With the Lightnings

Copyright 1998
ISBN: 0671-87881-6 ORDER (hardcover)
Publication Date: 7/98
ISBN: 0671-57818-9 ORDER (paperback)
Publication Date: 7/99

Cover art by David Mattingly

by David Drake

0671-87881-6.jpg (12322 bytes)Book One

 Me that 'ave followed my trade
In the place where the Lightnin's are made . . .

 -Kipling

 Lieutenant Cassian Daniels ambled through the streets of Kostroma City in the black-piped gray 2nd Class uniform of the Republic of Cinnabar Navy. He was on his way to the Elector's Palace, but there was no hurry and really nothing more important for Cassian to do than to savor the fact that he'd realized one of his childhood dreams: to walk a far world and see its wonders first hand.

His other dream, to command a starship himself, would come (if at all) in the far future; a future as distant in Cassian's mind as childhood seemed from his present age of twenty-two Terran years.

For now, he had Kostroma and that was wonder enough. He whistled a snatch of a tune the band had played at the supper club he'd visited the night before.

Cassian smiled, an expression so naturally warm that strangers on the street smiled back at him. The Kostroman lady he'd met there was named Silena. The honor both of a Daniels of Bantry and the RCN required that Cassian offer his help when the lady's young escort drank himself into babbling incapacity. Silena had been very appreciative; and after the first few minutes back at her lodgings, pique at her original escort was no longer her primary focus.

Cassian was only a little above average height with a tendency toward fleshiness that showed itself particularly in his florid face. His roundness and open expression caused strangers sometimes to dismiss Cassian Daniels as soft. That was a mistake.

A canal ran down the center of the broad street. During daylight it carried only small craft, water taxis and light delivery vehicles, but at night barges loaded with construction materials edged between the stone banks with loud arguments over right-of-way. The pavements to either side seethed with a mixture of pedestrians and three-wheeled motorized jitneys, though like the canals they would fill with heavy traffic after dark.

The Kostroman economy was booming on the profits of interstellar trade, and much of that wealth being invested here in the capital. Rich merchants built townhouses, and the older nobility added to the palaces of their clans so as not to be outdone.

Folk at a lower social level-clerks in the trading houses, the spacers who crewed Kostroma's trading fleet, and the laborers staffing the factories and fisheries that filled those starships, all had gained in some degree. They wanted improved lodgings as well, and they were willing to pay for them.

Cassian walked along whistling, delighted with the pageant. People wore colorful clothing in unfamiliar styles. Many of them chattered in local dialects: Kostroma was a watery planet from whose islands had sprung a hundred distinct tongues during the long Hiatus in star travel. Even those speaking Universal, now the common language of the planet as well as that of interstellar trade, did so in an accent strange to Cinnabar ears.

Civilization hadn't vanished on Kostroma as it had on so many worlds colonized during the first period of human star travel, but Kostroman society had fragmented without the lure of the stars to unify it. The centuries since Kostroma returned to space hadn't fully healed the social fabric: the present Elector, Walter III of the Hajas clan, had seized power in a coup only six months before.

Nobody doubted that Walter intended to retain Kostroma's traditional friendship with the Republic of Cinnabar, but the new Elector needed money. At the present state of the war between Cinnabar and the Alliance of Free Stars, Walter's hint that he might not renew the Reciprocity Agreement when it came due in three months had been enough to bring a high-level delegation from Cinnabar.

Cassian sighed. A high-level delegation, with one junior lieutenant thrown in as a makeweight. Cassian had almost certainly been sent because he was the son of the politically powerful Corder Daniels, former Speaker of the Cinnabar Senate. Cassian's-bad-relationship with his father was no secret in the RCN, but the ins and outs of Cinnabar families wouldn't be common knowledge on Kostroma.

A man came out of a doorway, pushing himself onto the crowded pavement while calling final instructions to someone within the building. Cassian would have avoided the fellow if there'd been room. There wasn't, so he set his shoulder instead and it was the larger Kostroman who bounced back with a surprised grunt.

No one took notice of what was merely a normal hazard of city life. Cassian walked on, eyeing with interest the carven swags and volutes that decorated unpretentious four-story apartment buildings.

Kostromans didn't duel the way members of Cinnabar's wealthy families sometimes did. On the other hand, feuds and assassination were accepted features of Kostroman social life. Cassian supposed it was whatever you were used to.

In Xenos, Cinnabar's capital, real magnates like Corder Daniels moved through the streets with an entourage of fifty or more clients, some of whom might be senators themselves. You stepped aside or the liveried toughs leading the procession knocked you aside. The free citizens of the galaxy's proudest republic accepted-indeed, expected-that their leaders would behave in such fashion. Who would obey a man who lacked a strong sense of his own honor?

Birds fluted as they spun in tight curves from roof coping to roof coping overhead. They were avian in the same sense as the scaly "birds" of Cinnabar, the winged amphibians of Sadastor, or the flyers of a thousand other worlds that humans had visited and described. The details were for scientists to chart and for quick-eyed amateurs like Cassian Daniels to notice with delight.

During the final quarrel Cassian had said he'd take nothing from his father; but the Daniels name had brought Cassian to Kostroma. Well, the name was his by right, not his father's gift. Cassian didn't have a shipboard appointment, and he really had no duties even as part of Admiral Dame Martina Lasowski's delegation; but he'd reached the stars.

The Kostroman navy was small compared to the fleets of Cinnabar and the Alliance, and even so it was larger than it was efficient. Kostroma's captains and sailors were of excellent quality, but the merchant fleet took the greater-and the better-part of the personnel. Ratings in the Kostroman navy were largely foreigners; officers were generally men who preferred the high life in Kostroma City to hard voyaging; and the ships spent most of their time laid up with their ports sealed and their movable equipment warehoused, floating in a dammed lagoon south of the capital called the Navy Pool.

A starship was landing in the Floating Harbor. Cassian turned to watch, sliding the naval goggles down from his cap brim against the glare.

Starships took off and landed on water both because of the damage their plasma motors would do to solid ground and because water was an ideal reaction mass to be converted to plasma. Once out of a planet's atmosphere ships used their High Drive, a matter/anti-matter conversion process and far more efficient, but to switch to High Drive too early was to court disaster.

At one time Kostroma Harbor had served all traffic, but for the past generation only surface vessels used the city wharfs. The Floating Harbor built of hollow concrete pontoons accommodated the starships a half mile offshore.

The pontoons were joined in hexagons that damped the waves generated by takeoffs and landings, isolating individual ships like larvae in the cells of a beehive. Seagoing lighters docked on the outer sides of the floats to deliver and receive cargo.

The ship landing just now was a small one of three hundred tons or so; a yacht, or more probably a government dispatch vessel. The masts folded along the hull indicated the plane on which Cassini Radiation drove the ship through sponge space was very large compared to the vessel's displacement.

The hull shape and the way two of the four High Drive nozzles were mounted on outriggers identified the ship as a product of the Pleasaunce system, the capital of the deceptively named Alliance of Free Stars. That was perfectly proper since the vessel was unarmed. Kostroma was neutral, trading with both parties to the conflict.

Kostroma's real value to combatants lay not with her navy but in her merchant fleet and extensive trading network to regions of the human diaspora where neither Cinnabar nor the Alliance had significant direct contact. Formally the Reciprocity Agreement granted Cinnabar only the right to land warships on Kostroma instead of staying ten light-minutes out like those of other nations.

As a matter of unofficial policy, however, neutral Kostroman vessels carried cargoes to Cinnabar but not to worlds of the Alliance. That was an advantage for which General Porra, Guarantor of the Alliance, would have given his left nut.

The dispatch vessel touched down in a vast gout of steam; the roar of landing arrived several seconds later as the cloud was already beginning to dissipate. Cassian raised his goggles and continued walking. A graceful bridge humped over a major canal; from the top of the arch Cassian glimpsed the roof of the Elector's Palace.

An Alliance dispatch vessel might mean Porra or his bureaucrats believed there was a realistic chance of detaching Kostroma from Cinnabar. Alternatively, the Alliance could simply be trying to raise the price Admiral Lasowski would finally agree to pay. Walter III would have invited an Alliance delegation as a bargaining chip even if Porra hadn't planned to send one on his own account.

Well, that was only technically a concern for Lt. Cassian Daniels. As a practical matter, he was a tourist visiting a planet which provided a range of unfamiliar culture, architecture, and wildlife.

Whistling again, he strolled off the bridge and along the broad avenue leading toward the palace.

