Daniel closed the door behind him. The room was long and narrow. There were cabinets for paper files along one sidewall, and a desk–unoccupied at present–beside the door for a clerk. At the far end was another desk, so wide that it only fit the long way.

            Captain Britten, built like a fireplug with cropped gray hair, sat at the big desk and typed on a virtual keyboard. He slammed the holographic keys as though he thought he could hammer out the answers he wanted. Daniel smiled; Adele had accused him of doing the same thing.

            "Sit down, Leary," Britten said as he glared at his display. "I gather you've been making trouble again."

            "Ah…," said Daniel. "Well, only for the enemies of the Republic, I believe, sir."

            He ought to salute and report formally, but he was quite certain that Britten'd tear a strip off him if he did. Given that Daniel's salutes rarely rose to a level of minimal competence, he decided just to sit down as he'd been ordered to.

            Britten snorted, then collapsed his display into a quiver of electrons and met Daniel's eyes. "Well, you stick to your story, Leary," he said. "Maybe one day you'll find somebody to believe it. For now, though–"

            He stretched his arms sideways, then lifted them over his head. Britten's scowl of frustration was probably his normal expression, but he looked tired and a decade older than he had two years before on Todos Santos.

            "–the problem is the Bagarian Cluster. My problem, and about to become your problem. What do you know about the place, eh?"

            "Well, very little, sir," Daniel said, "though I can rectify that quickly, if you like."

            The Sailing Directions which Navy House provided for all regions of the galaxy, both in and out of the Cinnabar Confederation, would give him everything an RCN officer was likely to need. Adele and her sources could provide much greater detail if for some reason that were necessary.

            "The cluster's been part of the Alliance for over three hundred years," Daniel said. "Some heavy metals, a fair amount of agricultural produce; nothing of real importance. Frankly, the Bagarian Cluster's what you'd point to if you wanted to give an example of the boondocks. Ah, and there's a revolt going on there at the moment, I've been told."

            "Right, I've been told that too, Leary," said Britten. "In fact the Independent Republic of Bagaria has requested the help of the RCN to organize its navy and put it in a state to defeat Alliance attempts to retake the cluster. It's my job, so now it's your job, to provide that help."

            "Ah," said Daniel. "Ah, sir…. If I may ask, sir, is this a decision that's been made in Navy House, or has it been imposed by, ah, political elements?"
            "Like the business in Ganpat's Reach that you just got back from, you mean?" Britten said. "No, this was our idea. My idea, Leary, not to put too fine a point on it. You know what's happening in the Jewel System?"

            "Well sir," Daniel said, very carefully. "I know Admiral James only by reputation, but a very good reputation it is, sir."

            "A bloody good reputation, couldn't agree more," said Britten. He brought up, then collapsed his holographic display again; a nervous tic that made him frown like a thundercloud when he realized what he was doing. "But he's got two battleships and the Lao-tze is eighty years old. Eighty, Leary, and don't tell me that she's still well found. For an eighty-year-old ship she is well found, but eighty bloody years take a toll. The Alliance squadron has two modern battleships and a pair of battlecruisers that can outsail anything in the RCN. Plus supporting forces in proportion."

            Daniel tried not to frown, but given the direction his thoughts were headed, that was a losing proposition. "Ah, sir," he said. "Are you hoping that the Bagarian Republic will be able to reinforce Admiral James?"

            Britten stared at him in disbelief. "May the Gods bugger me with a flagpole!" he said. "Have you lost your mind, Leary?"

            "Ah, sorry sir," Daniel said in relief. He thought for a moment, then decided that with Britten he'd be better off to voice the rest of his thought. "No sir, I haven't; and I'm glad to see that you haven't either."

            Britten laughed. He opened a drawer of his desk and brought out a quart of rye whiskey. The brand was a good one–Breen's Reserve–but not so exceptional that people would remark to see it on their host's sideboard.

            An upended water glass covered the open bottle. "I've got another…," Britten muttered. He rummaged further, then chortled as he plunked a second glass onto the desktop.

            "There's water down the hall," Britten said doubtfully as he slid a generous two fingers of liquor toward Daniel. "No? Well, I can't say I think it needs it either."

            He set down his glass and resumed, "All I want you to do, Leary, is to give Fleet Command on Pleasaunce something to worry about besides reinforcing Admiral Guphill in the Jewel System. I want–we want, the Republic wants–somebody to make enough scary headlines about the Bagarian Cluster that Guarantor Porra scrapes up all the ships he can spare and sends them to recapture Pelosi, that's where the government is. Instead of worrying mines out of the Diamondia defenses even quicker."

            Daniel sipped, focused for the moment on the situation in the Jewel System. Diamondia was defended by a Planetary Defense Array, a constellation of nuclear mines. Each when triggered used magnetic lenses to focus ions through the target; a single mine could destroy even a battleship.

