What Distant Deeps — Snippet 35

Posy paused, giving Adele a speculative glance. Adele met it with no hint of emotion or understanding.

“That’s what I was, you see,” Posy said after a moment. “Guillaume Porra’s mistress, Guarantor Porra. Perhaps you knew that?”

“My parents were executed for treason, Lady Belisande,” Adele said evenly. “In fact my ten-year-old sister was executed for treason as well. I’m scarcely in a position to make moral judgments, even if I were the sort of person who approved of doing such things.”

Wood was staring at her. Adele glanced up, and the maid looked away.

“I’m sorry,” Posy said. She reached out and touched Adele’s left hand, then settled back on her chair. “Others have made judgments, you see — though generally women who would have liked to know Guillaume as well as I did. And please — Posy.”

“Adele?” said Clothilde Brown. “If you don’t mind my asking?”

“Asking what?” said Adele, more sharply than she had intended. She raised her hand in apology. “Please, I’m sorry; but just ask the question, Clothilde. It’s wasting time, which is likely to make me snappish.”

“Well, it’s about you being on the ship,” Clothilde said. “I know you say that you’re Officer Mundy when you’re there, not Lady Mundy, but you are still Lady Mundy. How do you stand it?”

Adele wondered what the other women saw when they looked at her. Something quite different from what she was in the mirror of her own mind, certainly. The thought made her smile, but she suspected some of the sadness she felt showed in her expression also. Sometimes she wished she could be the person that other people saw.

“I’m not a gregarious person,” she said, “but I escape into my work, so cramped physical surroundings don’t bother me. Nor do I feel the lack of elite society with whom to –”

She started to say, “natter,” but she caught her tongue in time to change that to, “– exchange views.”

Posy Belisande’s hinted smile showed that she understood the word or at least the type of word that Adele had barely avoided, but she didn’t seem offended. Clothilde remained intently quizzical. She had recovered from Adele’s verbal slap, but she obviously wasn’t looking for another one.

“As for being in close confinement with spacers,” Adele said, “I assure you that they’re far better companions than the neighbors I was generally thrown together with during the years I was very poor. Besides, on a starship I don’t have to deal with people like Louis Tilton. Space is a very dangerous environment, and people of his sort don’t last long.”

“I wish Resident Tilton could drift off into vacuum,” Posy said. Lifting her glass to shoulder height, she added, “More wine, Wood.”

Wood carried the glass to the serving table, sidling so that she didn’t have to turn her back on Adele and Tovera. Which of us is she more concerned about? Adele wondered.

The truth was — if Wood was anything like Tovera, and she certainly appeared to have been trained in the same school — she probably worried even that the Commissioner’s wife might smash her stemware into a spike of crystal and lunge for Lady Belisande’s throat. Once you start down the path of paranoia, there’s simply no line that you can’t cross.

Adele smiled — internally, because Posy would have misinterpreted the expression. She fought her own tendency to consider everyone as a potential enemy and every place as a potential ambush site. That was madness.

But Adele had the luxury of knowing that Tovera was being paranoid on her behalf, unasked. That didn’t seem fair, but the world wasn’t fair. And since madness was a word used to describe human beings, perhaps Tovera wasn’t at risk.

Posy gulped half her refilled glass, then lowered it and forced a smile. “Tilton fancies himself a ladies’ man. He isn’t interested so much in the sex, I think, as the degradation of his victims. He particularly fastens on the wives and daughters of the Councilors of Zenobia.”

“They don’t give in to him, do they?” Clothilde said with a look of revulsion. “Ugh! That bald little pervert!”

“I’m told that Councilor Pumphrey objected forcibly, not long after I left Zenobia,” Posy said. Her voice was frighteningly colorless. “I remember his daughter Chris quite well, though we weren’t close. She was a very proper girl, and I’m afraid I was too wild for her.”

“Did he use the secret police,” Adele said, her voice equally detached, “or members of his own security detail?”

Her personal data unit was in its thigh pocket — of course — but she would send the wrong signal if she brought it out now. She wanted the wands in her hands to keep her from reaching for her pistol, which would be even more undesirable.

Adele had to make do with the wine glass and conscious control. Her control had always been sufficient in the past.

“The police,” Posy said. “Some of them objected also, till the security detail executed two for treason. The rest were willing to carry off Chris Pumphrey. She hasn’t been seen since.”

“Oh, dear heavens,” Clothilde Brown said, the knuckles of her left hand in her mouth. “Oh dear heavens, where has Pavel brought me?”

“Are Tilton’s security personnel from the 5th Bureau?” Adele asked, still sounding as though she were asking about the color scheme in the kitchen.

“No, Residential Services,” Posy said absently. Her gaze sharpened. “How do you happen to know about the 5th Bureau, Adele?”

Taking a calculated risk, Adele said, “My servant, Tovera –”

She cocked her head slightly to indicate the woman standing behind her.

“– used to be associated with the organization. Before she retired and went into personal service.”

Tovera and Wood had obviously recognized one another — at least as types, but probably as individuals as well. There was no point in refusing to acknowledge what the other party already knew; and with luck, the admission would prove disarming.

“I see,” said Posy in a puzzled tone that proved she did not. No one retired from the 5th Bureau, the intelligence service which reported directly to Guarantor Porra. “Perhaps one day we will discuss mutual friends, Adele. Without boring Clothilde –”

She gave the Commissioner’s wife another dazzling smile.

“– that is.”

“With all respect to your maid,” Adele said, glancing up at Wood, “I would think that a security detail of . . . eighteen or twenty Residential Services personnel?”

“About that, yes,” Posy agreed.

“Eighteen,” said Wood, the syllables as short as successive clacks from a pair of wood blocks. “But two of them haven’t been sober for months on end. If they were issued live ammunition, they would shoot themselves.”

“Sixteen, then,” said Adele. “A large enough body to seriously endanger your safety, Posy, if Tilton is the sort of man you describe.”

“I could have gotten rid of him when I was on Pleasaunce,” Posy said, glancing at her empty wine glass. “I didn’t realize, though. Perhaps if someone had told me; my brother could have, I think. But nobody did. And now, well –”

Her mouth twisted in a mixture of anger and disgust.

“– I no longer have that kind of authority.”

Her smile became impish. She said, “I do, however, have a friend in Otto von Gleuck. Otto is a dear man and of very good family. There are five hundred spacers on his ships, and they love him like a father. Perhaps you understand that, Officer Mundy?”

“I might,” Adele said with her usual lack of expression. “But — and I don’t mean to raise an awkward question . . . but how long will Lieutenant Commander von Gleuck be stationed on Zenobia?”

“Yes,” said Posy. “Fleet appointments are of limited duration, and a destroyer doesn’t have the facilities for passengers that a heavy cruiser does.”

She glanced sidelong to see if Adele would react. Lady Belisande had left Zenobia five years ago as the mistress of Captain Karl Volcker, commander of the Barbarossa. The heavy cruiser was showing the flag in the Qaboosh Region during an interval of peace between Cinnabar and the Alliance.

The well-connected Volcker had brought Lady Belisande to a court ball following the cruiser’s return to Pleasaunce. There she caught the Guarantor’s eye, and very shortly thereafter Volcker had been promoted to command a battleship on distant assignment.

Of course I won’t react.

Posy smiled faintly at Adele’s bland silence and continued, “And that wouldn’t be a practical response anyway, since it was suggested at the time I left Pleasaunce that I might want to remain on Zenobia until I was informed otherwise. I suspect –”

She glanced up toward the servant behind her.

“– that I would be reminded of that suggestion if I seemed to be forgetting it.”

Wood didn’t react either. Of course.