What Distant Deeps — Snippet 06

Adele smiled slightly as she flicked through the holographic images which her data unit displayed. Common spacers generally wore loose-fitting garments, whether their ship was a merchant vessel or a warship — of the RCN, the Alliance Fleet, or one of the galaxy’s smaller navies. The colors were all drab, but the particular hue depended on where the fabric had been dyed rather than who was wearing it. If they were worn by Power Room crew, lubricant and finely divided metal had turned them a dirty black.

Officers wore RCN utilities on shipboard duty. For most of the crew, utilities were dress uniform — and formed the base for liberty suits.

“A voyage to Zenobia will certainly keep the brave Captain Leary out of the political arena for a suitable period of time,” Adele said dryly as she skimmed information on Zenobia. There were specialist databases — virtually every database on Cinnabar was open to a combination of Adele’s skill and the software which Mistress Sand had supplied — but it scarcely seemed necessary here. Unless the readily available material — which included the Sailing Directions for the Qaboosh Region, published by Navy House — was wildly wrong, Zenobia had no depth to go into.

“Yes,” said Sand. “It fits that criterion amply, since it’s a sixty-day run for merchant vessels.”

She smiled wryly and added, “I have no doubt that you’ll tell me that Captain Leary can better that estimate, Mundy. Nonetheless, the distance justifies our hero being absent for as long as the campaign season requires.”

“Any RCN vessel could better the estimate, I suspect, Mistress,” Adele said, hearing a touch of asperity in her tone. She smiled, amused to realize that she had become just as protective of the honor of the RCN as she was that of the Mundys of Chatsworth. “It’s as much a factor of the larger crews of a naval vessel as it is of the much higher level of astrogation training to be expected of the officers.”

“I bow to your greater experience in the matter, Mundy,” said Sand. Adele wondered if the older woman would have been less amenable to the pedantry if she weren’t so relieved to be past the awkward scene with which the interview had opened.

Clearing her throat, Sand continued, “Zenobia is typical of the Qaboosh Region, meaning it’s of no particular account. Both we and the Alliance have tributaries and a naval base there, but the region is such a backwater that both parties chose to ignore it during the recent hostilities. Sending a real fighting squadron to the Qaboosh would have wasted strength which was needed closer to home.”

“Is Zenobia an Alliance possession?” Adele said, scrolling rapidly through data without finding the answer she wanted. “It appears to be one, but there shouldn’t be a Cinnabar Commissioner if it were.”

“Zenobia is technically independent, with a Council and an executive — the Founder — elected for life by that Council,” Sand said. “Foreign policy and realistically everything more important than the level of the food subsidy for Calvary, the only real city, is in the hands of an Alliance Resident. I suspect that if the Resident cared about the food subsidy, he could change that also.”

Adele nodded, her eyes on her own data streams. Now that she knew what she was looking for, she found considerable detail.

“You’re probably wondering why we even have a Commissioner on Zenobia,” Sand said. She tapped the bottle forward again, but Adele was absorbed in her information gathering.

“Not at all,” Adele said, more curtly than she would have done if her intellect hadn’t been focused in other directions. “A good quarter of the region’s spacers appear to be from Rougmont, one of our client worlds. I suspect very few of them are actually Cinnabar citizens, but based on what I’ve noticed on the fringes of civilization, most will claim to be Cinnabar citizens when they’re jailed for being drunk and disorderly. Their normal state when they’ve been paid upon landfall.”

A Resident was a senior official in the Cinnabar’s Ministry of External Affairs. He or she directed the local leaders of worlds which were Friends of Cinnabar: that is, tribute-paying members of the Cinnabar Empire.

Not that anybody put it that way. Those who did were promptly imprisoned for Insulting the Republic.

“Ah,” Adele said with more satisfaction than most people would have packed into that simple syllable. “I was wondering why I wasn’t finding more evidence of piracy. Our ally, the Principality of Palmyra, patrols the region and appears to do a very good job of it.”

Her lip quirked in a wry smile. She said, “It would seem that they do a better job than dedicated anti-pirate squadrons in other regions, whether mounted by us or by the Alliance.”