*****

Adele Mundy stood in the doorway, fingering a lock of her short brown hair as she surveyed what was only in name the Library of the Elector of Kostroma. Adele was an organized person; she would organize even this. The difficulty was in knowing where to start.

The room was large and attractive in its way; ways, really, because whichever Elector had been responsible for the decoration had been catholic in his taste. Time had darkened the wood paneling from its original bleached pallor. The enormous stone hood of the fireplace was carved with a scene of hunting in forests that looked nothing like Kostroman vegetation, and blue-figured tiles formed the hearth itself. The knees supporting the coffered ceiling imitated gargoyles.

The last were a singularly inappropriate choice for the interior of a library. The notion of figures gaping to gargle rainwater onto Adele's collections made her shudder.

The chamber had probably been intended as a drawing room for Electoral gatherings smaller and more private than those in the enormous Grand Salon below on the second floor. There was quite a lot of space in terms of cubic feet since the ceiling was thirty feet above, but there would have to be a great deal of modification to make it usable for shelving books.

The modification was one of the problems Adele had been trying to surmount in the three weeks since she had arrived in Kostroma City to take up her appointment as the Electoral Librarian. One of many problems.

"Pardon, pardon!" a workman growled to Adele's back in a nasal Kostroman accent. She stepped sideways into the room, feeling her abdominal muscles tense in anger.

The man hadn't been impolite, technically: Adele was standing in the doorway through which he and his mate needed to carry a plank. But there was no hint in his tone that the off-planet librarian was his superior or, for that matter, anything but a pain in the neck.

A six-foot board wasn't much of a load for two people to carry, but even that wasn't why Adele became dizzy with frustration. That was a result of seeing the material, polished hardwood with a rich, swirling grain. It was probably as pretty a piece of lumber as she'd ever seen in her life.

Elector Jonathan Ignatius, Walter III's immediate predecessor, was a member of the Delfi clan and an enthusiastic hunter. Jonathan's absence on a six-month, multi-planet safari had permitted rivals in the Hajas and Zojira clans to prepare the coup that unseated him the night of his return.

Walter by contrast wanted to be remembered as a patron of learning, possibly because he had no more formal education than the Emperor Charlemagne. He'd decided to found an electoral library under the carefully neutral direction of a Cinnabar scholar living in exile on the Alliance world of Bryce. He'd assembled the contents of the library by the simple expedient of stripping books, papers, and electronic storage media from Delfi households and those of their collateral clans.

The loot-Adele couldn't think of another word to describe it-was piled here in a variety of boxes and crates. Most of them weren't marked, and she didn't trust the labels on those which had them. The only order in the library was the view out the north windows, onto the formal gardens.

What Adele needed to start-what she had requested as many times and in as many ways as she could imagine-was three thousand feet of rough shelving. What she was getting from the carpenters Walter's chamberlain had assigned to the project was cabinetry of a standard that would grace a formal dining room. At the present rate of progress, the job would be done sometime in the next century.

There was no doubt about the skill of the carpenters, these two journeymen and the master cabinetmaker who never left her shop on the ground floor and never touched a tool with her own hands that Adele had seen. They were simply the wrong people for the job. The twenty Kostroman library assistants whom Adele was to train to the standards of Cinnabar or the central worlds of the Alliance-these were with only a few exceptions the wrong people for any job.

Laughter boomed in the hallway. Adele sidled another step away from the door and put her straight back against the wall. The band of tile at neck level felt cool and helped keep her calm. Bracey, one of her assistants, entered with two other men whom Adele didn't recognize.

That didn't mean they weren't library assistants: the positions had been granted as political favors to relatives who needed jobs. The only blessing was that most of them, lazy scuts with neither ability nor interest in library work, didn't bother to show up. Those who did pilfered and damaged materials through careless disregard.

Bracey, a Zojira collateral, was one of those who often came to the library. Unfortunately.

The trio entered the room, passing a bottle among them. From the smell of their breath as they strode past Adele she was surprised they were still able to move, let alone climb the lovely helical staircase to the third floor.

Three other assistants were in the library. Two were fondling one another in a corner. Their lives were at risk if in passion they managed to dislodge the boxes stacked to either side. The third assistant was Vanness, who was actually trying to organize a crate of what were probably logbooks. Alone of her "assistants," Vanness had the interest that was a necessary precondition to becoming useful. The Kostroman wasn't any real help now, but Adele could cure his ignorance if she just got some room to work in.

"Hey, save me seconds!" Bracey called to the couple in the corner. Adele's presence hadn't concerned them, but now they sprang apart.

One of Bracey's companions tugged his arm, nodding toward Adele behind them. Bracey waved the bottle to her and said, "Hey, chiefie! Want a drink?"

Bracey burped loudly; his companions lapsed into giggles. Adele looked through the Kostroman as if he didn't exist, then walked to the data console she'd spent most of the past two weeks getting in order because that was within her capacity to achieve without the help of anyone else . . . and she didn't have the help of anyone else.

The console was of high-quality Cinnabar manufacture and so new that it was still crated in the vestibule of the palace when Walter's supporters took stock after the coup. It came loaded with a broad-ranging database which could, now that Adele had completed her labors, access information from any of the computers in the government network; better and faster than the computers could reach their own data, in most cases.

Adele rested her forehead against the console's smooth coolness and wondered whether starving on Bryce would have been a better idea than accepting the Kostroman offer. But it had seemed so wonderful at the time. She'd even told Mistress Boileau, "It's too good to be true!"

Adele smiled. At least in hindsight she could credit herself with a flawlessly accurate analysis.

Adele was a Mundy of Chatsworth, one of Cinnabar's most politically powerful families while she was growing up, though the Mundys' populist tendencies meant they were generally on the outs with their fellow magnates. Adele hadn't been interested in politics. When she was sixteen she'd left Xenos for the Bryce Academy. Her choice was made as much to avoid the alarms and street protests escalating into riots as for the opportunity to study the premier collections of the human galaxy under Mistress Boileau.

That was fifteen terrestrial years ago. Three days after Adele Mundy reached Bryce, the Speaker of the Cinnabar Senate announced that he'd uncovered an Alliance plot to overthrow the government of Cinnabar through native agents-primarily members of the Mundy family. The Senate proscribed the traitors. Their property was confiscated by the state or turned over to those who informed against them, and those proscribed were hunted down under emergency regulations that were a license to kill.

Adele had a bank account on Bryce, but it was intended to provide her first quarter's allowance rather than an inheritance. Mistress Boileau herself replaced the support which had vanished with the Mundys of Chatsworth. Her charity was partly from kindness, because the old scholar's heart was as gentle as a lamb's on any subject outside her specialty: the collection and organization of knowledge.

But beyond kindness Mistress Boileau realized Adele was a student with abilities exceeding those of anyone else she had trained in her long career. They worked on terms of increasing equality, Adele's quickness balanced by the breadth of information within Mistress Boileau's crystalline mind. Nothing was said, but both of them expected Adele to take Mistress Boileau's place when the older woman died at her post-retirement was as unlikely a possibility as the immediate end of the universe.

Maybe without the war . . .

Cinnabar and the Alliance had fought three wars in the past century. This fourth outbreak had less to do with the so-called Three Circles Conspiracy than it did with the same trade, pride, and paranoia which had led to the earlier conflicts. Those were politicians' reasons and fools' reasons; nothing that touched a scholar like Adele Mundy.

But the decree that came out of the Alliance capital on Pleasaunce touched her, for all that it was framed by politicians and fools. The Academic Collections on Bryce were a national resource. Access to them by citizens of the Republic of Cinnabar was to be strictly controlled.

Mistress Boileau suggested a way out of the crisis. She had friends on Pleasaunce. They couldn't exempt Adele from the ruling, but they could make Adele an Alliance citizen as soon as she renounced Cinnabar nationality.

A moment earlier Adele would have described herself as a citizen of learning and the galaxy, not of any national boundary that tried to limit mankind. Cinnabar was a memory of the riots she saw in person and the slaughter she missed by hours.

But she was a Mundy of Chatsworth, and she would be damned before any politician on Pleasaunce made her say otherwise.

Then the Elector of Kostroma asked Mistress Boileau, Director of the Academic Collections on Bryce, to recommend someone to run his new library. The request had seemed a godsend at the time. Now . . .

Bracey cried in alarm. Adele raised her head.

Bracey sprang backward, bumping into the boxed remains of several electronic data units that might antedate the palace. One of his companion drunks vomited. Most of the yellowish gout cascaded onto a gunnysack filled with loose paper of some kind, but splatters landed on Bracey's boots.

