What Distant Deeps — Snippet 14

“Did you . . . ?” she said, glancing toward Adele’s left tunic pocket. The stories about Lady Mundy and her pistol were common property in the RCN and probably a long way beyond it by now. “Threaten them?”

“No,” said Adele, her smile a little wider but as cold as an asteroid’s core. “It wouldn’t have done any good — they were drunk, as I say, and drunks simply can’t process information in a useful fashion. And there would have been repercussions had I shot them, you see.”

“Nowadays they’d hush it up, of course,” Tovera said primly. The fact she spoke — and what she said — implied that Clothilde’s behavior had irritated her as well.

“Perhaps,” said Adele. “At the time I expect it would have been a brief criminal court proceeding. Fortunately I didn’t have to learn.”

She smiled again. The matter wasn’t humorous, even in memory, but the fact that she had solved a difficult problem was worth a smile of satisfaction.

“The manager was sober,” Adele said, “or at any rate not so drunk that he couldn’t rationally respond to a threat. His office wasn’t much bigger or cleaner than an individual sleeping cell, but it did have walls. I slept there.”

Clothilde swallowed with difficulty, but she didn’t look away as Adele had thought she might do. Instead she managed a smile and said, “You must think I’m very foolish to be concerned about such little things when you’ve gone through so much. Well, I apologize again.”

“Problems are only large or small when one is able to look back on them,” Adele said. She looked into her own past and smiled, faintly and very crookedly. “When they’re happening, they’re all huge. Or so it has seemed to me.”

Right now my problem is how to get free of you without giving offense. Although — as a puzzle, Clothilde Brown was at least as interesting as entering the Euclid’s data banks, and the information to be gleaned was likely to be of more immediate importance.

Instead of taking her leave immediately as she probably could now have done, Adele said, “The discomfort of the voyage will be over in a few weeks, mistress. And you may find cramped conditions less burdensome than you thought. I did.”

“It isn’t that, Officer Mundy,” Clothilde said, “as I’m sure you know.”

Unexpectedly she sat on the bunk, then slid over and patted the portion nearer Adele. Adele shrugged mentally — this was what she had decided she wanted, after all — and accepted the invitation. She preferred to have personal discussions while standing, but here as generally the other party’s ease was of more importance.

“It’s Pavel’s career,” Clothilde said. She’d apparently decided to treat Tovera as a door panel rather than a pair of ears. “On non-career. I understand that one can’t expect a plum appointment immediately unless one is a member of one of the Great Houses –”

Her face changed as her intellect caught up with her emotions. “Oh!” she said. “I didn’t mean you, La . . . .”

“The Mundy name took my family to a very high place, mistress,” Adele said dryly. “To the top of Speaker’s Rock, in fact.”

Clothilde Brown wasn’t stupid, but the words came from so unexpected an angle that it took her a visible moment to process them. When she did understand, she lurched halfway to her feet, then sat down heavily. Her face was white.

“I’m sorry, mistress,” Adele said in real embarrassment. “I’ve lived so closely with my family’s execution that I forget that treating it as simply a fact of existence will disturb other people. I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“Oh, not you, your ladyship,” Clothilde said. “How could I have been so, so . . . ?”

Throwing the other party off-stride was sometimes a useful interrogation technique, but here the effect had been closer to having Woetjans club the poor woman over the head with a length of high-pressure tubing. At least Tovera hadn’t snickered, as she sometimes did when she saw a civilian discomfited by Adele’s sense of humor.

“I misspoke, Mistress Brown,” Adele said. “You were discussing your husband’s career, I believe.”

“So to speak, I was, yes,” Clothilde said, giving Adele a wry smile. “I’m –”

She paused.

“You are a very remarkable woman, Officer Mundy,” she said, fully composed again. “As I was saying, I know that one must expect to start at the bottom, but after Pavel accepted the posting, I learned that the previous Commissioner had been left on Zenobia fifteen years. Fifteen years. And he died there! I couldn’t bear that, and Hester shouldn’t have to bear that!”

“Georg Brassey, the previous Commissioner,” Adele said, “was the third son of the Brasseys of Chorn. He wasn’t a professional diplomat, just an unambitious man whose family had enough influence to arrange for him to have the quiet life he wanted. Your husband won’t remain on Zenobia for longer than the normal two-year posting unless something goes badly wrong either there or in Xenos.”

“I see,” said Clothilde, shaking her head with the same wry smile as a moment before. “My, it’s certainly my day for embarrassing myself, isn’t it?”

With a slightly sharper expression, she said, “Do you know the Brasseys, Officer?”

“I did, slightly,” Adele said in a neutral tone. “There were marriage connections. And I knew the de Sales family, to the same slight degree.”

“Yes, of course you would have known my family,” Clothilde said. “The de Sales homestead wasn’t far from Chatsworth Major, though it was all gone by the time I was born; and my father was of the cadet line anyway. Well, I am a fool. You knew everything about me before I even came aboard.”

“I’m a librarian by training and vocation, mistress,” Adele said, rising. “Information fills the part of my existence that others choose to give over to life. I think they’re wrong, of course, but I realize I’m in a minority.”