table.
“A moment,” Gambardella said. “And you visitors should note that the edge of the utensil is sharpened on the back side. If you’re left-handed, it behooves you to be extremely careful.”
The waiter shuffled the bowls off his right arm with his left hand, serving the Hydriotes, then dropped the spoons on the table and cleared his left arm with his right hand. Finally he straightened and laid the loaf in the center of the table without either a plate or a napkin beneath it.
“Enjoy!” he said. He sauntered toward the couple rising from a table across the plaza.
“You would provide us with the coordinates of Fonthill?” Weber said. His expression hadn’t changed in any way Adele could identify, but she was suddenly struck by his resemblance to a fox. “For you see, we understood these coordinates were a closely held secret.”
“We’ll supply the coordinates, yes,” Daniel said.
Adele’s wands twitched. She said, “Captain Christianson, you’ve been recording this conversation on the data unit in your left breast pocket. I’ve just transmitted those coordinates to you, so that you can distribute them to the other ships of the argosy which will be required for transport.”
It was probable that all the ships which the Hydriotes picked for the operation would have made the journey to Fonthill in the past, under contract to Master Beckford. These men wouldn’t have admitted their knowledge, however, if the Cinnabar envoys hadn’t proved they already had the information.
“This is very interesting,” said Gambardella, speaking with what was probably unexpected honesty. “But I’m very sorry, Senator. We of Hydra cannot be parties to an act of war.”
“Let alone an invasion!” said Weber, his moustaches twitching. “Do you think we’re unaware of Bolton’s defenses?”
Adele looked at the contents of her bowl: six caterpillars, corpse-white with brown splotches, in gravy. Each worm was the thickness of Daniel’s thumb. They were, at least, dead.
“This is simply a transportation contact between ports controlled by the RCN,” Daniel argued. “Of course we wouldn’t ask you to land on Bolton if it were in Alliance hands.”
Adele locked her display and put the control wands in their carrying slots, though she didn’t shut down the data unit on her lap. Following Captain Christianson’s lead, she cut the end off a worm with the back of her spoon, then scooped it to her mouth. The gravy was tangy, with a hint of peppers and sage.
“I find it hard to believe that your Republic’s navy will capture Bolton, at least during the lifetimes of us at the table here,” Gambardella said. “I thought that even last week. Yesterday, my cousin brought his ship from New Harmony, saying that the Alliance had captured the planet after destroying the Cinnabar fleet in the cluster.”
“Nonetheless, it’s true,” said Senator Forbes. She was forceful and sounded more certain than she had in recent discussions with Adele and Daniel. “All you’re being asked to do is to land five thousand unarmed laborers to Bolton. There’s no question of being involved in an invasion.”
“We’re here, gentlemen,” Daniel said, “because of our respect for the skill and integrity of Hydriote merchants. I would hope that you in turn hold our Republic and the RCN in what I believe should be deserved respect. Bolton will be ours before your vessels land.”
Adele munched her way through the first worm and started on the second. Neither Daniel nor the Senator were eating. In Daniel’s case it may have been solely because he was focused on the negotiations. From Forbes’ expression when she’d looked into her bowl, her lack of appetite was for other reasons.
Weber glowered; Christianson ate while watching Adele in puzzlement as she also ate. Gambardella said, “You’re a very surprising man, Captain Leary. You’re all very surprising.”