"Bracey," Adele said, her voice a handclap, "get out, and take your fellows with you. And stay out!"

"Aw, don't knot your panties, chiefie," the assistant said. His boots were red suede; he tentatively rubbed the toe of one against a pasteboard carton, smearing but not removing the splash of vomit. "I'll get one of the maids to-"

"Get out, by God!" Adele said.

Bracey's face clouded. The friend who still stood had been watching Adele and had seen more than a short, slim female in nondescript clothing. As Bracey opened his mouth to snarl a curse, the friend tugged his arm and muttered.

Bracey shook himself free, then dragged the sick man up by the collar. "Come on, Kirkwall," he said. "If you've ruined these boots, I'll flay another pair from your backside, damned if I won't!"

Two men supporting the third, the Kostromans shuffled out of the library. Adele remained by the data console, following them with her eyes. When she looked around the room again, the other assistants and the two carpenters were staring at her. All of them turned their heads instantly.

"I'll take care of this, mistress," Vanness said as he trotted toward the mess of vomit. He waved the bag which had held the logbooks, to use as a wiping rag.

The bag itself might identify where the contents had come from-

But Adele caught her objection unvoiced. There was nothing she'd gain from speaking that would justify the seeming rebuke of a man who was trying to do his job.

"Yes, very well," she said instead. She turned her hawk glance onto the carpenters. They'd resumed measuring their plank against the brackets they'd yesterday fastened to the paneling and the frames mortised into the brick fabric of the wall.

"You two!" Adele Mundy ordered. "Come along with me to see your mistress, and bring that silly piece of veneer stock with you. I need proper shelving now, and I don't mean enough for a medicine chest!"

She was a Mundy of Chatsworth. She might very well fail, but she wasn't going to quit. With her face hard, she set off for the cabinet shop in the arches supporting the causeway to the palace gardens.

*****

"I believe there's only one more matter to be considered at this time, sirs and madame," said the Secretary to the Navy Board. She was a woman at the latter end of middle age, utterly colorless in tone and appearance. Her name was Klemsch, but two of the five board members couldn't have called her anything beyond "Mistress Secretary" without thinking longer than they were accustomed to do.

With absolute rectitude and self-effacement Klemsch had served Admiral Anston for over thirty years. Because of that she was herself one of the most powerful individuals in the Republic of Cinnabar.

"Oh, for God's sake, Anston," Guiliani grumbled. "Does it have to be today? I have an engagement."

"It shouldn't take long," Admiral Anston said, politely but without any hint that his mind might be changed. He nodded to Klemsch. "Invite Mistress Sand to join us, please."

"I knew I should have stayed in bed today," the Third Member muttered, scowling at the table's onyx surface.

Three of the junior board members were senators; Guiliani was not, but the present Speaker was her first cousin. She and La Foche had naval rank themselves, but Admiral Anston was the only serving officer. He had earned both his rank and his considerable private fortune waging war successfully against Cinnabar's enemies.

No Chairman of the Navy Board could be described as apolitical, but it was accepted by all who knew Anston that his whole loyalty was to the RCN itself. At this time of present crisis, even the most rabid party politician preferred the office to be in Anston's hands rather than those of someone more malleable but less competent.

Mistress Sand entered the conference room without an obvious summons. She was a bulky woman, well if unobtrusively dressed. "Harry," she said, nodding. "Gene, Tom, it's good to see you. Bate, my husband was just asking after you. Will we see you next week at the Music Society meeting?"

"We're planning to attend," the Third Member replied. "At least if my granddaughter's marriage negotiations wrap up in time."

All the political members of the board knew Mistress Sand socially; none of them wanted to have professional contact with the genial, cultured woman.

"I told my fellows that this wouldn't take long, Bernis," Admiral Anston said. "Why don't you lay out just the heads of the business rather than going into detail as you did with me?"

Sand nodded pleasantly and opened her ivory snuffbox. She placed a pinch in the hollow formed by her thumb and the back of her hand, then snorted it into her left nostril.

There was a chair open for her at Anston's right. She remained standing.

"The Alliance is planning some devilment on Kostroma," Sand said. Admiral Anston wore a slight smile; the four junior board members were frowningly silent. "I'm afraid that the risks are such that we need to take action ourselves."

"There's already trouble with the new Elector, isn't there?" the Fourth Member said. "Time we took the place over ourselves and cut the subsidy budget, I say."

"The reasons we decided Kostroma was more valuable as a friend than as a possession," Anston said, "appear to me to remain valid. But we can't permit the Alliance to capture Kostroma, and the Kostromans are unlikely to halt a really serious Alliance invasion. Their fleet is laid up and their satellite defense system hasn't been upgraded in a generation."

"Walter Hajas isn't going to like us interfering," Guiliani said in a gloomy tone. Her family had invested heavily in the Kostroma trade, so the probable disruption had personal as well as national importance to her. "Let alone us basing a fleet on Kostroma. A few ships refitting at a time, sure, but the harbor's already near capacity with the merchant trade. If we reduce that, a lot of people lose money and the new Elector gets unpopular fast."

She shook her head in dismay. "As do we."

"We don't have a battle fleet to send!" the Second Member said. He looked up at Anston in sudden concern. "Do we, Josh? I understood we were too stretched for proper patrolling against privateers."

Three ships in which the Second Member was a partner had been taken by Alliance raiders in the past year. That was partly bad luck and partly a result of the member spreading his investments over nearly a hundred vessels . . . but it was also true that closer patrolling of systems known to outfit privateers might have helped.

As little as the political members liked what they were hearing, none of them had questioned the seriousness of the threat. Mistress Sand wouldn't have come before the full board this way if she'd thought the matter could be handled through normal channels.

"I don't foresee the need of a fleet if we act promptly," Mistress Sand said. "Or for a permanent presence. We can fulfill our requirements with an improvement to Kostroma's satellite defense system and perhaps some experts to maintain and control it. The personnel wouldn't have to wear Cinnabar uniforms."

She rotated the snuffbox between her thumb and forefinger. It was cone-shaped and the carvings on its surface had been worn to tawny shadows.

"We were planning to upgrade the defenses of Pelleas Base," Anston said to his fellow members. "The new constellation is already being loaded on transports. While I'm not comfortable in my mind about Pelleas, the Kostroma situation appears to be more immediately critical."

The political members nodded. Guiliani muttered, "You could buy a battleship for what one of those damned satellite constellations cost, but I suppose we'll find the money somewhere. I'll have a word with my cousin."

"We'll need an escort," said the Fourth Member. "All it'd take is for illiterate pirates from Rouilly to grab that load!"

"I think we can scare up a few destroyers for a cargo of such importance," Anston said without cracking a smile. "And it occurred to me that guardships get too little out-of-system time to be at peak performance if they should be needed. The Rene Descartes isn't as fast as a newer battleship, but she can keep up with a transport."

"Walter Hajas can be made to understand that the squadron's presence is temporary," Ms. Sand said. "Merely a training exercise."

"A guardship?" the Third Member said. "What are we leaving unguarded, then?"

"Admiral Koffe's heavy cruiser squadron arrived at Harbor Three yesterday for refit," Anston said, skirting the nub of the question. "That can wait while . . . Admiral Ingreit, I think I'd recommend . . . returns from Kostroma with the Rene Descartes."

"Christ," the Third Member muttered. "Well, if you're sure, Anston."

"None of us can be sure of anything except our ultimate demise, Harry," Mistress Sand said, smiling as she returned the snuffbox to a pocket in the front of her silk jumper. "But I think we can reasonably expect a good result-"

Her words lost the overtone of good humor, though a stranger wouldn't have thought the stocky woman sounded worried as she concluded, "-so long as the squadron arrives at Kostroma in time. I'm afraid there may be very little time."

*****

There was a fountain in the plaza fronting the Elector's palace: a fish-tailed Triton sat on a shell and blew water vertically from a conch. The stream splashed onto the shell and finally drained into the passing canal.

Though the fountain was twenty feet high and therefore imposing, Cassian didn't find it in any way attractive. He felt much the same way about the palace itself.

Well, unlike the other three members of the delegation, Cassian didn't even live there. Admiral Martina Lasowski and her senior aides doubtless had more serious concerns than the fact they were housed in a three-story pile of beige brick with pillared arches in the center and windows of many different styles on the wings.

Cassian frowned as he walked over the final narrow pedestrian bridge. Because Cassian was a supernumerary, the admiral had permitted him to find his own accommodation-a harborside apartment. Being billeted in the palace at government expense would have saved money, but at a cost to the freedom of his personal life.

