What Distant Deeps — Snippet 07

Adele had seen scores of similar collections when she haunted the libraries of her parents’ friends before going off to Blythe to finish her education. Most of them, like these at Bantry, appeared to have remained unopened throughout their long existence.

Any unique items — journals from the settlement, handwritten memoirs; perhaps a list of flora and fauna by one of the first Learys to settle at Bantry — had been removed from this collection. They were probably in Xenos if they existed at all. How would Corder Leary react to a request from Lady Adele Mundy to view his library?

Adele’s smile was terrible in its cold precision. Her honor didn’t require her to seek out Speaker Leary. If by some mutually bad luck she met him, she would shoot him dead unless his guards shot her first. She would bet on herself there: she had a great deal of experience in shooting people.

“I . . . ,” said Mistress Sand and stopped. Adele would have thought that Sand had forgotten what she intended to say had she not kept her eyes focused on Adele’s. Sand finished the whiskey in her glass, poured another four ounces, and drank half of it. Adele waited.

“You’re wrong about lacking skill in manipulating people, Mundy,” Sand said as she lowered the glass. “You’re remarkably good at it, simply by being yourself. I don’t think you appreciate how powerful an effect absolutely fearless honesty has on ordinary people.”

She smiled, but the expression was unreadable.

“It’s something many of them will never have encountered before, you see,” Sand added.

Adele grimaced; the conversation was making her uncomfortable. “I’m afraid of many things, mistress,” she said. “And it’s easier to tell the truth than to lie.”

“Of course it is,” said Sand. “If you’re not afraid of what other people will think. That’s where the rest of us run into problems, even –”

She paused to drain her tumbler in two quick gulps. She wasn’t doing justice to what Adele supposed was very good liquor.

“– when we’ve been drinking more than perhaps we should be.”

Sand shrugged. She looked at the bottle but placed her hands flat on the table instead. “Regardless, I won’t ask you to use a talent that makes you uncomfortable. Not unless the safety of the Republic requires it.”

Sand didn’t move except to tremble from the effort with which she pressed down on the leather. She seemed — not right. Adele was used to people showing emotion, but it was a new experience to see Mistress Sand showing emotion. Adele disliked it in the spymaster even more than she did in others.

“You know I’ll use up my assets if the Republic requires it,” Sand said. “You do know that, don’t you?”

“Yes, of course,” Adele said. She paused, then went on, “There are twenty rounds in the magazine of my pistol.”

She tapped her left tunic pocket.

“They wouldn’t be of any use to me if I weren’t willing to expend them.”

“That doesn’t bother you?” Sand demanded. Her face sagged into a lopsided smile. “I suppose it doesn’t at that. You understood it from the beginning, when I first approached you; so of course you’re not going to complain about a choice you made willingly. You wouldn’t.”

Adele said nothing. She realized, not for the first time, that anger was a common human response because it was a comfortable one. The mood in which she’d started this interview was much easier to bear than quietly listening to Mistress Sand say things that Adele would rather not hear. She could solve the problem by hurling the water pitcher to the floor and storming out of the room . . . .

She smiled. “Easy” had never been the major criterion for her decisions.

Sand shook her head slowly. She took out the snuff box again, but instead of opening it she raised her eyes.

“Sorry, Mundy,” she said. Her voice was normal again. “I realize there’s no need for me to say anything, not to you; but I started this, so I’ll finish it. I expect you to extract whatever useful information Posy Belisande has. I expect you to considerably expand my information on Palmyra and on anything else in the Qaboosh Region which is material to the Republic of Cinnabar. This is a real mission.”

Though she was obviously trying to seem cheerful, the impression Adele got from Sand’s sudden smile was sadness. She said, “Mundy, we — the Republic — are as much at peace as it’s possible for an entity of our size to be. If I thought it would do any good, I’d suggest you take a research fellowship in Novy Sverdlovsk. Captain Leary would make a splendid Naval Attaché at our embassy there, I’m sure. I didn’t think that would work out, however.”

Adele felt the corner of her mouth twitch in the direction of a grin. “No,” she said. “I don’t think it would. For either Daniel or for me.”