            The array could be swept by projectiles launched from beyond the range of the ion jets, but individual mines had a degree of mobility which made the process time consuming as well as dangerous. Further, warships from the defended world could attack the sweepers while remaining within the minefield themselves. Knowing Admiral James, the defense of Diamondia was an active one.

            "What sort of time scale are you considering, if I may ask, sir?" Daniel said. The factor controlling how quickly a planetary defense array could be cleared was the number of assets the enemy put to the task.

            "At the present rate…," said Britten. He raised his glass, noticed it was empty, and banged it back on the desk. His eyes flicked to the bottle, but he didn't pour himself another.

            "At the present rate, three months more or less," he went on. "We're slipping additional mines through the blockade on light craft, two or three at a time. That doesn't replace wastage, but it slows the rate somewhat. The Alliance could reduce the time to thirty days with the forces they could muster, according to my guestimate."

            He chuckled grimly. "And if you're wondering what's going to happen in that extra sixty days, Leary," he said, "I don't have a bloody clue. Maybe Porra'll keel over dead. Or maybe I will, which'll at least solve my problem."

            Britten picked up the whiskey after all. "You?" he said, tilting the bottle toward Daniel.

            Daniel swirled the last ounce of his present drink. He could hold his liquor–that was taken as a given for an RCN officer, much like courage–but there was no percentage in tripping in front of somebody who'd run to Admiral Vocaine with a story about Leary being drunk and incapable here in Navy House.

            "Thank you, no, sir," Daniel said. "What assets can you give me for this mission, please?"

            Britten chuckled again and splashed no more than an ounce in his glass. "'Bugger all,' you expect me to say, don't you?" he said. "Well, you're bloody near right. But you can have your corvette. She's free to contract to Navy House, isn't she?"

            "Yes, sir!" Daniel said. Learning that he'd be commanding the Princess Cecile again cheered him to an unreasonable degree.

            "And you can have the crew you came back with," Britten continued. "The ones who're pretending to be Kostroman laborers working in your father's dockyard. Admiral Vocaine may not want to pick a fight with Speaker Leary, but he's not such a bloody fool that he doesn't know what's going on, Commander."

            Daniel cleared his throat. "Ah, yes, sir," he said.

            Because there weren't enough spacers to supply both the merchant service and the RCN on a war footing, Admiral Vocaine had begun sequestering–imprisoning, for all intents and purposes–the crews of vessels arriving on Cinnabar until they could be transferred aboard another RCN warship. Daniel had asked his sister to save his crew from that if she could.

            Deirdre being Deirdre–and Corder Leary being Speaker Leary–there'd been a way. Daniel didn't trade on his family connections–he'd broken with his father forever when he joined the RCN–but he was a Leary of Bantry. He'd take care of his retainers–which the Sissies were, in his mind–even if that meant bending his principles.

            Britten stared at his empty whiskey glass. "Bloody thing," he muttered. He clinked it upside down over the mouth of the bottle.

            "Do you wonder where Admiral Vocaine stands on this, Leary?" he demanded. "Of course you bloody well do. Well, he's approved it. I wouldn't be giving you the assignment if I hadn't gotten the go-ahead from him."

            "I'll try to justify the admiral's confidence, sir," Daniel said cautiously. He didn't see any benefit in discussing the Chief of the Navy Board, particularly in Navy House. "And yours."

            "Oh, I don't mean Vocaine'll shed tears if you get yourself blown to ions, boy," Britten said. "He bloody well won't. But it's a job that's going to take flair to carry out, and your worst enemy–which Vocaine may very well be, Leary–will grant you flair."

            He opened the drawer and slid the bottle away. "The clerk at Desk Five will have your orders," he said. "But I wanted to tell you the part that won't be written down."

            "Thank you, sir," Daniel said, rising to his feet. He set the glass, now empty, on Britten's desk. "The Sissie, that's my corvette, will have a full missile magazine?"

            "There'll be missiles," Britten grunted. "Regular naval units'll have priority… but I shouldn't wonder if you found a way around that."

            I shouldn't wonder either, Captain, Daniel thought behind his smile. A few florins to a leading ordnanceman and new-manufacture dual-converter missiles could wind up marked as the sort of off-planet odds and ends that'd ordinarily be issued to a private yacht bought into service as an auxiliary.

            "One thing, Leary, just to be clear," Britten said. "And maybe so that you understand Admiral Vocaine a little better. This is an open-ended appointment. You're to remain in the Bagarian Cluster until you're recalled, and that won't be before the end of the war."

            "I understand, sir," said Daniel.

            "But that's not all bad," Britten continued. "There's going to be a lot of things up in the air in the Bagarian Cluster. Money, for one, but more than that. A clever young fellow could just find himself life ruler of a rich planet. That's not a bad alternative to being an RCN officer, is it?"

            "There are many who'd agree with you, sir," said Daniel. He did salute this time, then took himself quickly through the door.

            I might consider that option myself, at some time after Hell freezes over.