Still, the money would have been nice. Cassian's spending had exceeded his combined income-naval pay and a small annuity settled on him at his mother's death-ever since he broke with his father. He'd gotten considerable credit simply because he was a Daniels of Bantry, but even that had stretched close to the breaking point.

If not beyond it. Maybe his sister would see her way clear to a loan.

Cassian no longer told himself that he'd cut back his expenditures in the near future. That hadn't happened in six years, so it wasn't probable now. It cost a good deal to keep up the show required of an officer worthy of promotion, and besides, he'd gotten a taste for high life in his early years.

The palace entrance was a rank of eight archways, with six more in the row immediately behind the first and four final arches giving onto three broad steps to the tall doors. The pillared court stretched sixty-five feet back from the plaza, and the amount of greenish stone in the columns was staggering.

Cassian's mother had raised him at Bantry, the country estate claimed-in legend, at any rate-by the Daniels family when the first colony ship arrived on Cinnabar. His sister Deirdre was the elder by two years. She, Corder Daniels' pride and presumptive heir, spent most of her time in the family townhouse in Xenos under the care of nurses and other hirelings.

Deirdre had emerged from the capital milieu of vice, pomp, and riot as a sober, pragmatic woman who drank as a duty, ate to fuel her body, and had no vices rumored even by political enemies. Cassian, the product of mother love and rural sport, was . . . less of a paragon.

Well, Deirdre's virtues weren't those of the Republic of Cinnabar Navy. The RCN was a place for hot courage, quick initiative, and the willingness to follow a fixed course when orders required it. Cassian thought he might someday be an RCN officer whom others spoke of, if he survived.

And if he ever got a command. Talent could help an officer to a command, and luck was useful in the RCN as well as all the rest of life. But the best way to a command was through interest: the help of wealthy and politically powerful citizens. People like Speaker Daniels, who would have preferred to see his son in Hell rather than in the navy.

Which was why Cassian had joined, of course. One of the reasons. He'd been drawn also by his Uncle Stacey Bergen's tales of far worlds. Those were some of Cassian's warmest and earliest memories.

The vast entrance alcove was lighted only by the sun shining onto the plaza in front of it. That should have been sufficient now at midmorning, but Cassian's eyes took a moment to readapt from full day to these shadowed stones. In bad weather the hawkers, idlers, and thieves thronging the plaza came here for protection. Their trash remained to eddy disconsolately among the pillars.

The great wooden doors into the palace were open. A squad of guards whose berets were quartered in the Hajas colors, silver and violet, stood nearby. Their weapons, slung or leaning against the wall, were mostly sub-machine guns which accelerated pellets to high velocity by electromagnetic pulses. One guard had an impeller that threw slugs of greater weight and penetration.

A line of scars, filled with plastic but visible because of their lighter hue, crossed the right-hand doorpanel at waist height. Somebody'd raked the doorway with an automatic impeller, probably on the night Walter Hajas became Elector. Maybe one of the present guards had been at the grips of the big weapon then. . . .

Cassian climbed the steps to the entrance, feeling fire in his shins each time he raised his leg. Kostroma City was as flat as the lagoon from which it'd been reclaimed, but the many arched bridges between Cassian's apartment and the palace had taken their toll.

Hogg, Cassian's manservant, had offered to drive him in a three-wheeled jitney of the type that was universal in the city. Cassian had walked instead as the best way to see the city. In hindsight, he thought that perhaps he could've seen enough of Kostroma from the jitney's back seat.

A Cinnabar naval officer was expected to have servants. A wealthy lieutenant, the sort of fellow Cassian would have been had not he and his father disowned one another, might have a dozen servants in port and several even on shipboard during war service (though all but one of the latter would be ratings paid from the officer's pocket for additional services).

Hogg was neither fish nor fowl: no rich man's sophisticated valet, but not a sailor either. Hogg was a countryman in his early fifties, balding and cherubic to look at. He'd been Cassian's watcher as a infant and his servant in later years.

Hogg had taught Cassian the history and legends of the Daniels family; had guided him through every copse and ravine of the vast Bantry estate; and had spanked the boy with a hand hard enough to drive nails the day Cassian struck his mother in a six-year-old's tantrum.

Mistress Daniels had never known about the spanking. She'd have dismissed Hogg in a heartbeat if she'd learned, despite Hogg's long service with the family. Cassian had been aware of that; but there were matters for mothers, and other matters that men settled among themselves.

Cassian apologized to both of them, mother and servant, for behaving in an unworthy fashion. Looking back on it, he thought that afternoon had been his making as a man.

Hoggs had been retainers of the Daniels of Bantry for as far back as the parish records ran. Mostly Hoggs appeared in those records as smugglers and poachers; in that, too, Cassian's servant ran true to type. Cassian hadn't asked how Hogg came by the jitney, because he was pretty sure he didn't want to know.

The Hajas guards ignored the Cinnabar lieutenant while they argued about a professional handball match. Cassian didn't suppose he looked like an assassin, but the guards' lackadaisical attitude disturbed him as a military professional. The folk guarding the Senate House in Xenos were polite, but strangers didn't enter the building without someone to vouch for them.

The Elector's Palace was the seat of government as well as a residence and function hall. Inevitably there were more bureaucrats than space for them. A dozen desks were set against the inside of the staircases sweeping up both sides of a vast oval entryway. Clerks-very junior clerks if their cheap clothing was anything to go by-hunched there over papers or, in a few cases, electronic data terminals.

The vestibule was a bedlam of strange dialects and Universal spoken with a Kostroman accent. Folk passed up and down the stairs, talking in voices that echoed from the domed ceiling two flights above. Cassian had been raised in a great household, had lived in a dormitory at Navy School, and had served in warships whose large crews meant each rating shared a bunk with a rating of the other division. This cacophony had a feel of home; he smiled broadly again.

One of the desks in the vestibule faced outward so the man seated at the terminal there could also keep an eye on his fellows. He was gray and thin; pinned at his throat was a short satin shoulder wrap in the Hajas colors. Cassian doubted the fellow's title was anything so exalted as "office manager," but he clearly had authority over this assemblage of clerks mostly half his age.

Cassian slipped a coin from a purse that was extremely flat already and held it in his palm as he approached the senior clerk's desk. The fellow was keying in numbers with his right hand while his left tilted a sheet of handwritten paper to catch light from the electric sconce attached to the balustrade above him.

"Sir!" Cassian said cheerfully, noting the surprise in the eyes of a man who probably hadn't been addressed by a stranger at any time in the past week. "I wonder if one of your underlings can guide me to where I want to go? I could wander all day in a building so impressive as this."

He brought the coin out in a trick Hogg had taught him, walking it between his knuckles without ever touching it with a fingertip. It was Cinnabar money, a five-florin piece: clear plastic with a gold inner layer that danced and winked in the ill-lit vestibule. In the country five florins was a day's wage; in Xenos it would buy a meal without wine. A Kostroman would lose part of the value in changing it, but Cinnabar coinage was flashier and more impressive than the local scrip.

"What?" said the clerk. "Well, an usher . . ."

It took a moment for his eyes to focus on the coin; then they grew wider. "On the other hand," he continued, "I suppose Russo could-"

He looked at the young woman at the desk beside him; all the clerks were now staring at their senior and the uniformed stranger. In sudden decision the man stood up himself. "No!" he said. "I'll guide you myself, good sir. You'd like to find the apartments of the Cinnabar citizens staying here, I suppose?"

"Not at all," said Cassian, passing the coin to the Kostroman with a sweep of his hand. "My uncle was a great explorer himself, and I hope to follow his example. I came here to see what information may be in the Electoral library."

He beamed at the blinking clerk.

*****

If Adele Mundy had spent the past hour talking to the wall of the cabinet shop, she wouldn't now feel a burning desire to flay the wall with a riding whip. That was the only difference she could see between that and her discussion with Master Carpenter Bozeman.

If she heard the phrase "I'm sorry, mistress, but we do things different here on Kostroma" just one more time, she'd scream.

There were four people in the library: the two lovers, who were ignoring the stranger deliberately instead of merely being concerned with their own activity; Vanness, who because he couldn't ignore the stranger but wasn't sure he ought to approach the fellow, was bouncing like a child who needs a toilet; and the stranger himself.

The stranger was a man wearing a gray suit with closer tailoring than the Kostroman fashion. His back was to the door, and he was leafing through a folio volume that dated from before the Hiatus.

"Sir!" Adele said. "I'm the Electoral Librarian. May I ask who you are?"