Sand nodded agreement; she was relaxing again. “It appeared to me, however,” she said, “that this business in Zenobia might be a useful stage for you both — for servants of the Republic like yourselves — to transition from the business in the Montserrat Stars back to normal life.”

“Thank you, mistress,” Adele said as she rose. “I appreciate your . . . .”

She paused, searching for the way to phrase what she wanted to say.

“I appreciate your intelligent concern.”

Sand remained seated. Adele made a slight bow, then turned to the door. As she reached for the latch, she heard a shot in the near distance.

Adele was striding down the hallway in the next heartbeat, her left hand dropping to her pocket. Tovera led with a miniature sub-machine gun openly displayed in her right hand. There was another shot from outside, toward the sea front.

The trouble with normal life, Adele thought, is that it doesn’t stay normal for very long.

* * *

Daniel felt his eyes narrow slightly as he looked past Peterleigh’s ear to watch the group centered on Chuckie Platt some twenty yards north up the seafront. Peterleigh was giving a full discussion of the formal garden he was building at Boltway Manor, complete with a grotto populated with — fake — crystalline formations which were meant to suggest petrified trolls.

“Just like they’d been touched by sunlight and turned to stone, don’t you know?” Peterleigh burbled. It was the sort of fashionable nonsense that would have bored Daniel to tears if he hadn’t had Platt and Lieutenant Cory to worry about. Both young men held dueling pistols.

Peterleigh said, “Of course, that’s where the paradox is that you need for real art. They’re underground in the grotto, don’t you know, so the light couldn’t have touched them! That’s a paradox!”

Platt was aiming out to sea. His body was edge-on, making a single line with his outstretched right arm; his lift arm was rigidly akimbo as though he were executing a ballet posture.

“I don’t see what you mean by a paradox,” Broma said, scowling. He sounded as bored with the description as Daniel felt. “Isn’t a troll a bloody paradox enough? They’re not real, so they’re a paradox.”

Platt fired; his right forearm lifted straight up with the recoil. The whack! of the hypersonic osmium pellet accelerating down the barrel made the others around Daniel jump. The birds overhead screamed, chattered, or croaked, depending on their species.

Waldmiller snarled, “Hofmann, what’s your boy playing at, hey?”

“Don’t call him my boy,” Hofmann muttered. He hunched over his mug of ale and didn’t meet the older landowner’s eyes. “He’s Bertie’s boy and she insisted on bringing him. I swear by all the gods, Leary –”

He looked up in abject misery.

“– I didn’t think he’d want to come. And when he said he did, I said maybe we ought all to stay home, but Bertie insisted because she’d heard Lady Mundy was going to be here. And now it looks like she was wrong about that, but here we are with Chuckie anyway!”

Daniel didn’t bother to inform Hofmann that Adele had arrived — but with the rest of the Sissies instead of in the private aircar that he and his wife were apparently expecting. The Bantry tenants knew of Adele as the Squire’s friend. It hadn’t occurred to Daniel that Bertie Hofmann was from Xenos and would hope to scrape acquaintance with Mundy of Chatsworth.

“I think it’d be just as well if your son put those pistols away for the time being, Hofmann,” he said. “There’s a lot of people here. And some of them have been drinking, of course.”

Cory fired. They were shooting out to sea, presumably at bobbing flotsam. Spray fountained only twenty feet from the base of the sea wall; Cory had let his muzzle dip as he pulled the trigger.

Platt hooted and called in a loud voice, “Why, you weren’t within a mile! Not a mile! What wets you navy men turn out to be!”

The coils wrapping the barrel generated an electromagnetic flux which ionized the pellet’s aluminum driving band. The plasma hung in the air, a quivering paleness which faded as it stripped electrons from the atmosphere and returned to steady state.

One of the effete servants was loading the pistols; the other held the case for him as a table. Platt had taken the gallon jug.

“Oh, he won’t listen to me,” Hofmann mumbled. “I may as well save my breath.”

Platt laid the jug on the crook of his elbow to lift it, then drank. He passed the liquor to the man on his right. There were about a dozen people in the group, none of them as old as twenty-five.