“Just for my curiosity, Mundy . . . ,” Mistress Sand said. Despite her attempt to seem casual, her eyes had narrowed slightly. “How do you determine the effectiveness of the patrols? Do you have Admiralty Court records in your computer?”

Adele laughed. “I could get them from database in Navy House,” she said. “Or for that matter from the duplicate set that the Ministry of Justice is supposed to keep. I doubt if they’d tell me much, though. Our own patrols are rumored to take shortcuts when dealing with pirates, and the Palmyrenes certainly do.”

She met Sand’s eyes for the first time since she’d brought up her data unit. “It’s much simpler,” she said with a cold grin, “to check insurance rates for the region. They’re as low as those for the Cinnabar-Blanchefleur route.”

Sand laughed ruefully. “Rather than say, ‘Oh, that’s simple,’ I’ll note that the mind which went directly to that source wasn’t simple at all,” she said. “And yes, Palmyra has nominally been a Cinnabar ally for several generations, though that’s basically been a matter of the Autocrators choosing a policy which is in keeping with the aims of the Republic. Palmyra has become a major trading power — the trading power in its region, certainly — and has put down piracy for its own ends.”

Adele collapsed her holographic display to meet the spymaster’s eyes directly. “Is Palmyra my objective, mistress?” she said.

Sand placed her hands palm-down on the scarred leather tabletop and laughed. “You’ve just demonstrated the limits of logic, Mundy,” she said. “You know there’s a reason I’d be asking you to go to the Qaboosh Region, and the only thing of even moderate significance in the region is the Principality of Palmyra, on whose intentions you’ve noticed that my information is strikingly scanty. Not so?”

“You’re correct,” Adele said with clipped tones. The humor of it struck her. She didn’t laugh, but her lips formed a self-mocking grin.

“Arrogance is the claim of greater power, here in the form of knowledge, than one actually has,” she said. “You’re quite right to bring me up short when I display arrogance.”

Sand looked at her in appraisal. “Sorry, Mundy,” she said. “You give me too much credit: I was priding myself on having finally beaten someone who regularly runs circles around me. And it was a trick, because there was no way you would have known that Guarantor Porra’s favorite of the past three years was Lady Posthuma Belisande.”

Adele’s smile reformed itself into tight, triumphant lines. Her display sprang to life.

“A relative of the present Founder of Zenobia,” she said. Her wands flickered further. “The younger sister of Founder Hergo Belisande, twenty-four standard years old. Called Posy, although I don’t know when that datum was gathered. It might be embarrassing to greet the lady by a nickname she’d last heard when she was eight.”

Adele shrank her display again. She said, “You said Belisande was, rather than that she has been, Porra’s mistress for the past three years. The relationship has ended?”

“So we understand,” said Mistress Sand. “Officially the lady is visiting relatives on Zenobia, but it’s generally understood that she isn’t expected to return. That she’s expected not to return, in fact — though some of that may be put around by rivals.”

Adele’s eyes narrowed. “Do you expect her to confide in me?” she said, trying to restrain the irritation that threatened to sharpen her tone. “Because I have no skill whatever at Human Intelligence, mistress. I have no skill at human relationships, one might say.”

“My thought was that electronic security on Zenobia would be a great deal less sophisticated than it was on Pleasaunce,” Sand said calmly. “While there’s no evidence that the lady will be writing her memoirs, I’m confident that you will be able to penetrate all her files in short order.”

Adele grimaced. “Sorry,” she said. “I’ve been on edge. As you know.”

The room held three waist-high bookcases, one against each wall; the door took the place of the fourth. Two of the six hinged glass fronts had been replaced by wooden panels. Those must have been lovely when waxed and buffed, but they hadn’t received any care in decades.

The shelved books were standard sets of the classics, published in the second and third centuries after society on Cinnabar had begun to rebound from the thousand-year Hiatus in interstellar travel. Old learning had been assembled and reprinted in lovely editions. Every prominent landholder and every tradesman with pretensions to culture had sets just like these.