If he dropped the book or tore a page, she'd-

The fellow turned. The gray suit was a uniform. He was a little on the plump side, with sandy hair and a smile that made him look even more of a boy than he clearly was.

"Honored to meet you, mistress," he said. "I'm Lieutenant Cassian Daniels, Republic of Cinnabar Navy. Sorry I can't shake hands with you but-"

He waggled the folio slightly. He had a hand under either board. To turn pages he'd apparently rested a corner on the stack of deed boxes beside him in lieu of a proper reading table.

"-a book like this takes precedence over courtesy. Did you realize this is a first edition of Moschelitz's Zoomorphology of the Three Systems? I can't read the Russiche, but I recognize the plates from Ditmars's translation. This original color is so much better!"

"Yes, I do recognize Moschelitz," Adele said drily; though she might not have, and it was a wonder equal to a western sunrise than anybody else on Kostroma did. "You're an information specialist yourself, sir?"

Daniels closed the huge volume with the care its size and age required. He'd taken it from the middle of a stack. It was a knife to Adele's heart that somebody who understood books should know that she'd allowed it to lie with that weight on it simply because the task of organizing this mire of information had daunted her.

"No, not me," Daniels said. His engaging grin slipped a trifle as he-and Adele, from where she stood-looked for a place he could safely put Moschelitz down. "I'm a bit of an amateur naturalist, though. My uncle, Commander Stacey Bergen-perhaps you've heard of him?"

"No, I'm afraid the name's new to me," Adele said. "Here, I'll take that. Perhaps I can store it. . . ."

"At my lodgings," she'd been about to say, but her room was apt to be broken into at any time. If the concierge, Ms. Frick, wasn't a scout for burglars, then her face sadly belied her.

The only safety for the folio was that nobody knew how valuable it was. To that end, leaving it as part of the undifferentiated mass of the library was the best chance of safety.

"I think maybe on that stack there," Daniels said, nodding toward three wooden boxes that Adele hadn't gotten around to opening. They might be filled with business ledgers for all she knew. He didn't hand over the book. "I know it's a little high, but it seems a solid base."

"Yes, all right," Adele said. She couldn't lift the folio down herself without a ladder, but she wasn't likely to need to. Vanness could reach it. . . .

Daniels walked to the piled boxes, stepping over and around other stacks with an ease that Adele envied. Part of being in the navy, she supposed. Certainly the starships on which she'd travelled, even the luxury liner that took her from Cinnabar to Blythe, had been cramped. Warships were probably worse.

Daniels raised the folio over his head, holding it at the balance. He put the book squarely on top of the pile without rubbing the cover on the wood as she'd feared.

"The reason I asked if you'd heard of my uncle," he said as he concentrated on his task, "is that you've a Cinnabar accent yourself. Uncle Stacey had a dozen species named after him by the academics who described specimens he brought back home."

Adele felt her lips tighten. She'd known there was a Cinnabar naval delegation on Kostroma. One of Mistress Bozeman's excuses for delay was her need to refit the wardrobes in the suite assigned to the guests.

In an even tone Adele said, "I was born on Cinnabar, but I haven't lived there in a very long time. I prefer to think of myself as a citizen of the galaxy."

Daniels nodded pleasantly and stepped back from the boxes. "That was my Uncle Stacey too," he said. "Not that he isn't a patriot, and no one ever mistook him for a coward either. He didn't push to get a combat posting, even though he knew as well as anybody that a few battle stars are the surest route to promotion."

He shook his head and laughed. "If I'm ever half the astrogator my uncle is, I'll be proud," he continued. "But this-"

He pinched the breast of his gray uniform, beneath the single drab medal ribbon.

"-is the Republic of Cinnabar Navy, after all. I guess I'm as fit to fight my country's enemies as the next fellow, and if I get promoted for it-"

His smile lit the room.

"-well, that's fine with me too."

Adele didn't laugh with Daniels, but she felt her lips twisting in a grin. He seemed very young. The chances were his attitude would seem young to a person like Adele Mundy even if he were fifty years her senior. Daniels's enthusiasm was infectious, though, and he knew something about books.

She squirmed to the logbooks Vanness had unpacked earlier in the morning. "You might be interested in these," she said, lifting the top one and opening the metal cover. The sheets within were handwritten and for the most part limited to dates and numbers. "They're hardcopy logs of pre-Hiatus vessels. So far as I know-"

And no one but Mistress Boileau herself might know better.

"-no electronic media as old as them survive. Because this ship's officers backed up their computer logs with old-fashioned holograph, we still have a record of the voyages."

Daniels took the log with a reverence due its age-though in fact the nickel-steel case by which he handled it was about as sturdy as the palace's walls. He turned the first page at an angle to the light and read, "San Juan de Ulloa, out of Montevideo. A vessel from Earth herself, mistress, and here we hold it in our hands."

His grin broadened. "Space will teach you something about not trusting equipment no matter how often you've checked it, that's the truth," he added. "If you survive, that is."

"I apologize for the condition of the collection," Adele said bitterly as Daniels scanned sheets one at a time. They'd been filled out loose, then clamped between the covers. "I only arrived three weeks ago, but frankly unless I find a way to get real workmen instead of artists too good to throw up simple shelves, I don't see that the situation will have changed in three years."

A sort of smile-not a pleasant sort-quirked the corner of Adele's tight mouth. "Though of course I won't be here myself," she said. "I'll probably have been executed for murdering a master carpenter, or whatever they do to murderers here."

"They were using the Hjalstrom notational system . . ." Daniels said. "Or a precursor of it, at least. That was supposed to have come from Spraggsund University near the end of the Hiatus."

He closed the metal covers, then looked directly at Adele. "I don't mean to intrude in another citizen's business, mistresss," he said, "but sometimes going outside a bureaucracy is easier than going through it. My manservant Hogg is very good at finding people who can do things. If you'd like him to locate some common carpenters . . . ?"

Adele snorted. The library budget, if there was one, wasn't under her control. On Bryce, Walter's envoys had given her a travel honorarium. By stretching it Adele had managed to survive since her arrival, but no member of the Elector's staff had flatly admitted it was even their responsibility to arrange for the librarian's future pay. At the end of the week her concierge would be looking for the rent, and Adele would very likely be trying to find room for a bedroll here in the chaos.

"I appreciate the offer," she said, "but I regret that I'm not in position to take advantage of it. Unless your man could find the carpenters' wages as well as the carpenters themselves."

Daniels grinned, but there was a serious undertone in his voice as he said, "I really don't dare suggest that, mistress. While I don't think Hogg would be caught, I'm afraid his methods would bring spiritual discredit on a Daniels of Bantry. What Hogg does on his own account is his own business, but if I set him a task . . ."

He laughed again, in good humor but apology.

The world had gone gray around Adele. "You said, 'a Daniels of Bantry,' sir," she said. Her voice too was without color. "You'd be related to Speaker Daniels, then?"

Daniels grimaced. "Oh, yes," he said. "Corder Daniels is my father, though we'd both be willing to deny it. If you mean, 'Will I inherit Bantry,' though, no-I certainly will not."

He tried to smile, but the expression that formed was a mixture of emotions too uncertain to identify. "In the first place, Father looked healthy enough to live another fifty years when I last saw him six years ago. My elder sister is the proper heir anyway-the Danielses don't divide their estates, which is why Bantry is still Bantry. And finally, my father and I are not on terms of intimacy. Or any terms at all."

"I see," Adele said. Her voice came from another place, another time; from the past that had led to this present. If there was a deity, which Adele very much doubted, it had a sense of humor.

She crossed her hands behind her back. "Lieutenant Daniels," she said, "I have a great deal of work to do before this collection is ready for visiting laymen like yourself. You're a Cinnabar citizen and I will presume a gentleman. I therefore request that you cease to trouble me and my staff until such time as the Electoral Library is opened to the public."

Vanness had been standing nearby, listening to the discussion of books and media. His mouth opened in amazement as he turned quickly away. His cheeks were already showing a flush.

Cassian Daniels reddened also. He replaced the logbook on the pile and made a stiff half-bow. "Good morning, mistress," he said. "No doubt we'll meet again."

Daniels strode from the library by a circuitous route to avoid passing close to Adele on his way. He moved with a caged grace.

An interesting fellow, Adele thought as she watched him leave. Bright, knowledgeable, and she'd be the first to admit it had been pleasant to hear a Cinnabar accent again. There hadn't been many on Bryce, not since the war restarted.

And the son of Speaker Corder Daniels.

*****

Cassian Daniels sat on a bench in a terraced formal garden that was probably half a mile from the Elector's Palace. He wasn't sure of the distance or even the direction; he'd simply walked till the adrenaline burned off and he needed to sit.

He hadn't been so angry since the afternoon he broke with his father.

Well-dressed Kostromans, mostly in couples, leaned on railings or sauntered along promenades of limestone figured with white inclusions. The plantings were of exotic species-which meant that Cassian absently recognized several common varieties from Cinnabar as well as other ornamentals which human taste had spread beyond their original worlds. The gardens hadn't been well maintained in at least a decade, but the present ragged profusion had a certain charm.

He'd have to challenge her, of course. The insult had been too deliberate to ignore. He'd take care of that in the next few days. Lieutenant Weisshampl of the Aglaia, the communications vessel that had brought the delegation to Kostroma, would probably act as his second. Weisshampl had served under Uncle Stacey. . . .

The whole business was a black pit that had opened without warning. The librarian's cold insults were as unexpected as a section of cornice falling on Cassian's head. He didn't even know her name!

Well, Weisshampl could probably make due with "Electoral Librarian."

The gardens sloped up from the gate at street level, but a tunnel led down to a grotto within the terraces. Green tile rippled on the tunnel walls and the statuary Cassian could dimly glimpse was of a marine character.

He should have tipped the gatekeeper as he entered the gardens. That official, a real battleaxe of a woman, had stretched out her hand to Cassian-and stepped aside when she looked at his face.

He'd been too angry to spare thought to the gatekeeper's presence or her silent request. God only knew what she'd thought of his scowl. He could pay her when he left, but . . . his purse was very light.

Cassian's mother had died when he was sixteen Terran years old. Corder Daniels had attended her several times during her final lingering illness, though he'd been in Xenos on political business when she died.

Speaker Daniels remarried the day after his first wife's funeral. The bride was Anise, his secretary; a pleasant woman in her forties and very different from the succession of young mistresses whom Cassian had glimpsed wafting in languid beauty through the Daniels townhouse in past years.

Cassian had taken an aircar to Xenos when he heard. He'd had the Devil's own luck not to wreck on the way, and the Devil in his heart in all truth when he confronted his father. He'd called Anise a whore, though she'd mothered him the times he'd come to Xenos and he felt as much affection for her as he did for anybody but his mother and Hogg. He called his father worse, and his father hadn't minced words either. For all the difference in their interests, the Daniels men had the same volcanic temper.

Had Corder and Cassian been any relation but parent and child, there'd have been a duel in the back garden that afternoon. As it was, Cassian left to join the navy as his father behind him bellowed for his attorney.

Four Kostroman laborers were carefully wheeling a handcart holding a Fleyderling in its atmosphere tank down the ramp to the grotto. Humans were in contact with three non-human races which had developed indigenous stardrives. There had never been a conflict between different species: the metabolic requirements were varied enough to make trade difficult and tourism hugely expensive. This Fleyderling must be the equivalent of royalty on its own ammonia world.

There was no shortage of interstellar conflicts within species, of course.

Cassian had never fought a duel. It wasn't the done thing in the country. Oh, there were fellows who were duelists just as there were fellows whose relations with livestock went beyond the normal meaning of animal husbandry. Neither sort were invited to the homes of their neighbors.

Young people entering the Navy School in Xenos were as prickly about their honor as any set of people on the planet. Cinnabar naval officers-cadets were classed as officers for this purpose-needed their commanding officer's approval to fight a duel, and as a matter of rigid policy the Commandant of the Navy School refused all such requests. Cadets could resign their appointments, but those who did so were forever debarred from the service.

That hadn't been a concern for Cassian. He'd gotten along well with his classmates and later with his fellow officers. He hurt no one by choice and helped those he could; not as a matter calculation as his sister did, but because it was the way of life Cassian Daniels found natural.

He supposed he needed Admiral Lasowski's permission to challenge this librarian. The admiral might not want to grant it for diplomatic reasons. If she didn't, Cassian would have the problem of finding his way back to Cinnabar as a private citizen with no funds and no prospects.

Assuming he survived the encounter, of course.

Birds with red throat-sacs trilled as they spun vertical caracoles in the air. At the bottom of their circles they clipped the foliage with their wings. The quick rapping was like rain.

Like a vast black pit, gaping in front of him. He couldn't believe this had happened.

Cassian's flat pocket chronometer binged at him. He looked at the sun with a sigh. Kostroma's days were shorter than Cinnabar's; this one was nearly spent. He was giving a dinner for the Aglaia's junior officers in a hour and a half.

Cassian stood up, feeling a trembling weakness in the long muscles of his thighs. That was reaction to the hormones he hadn't been able to burn off by instant battle in the Electoral Library. He wasn't sure where this garden was. He didn't have a good sense of direction on land despite-or perhaps because of-being a natural astrogator.

He didn't have enough money to pay a jitney driver to take him to his apartment, but Hogg could probably find the amount. Perhaps he'd do that.

Cassian Daniels walked toward the gate and the boulevard beyond. Like a vast black pit . . .

*****

Adele Mundy walked to the data console and seated herself. Her three assistants were whispering among themselves. It was the first time she could remember that the lovers had paid real attention to anything beyond one another's bodies.

The console felt cool beneath her fingertips. She saw it only as a blur. Nothing of this world was in focus, and there was a ball of compressed ice somewhere beneath her rib cage.

The Elector was giving a dinner for dignitaries tonight. Adele was invited. Her electoral office, her high birth, and the fact she was a foreign intellectual all caused her to be added to the guest list.

She'd be at the lowest table in the hall, where the food was likely to be leftovers from the previous day though arranged on an engraved dinner service. Even so, earlier this morning she couldn't have imagined that she'd want to turn down a free meal. No doubt the cold shock would wear off sufficiently for her to eat nonetheless; and she wasn't fool enough to think that her attendance was optional.

The young lieutenant had seemed as open as a garret in summertime. Daniels was a common name on Cinnabar-as was Mundy, for that matter. It hadn't occurred to her to connect the fellow with Speaker Daniels, who'd linked undoubted political unrest to fanciful Alliance plots and funding, then had drowned his fiction in the blood of the Mundys of Chatsworth.

Cassian Daniels might be just as guileless as he seemed. The Daniels family hadn't made its political name so much by subtlety as by the ruthlessness with which its members acted if threatened. Speaker Daniels brooked no half-measures: his proscription covered every Mundy of Chatsworth over the age of twelve. When inevitably a number of younger children were killed as well, the Speaker added their names to the original list.

Adele hadn't been close to her parents, but she knew they were Cinnabar patriots. They were no more likely to take Alliance money than they were to sacrifice infants to Satan!

And yet . . .

Adele's eyes hurt. She'd sat in a brown study, unseeing but not blinking to wipe her corneas with the necessary moisture and lubricant either. She closed her eyes and rubbed them, then looked grim-faced around the library.

The assistants had gone back to their affairs; literally, in the case of the couple. Vanness was industriously digging out volumes of bound broadsheets from the past century, works which had nothing but size in common with Moschelitz. A good-hearted soul; probably too stupid ever to handle research questions, but the perfect man to shelve works properly when they were returned.

And yet . . .

Adele's parents would never have accepted Alliance help, but some of the others proscribed with the Mundys wouldn't have been so scrupulous. Samir Chandra Das was a high-living lecher whose only choices were bankruptcy or an immediate change in the political establishment and the cancellation of debts. Adele had known that even at sixteen; and had known Chandra Das as well, because he was a frequent visitor to Chatsworth.

The Parvennys; Rhadymantus of Selbourne; the Marcomann brothers, shipping magnates who'd been hit hard by bad investments-all of them proscribed as members of the Three Circles Conspiracy, all of them intimates of Adele's parents and elder kin.

Adele slammed the heel of her right hand against the console. The tough casing bonged without injury. Vanness hunched his shoulders; the lovers' whispering paused, then resumed.

There was a pistol in Adele Mundy's pocket, a flat weapon of Cinnabar manufacture. She carried it on Kostroma as a sensible precaution for a woman who because of poverty walked home alone at night to lodgings in a bad district.

But the reason she owned the gun and could blow the head off a rat at fifty meters with it-was because of her training as a child. Her parents had been determined that every Mundy of Chatsworth would be able to take a place at the barricades on the day the people gained power and the reactionaries came to take it away from them.

Marksmanship hadn't helped her parents when an armored vehicle crushed through the front wall of the Mundy townhouse. Marksmanship hadn't helped Adele's ten-year-old sister Agatha either, though what happened to her was later, and slower, and much worse. Nothing could justify what had happened to Agatha.

Adele closed her eyes. She couldn't remember ever crying as an adult. People said crying was healthy, that it made them feel better. Perhaps. Personally Adele thought the folk who talked that way were fuzzy-minded weaklings, just as likely to advocate prayer to nature spirits or a diet of bark infusions as a route to health, but perhaps they were right.

It didn't affect Adele Mundy, though. She didn't cry, any more than she took her clothes off to dance on tables. What she did do, what she must do, was prepare this collection for . . .

The door opened. Adele opened her eyes and turned.

The two journeyman carpenters and Master Carpenter Bozeman entered the library. Ms. Bozeman wore a green velvet robe and carried a meterstick plated with one of the noble metals to give it a dull, eternal sheen. Her juniors carried two shelves, this time. The material was veneer-quality hardwood which had been polished as smooth as the meterstick.

"Good afternoon, mistress librarian," Bozeman said in a rasping bellow. She was a big woman with a florid face and hair in ringlets beneath her beret. She'd put on the formal garb of her status before coming to ram her point of view down the foreigner's throat. "We've come to set the first pair of shelves for you."

Adele got up and walked toward the trio. She should be getting into formal wear for the dinner herself, but first things first.

The journeymen had entered in front of their superior. Now they moved to Ms, Bozeman's other side.

"I believe we've had this discussion before, master carpenter," Adele said in a pleasant tone. She owed Daniels a good deal for reminding her of who she was.

"I hope you've come to your-" Mistress Bozeman said.

Adele gripped the meterstick and pulled it from the carpenter's hand. She turned and flung the symbol of rank through a window. The sash exploded in shards of glass and splintered wood. More work for the carpenters, Adele supposed.

"We aren't going to go over the subject again," she said, "We're going to go to your shop now, and then we're going to take all this lovely and unsuitable wood to a supplier who can provide what I need to do my job. Do you understand, Ms. Bozeman?"

Adele was approximately half the size of the carpenter. Her smile was genuine because at last she'd seen that the obvious path out of her dilemma was to assert her authority-in the certainty that she had no authority if she didn't assert it.

Bozeman's mouth worked; it was surprisingly small and bow-shaped in a face that otherwise resembled a pie. No words came out. She wiped her empty hands on her robe, crushing splotches in the velvet. She turned in sudden fury on her journeymen and snarled, "Come along, you damned fools! Do you expect me to carry lumber?"

Adele turned to her own staff. "And you lot come as well," she said. "Donkey work is probably all you're good for, but that's what's required today."

"That's not our job!" one of the lovers protested.

Adele felt her face change with the suddenness of ice slipping from a sunlit roof. "Am I not a Mundy of Chatsworth?" she shouted. "If I hear any more insolence, the one who speaks will take the field with me if they've any blood to be worth my bullet! And if not, I'll find a whip that works as well on two-legged beasts as any other. I swear it!"

The carpenters had already scuttled from the disordered room. Vanness opened his mouth. Adele pointed her finger at his face. He swallowed and padded out of the library with the other two assistants.

Adele closed the door behind her. "This work is a matter touching my honor," she said to the Kostromans' backs. "I advise you to remember that. If to put it right I must shoot the whole lot of you and start over with a staff that knows what it's doing, then I'll do just that. Depend on it!"

One of the lovers had started to whimper. The other moved away so as not to be caught in any thunderbolt that resulted.

There should be time to transfer the lumber before the dinner, Adele thought; and if not, well, she'd be late. That was a prerogative of a Mundy.

*****

Cassian Daniels stood and raised his glass. "Fellow officers," he said, "I give you the Aglaia. May she always rejoice in good officers!"

Hogg watched beaming from the hallway. He'd taken over the landlord's kitchen to prepare dinner for the Aglaia's four junior commissioned officers-Captain Le Golif was at the Elector's dinner in Cassian's place.

Cassian couldn't afford red meat at Kostroman prices and Hogg was, truth to tell, no more than a passable cook, but matters had gone well. The pilaf had been adequate, and Bantry was a coastal estate. Nothing could have better trained Hogg to prepare a meal on Kostroma, a planet where fish was the staple and there was almost no land more than fifty miles from the sea.

Besides, the wine was excellent.

"And may Admiral Martina bloody Lasowski leave the ship's officers to do their jobs on the voyage home!" muttered Lt. Mon. His steward had filled about three glasses to every two for the other officers dining.

They all drank. Wonderful wine, absolutely wonderful.

Three hours in the company of the Aglaia's two lieutenants and two midshipmen had returned Cassian's normal sunny disposition. The wine hadn't hurt his mood either. No sir, not in the least.

Lt Weisshampl belched, stared at her empty glass for a moment, and thought to pat her lips with her napkin.

"Maybe we could lock down the blast door in the corridor to the passenger suites?" said Midshipman Cassanos, a fresh-faced youth of eighteen on his first commission.

Midshipman Whelkine was female, a year older, and had never given Cassian a real smile in the three weeks he'd known her on shipboard. Her hands clenched on her glass when Cassanos spoke, but that wasn't necessarily a response to the words. Whelkine's skills were well above the norm for officers at her level of experience, but Cassian had never before met anyone as fearful of putting a foot wrong.

"Midshipmen with interest," Mon said, fixing Cassanos with eyes like two obsidian knives, "should have sense enough not to insult admirals who can spike any chance of command assignment for those midshipmen in future years. Do you understand me, Cassanos?"

Cassanos stiffened in his seat, flushing with embarrassment. "Sir," he said. "I spoke out of turn. I humbly ask the pardon of our host and the assembly."

"Did you say something, Cassanos?" Cassian said as he sat down carefully. "Nobody here heard you, I'm sure."

Mon's reaction was kindness, not hypocrisy. He was the second lieutenant of RCS Aglaia, a communications vessel with a light cruiser's hull and masts but the armament of only a corvette. Space normally given over to weapons and magazines provided passenger suites comparable to an admiral's accommodation on a First-Class battleship. The delegates to Kostroma travelled swiftly and in the luxury befitting their rank, but without tying up an important naval asset and putting the nose of Elector Walter III out of joint.

Mon's skills as an officer were respected or he wouldn't have a berth on a showpiece like the Aglaia; but he didn't have interest, and he hadn't had either the flair or the good fortune to get a command slot in other ways. Mon would be promoted, slowly but steadily, through a series of staff and ground positions till he retired . . . unless drink and bitterness led him to say something that the RCN couldn't overlook.

Cassanos had a chance. Mon didn't want the boy to lose it through the misfortune of aping a loser like himself.

A steward filled Cassian's glass. The servants were from the Aglaia's staff, attending this dinner through some arrangement Hogg had made with the purser. Hogg had provided the wine also. As usual he hadn't volunteered information about his source of supply and Cassian had determinedly refused to ask. Cassian was scrupulous about the provenance of his normal fare, but this dinner was a matter of honor. If he knew that Hogg had raided Admiral Lasowski's private stock, he'd have to do something about it.

"I served under Lasowski when she was captain of the Thunderer," Lt. Weisshampl said. The wine in her refilled glass was the rusty color of a dried cherry; she stared with solemn intensity at the highlights on its surface. "A cautious officer. Not a person to trust a subordinate to do her job-but fair, wouldn't invent a problem if there wasn't one. Just cautious."

Technically the Aglaia's crew weren't subordinate to Admiral Lasowski in the chain of command. The admiral and her staff were passengers on the RCS Aglaia, a vessel under the command of Captain Le Golif. Nobody who'd ever met an admiral believed that would be the reality, but Cassian knew the Aglaia's situation was worse than most.

As Weisshampl said, Admiral Lasowski was a cautious officer-but she was also a person who used minutiae to settle her mind from the pressures of her real duties. Lasowski had the responsibility of satisfying Walter III with arrangements on which her honor would ride, but she knew also that the Cinnabar Senate would repudiate those arrangements if a majority if its members believed that was best for the Republic.

The Elector of Kostroma, an autocrat (albeit one who faced recall at gunpoint at any moment), would know only that Martina Lasowski had made untrue statements to him. Officers of the RCN, also an autocracy, were likely in their heart of hearts to view matters much the same way. Admiral Lasowski would have to resign, disgraced at the climax of a previously successful-if cautious-career.

"Being between the Senate and a dictator who needs money," Cassian said aloud, "would make anybody pace the decks. They just don't happen to be her decks, is all."

The admiral was no particular friend of his. She'd made it clear that Lt. Daniels had replaced her godson in the delegation by the decision of persons with whom she disagreed. For all that, she'd ignored Cassian rather than working at making his life hell. Cassian liked most people, and Lasowski hadn't given him reason to add her to the short list of those he didn't.

"The way to make that tinpot Kostroman see reason," Lt. Mon said, "is to park a battleship in orbit over the palace until he decides there's nothing he'd rather do than kiss our bum. God and all His saints! How long does Walter think there'd be a Kostroman merchant fleet if we declared him an enemy?"

"Now that," Cassanos said, coming to life again, "would mean serious prize money!"

Cassian felt his eyes glaze with the thought of the sudden wealth that could accrue to even a junior lieutenant if hundreds of rich transports became fair targets before they could reach neutral ports. That was dream wealth, though; there'd never been any doubt that the Reciprocity Agreement would be renewed. Even if it weren't, Kostroma wouldn't become a hostile power.

"I was posted from the Hemphill to the inspections department at Harbor Three," Mon recalled with morose savagery. "I hadn't been off the books three days when the Hemphill took a transport trying to run four thousand tons of fullerenes into Pleasaunce. And then, instead of a combat tour I'm sent to squire around Admiral Pain-In-the-Ass Lasowski!"

"I understood you to be discussing your hemorrhoids, Mon," Weisshampl said to her junior. "If that isn't what you said, you might want to think about sleeping off the cargo you've taken on board tonight."

"I'm all right," Mon muttered to his glass. "I'll watch my tongue."

The Aglaia had an unusual number of officers for a complement of 180 ratings. A corvette of that crew would be under the command of a lieutenant who might be the only commissioned officer aboard. On some small vessels the missileer stood watches, even though that warrant officer wasn't a spacer like the Chief of Ship and Chief of Rig.

Even so, meddling by an admiral passenger, which might be bearable on a battleship with a crew of a thousand, would stretch a saint's patience on the Aglaia. Lasowski had inspected the ratings' quarters not once but twice on the voyage out. The only way to escape her was to climb one of the masts which drove the vessel through sponge space. Cassian had frequently done just that, but the option wasn't open to the officers standing watch.

A ship preparing to enter sponge space with its masts extended in all directions looked like a sea urchin. The mast tips formed the points determining the size and shape of the field against which Cassini energy pressed. The plasma motors were shut down as soon as the ship left the atmosphere; the High Drive was at low output to provide maneuvering way. The masts weren't stressed for anything approaching 1g acceleration when spread.

When the charge and alignment of the masts was correct, the vessel slipped into the fourth-dimensional Matrix in which the cells of sponge space coexisted. Rather than enter another universe, the ship itself became a separate universe. Its progress in respect to the sidereal universe was again a matter of the masts' alignment and charge.

Navigational tables provided a starship's commander with basic instructions, but the Matrix through which she guided her bubble universe could not be directly sensed. An astrogator used the minute rise and fall in mast charges to plot variations in the Matrix and the corresponding change in the ship's relation to the sidereal universe.

A really successful astrogator had a sense that, like perfect pitch, went beyond skill and training. That astrogator's mind saw into the matrix. His runs were faster, her planetfalls more precise, and when he voyaged beyond the existing charts she brought her ship back.

Commander Stacey Bergen was an astrogator whose reputation inspired deserved awe in others, his nephew included. But with a quiet and never-spoken assurance very different from the pride that also was a part of his character, Cassian Daniels felt he was as able an astrogator as anyone he'd ever met except his Uncle Stacey.

Lt. Weisshampl got to her feet with a slow grace that belied the amount she'd had to drink. She was a tall woman with the features of someone more petite. Her parents had some status but no money; an aunt, however, had married wealth and provided Weisshampl with the support an officer needed beyond RCN pay.

She raised her glass. "Fellow officers," she said, "I give you Command. May she come to all of us, and may we prove worthy of her!"

"By God, yes!" Cassanos said and gulped his wine. Cassian blinked, for the midshipman's words were those he'd caught before they reached his own lips.

Lt. Mon drank with a face like a raincloud. He lowered his empty glass and gripped it in both hands as if to strangle it and himself as well.

"Would the master like me to bring in the brandy?" Hogg murmured in Cassian's ear.

"Brandy?" Cassian repeated. The unexpected word dragged him from a fantasy in which Admiral Cassian Daniels stood on the steps of the Senate House to receive the acclaim of an adoring nation.

"I thought it'd go well now, sir," Hogg said with a satisfied grin. He wore clean clothes, a loose green shirt over blue trousers with a red cummerbund to tie the ensemble together. Shaving had been neglected in his care to prepare the dinner. Hogg looked like a cheerful pirate at the moment, which was pretty much the reality as well.

"It'll go very well indeed, Hogg," Cassian said. "Bring on the brandy!"

He leaned back in his chair, a heavy thing of plush and dark wood borrowed from the landlord. He was at peace with the world.

Some time in the distant past a librarian having a bad day had said something that Cassian must have misinterpreted. Who could be angry about such things when life was a wonderful thing, shadowed only by the absence of command?

Command would come, as surely as good fellowship and good wine and the stars themselves had come to Cassian Daniels!

*****

The Grand Salon where the Elector held formal dinners rose the full height of the Palace's second and third stories, with a rebated clerestory above that. The ceiling was a single enormous fresco, but the light wasn't good enough for Adele Mundy to see more than a hint of bare limbs and flowing drapery.

She'd have liked a better view, but since she hadn't bothered to visit the salon in daylight she didn't suppose that her interest could be as great as all that. Primarily she was feeling the utter boredom of the gathering.

"Now . . ." said the man to her left, a provisions merchant from Kostroma City and the only person seated below Adele at the fourth and lowest table of the dinner. "This is egg salad, of course-"

He wiggled a dab of vaguely peach-colored matter on his fork; Adele wasn't sure that "of course" would have been a phrase she used in the identification.

"-but what kind of egg, I ask you? Not hen as you might think, but domesticated Kostroman Diamondtail!"

"Pardon me, mistress," said the member of the Alliance delegation on Adele's right. He was a husky, dark-haired fellow in his forties who'd said his name was Markos. He spoke Academy-grade Universal with a rasping undertone of the Pleasaunce slums. "I believe I've been seated higher than my proper precedence should have allowed. Please accept my apology and change places with me."

"I'm sure-" Adele began, then caught herself. "Ah."

Even if Markos were a junior clerk as he'd claimed, he should have been higher as a simple matter of diplomatic checkers. At the head table Admiral Lasowski sat to the Elector's right while the Alliance chief of mission was on the left of Walter's mistress, looking sour. Not only had the Cinnabar envoy been given precedence, an admiral's dress uniform with six full rows of medals and a gorget of honor at the throat completely upstaged the robes of the Alliance civilian.

The order at the two middle tables was reversed. A grandnephew of Guarantor Porra, a peacock in full plumage, sat at the top while the Cinnabar civil head was two places below him; likewise the two naval captains at table three, an Alliance delegate sitting above Le Golif of the Aglaia-not properly a member of the Cinnabar mission, but present in Lt. Daniels's place.

It was proper that at table four the mid-ranking functionary from the Cinnabar Navy Office restore balance by being seated higher than Markos; but no member of the delegations for whom the banquet was arranged should have been so low. The notion that Markos should really have been below the Electoral Librarian was ludicrous, a piece of gallantry which Adele knew her looks didn't justify and nothing else could justify.

"Yes, thank you for your courtesy, sir," she said as she rose with Markos to trade places. She could deal with whatever lay beneath the surface of the fellow's offer when it appeared. For now, the important thing was that Adele no longer sat next to the merchant, whose invitation had evidently been bartered for the food. Adele had begun to doubt that even a free meal would be worth another five minutes of the Kostroman's rambling boredom.

Adele sat down. Servants were already removing the settings for this course, so there was no need for her and Markos even to trade flatware.

She heard her former neighbor address a question in his inevitable nasal whine. "I'm sorry, sir," Markos said in a loud voice. "I'm deaf in my left ear and I can't hear a word you say."

When Adele had gotten the new data console running three days before, she'd tested its connection to the palace net by accessing the guest list for the banquet to which she'd just received an invitation. The information was protected, but what passed for protection on Kostroma was child's play for Adele with an extremely powerful processor at her service. She had a talent for information retrieval and training at the most advanced center for the purpose in the human universe.

Markos was not an invited guest at the time she'd checked the list. The Alliance delegate at table four was supposed to be Captain Crowell, a female ground-forces officer; and she should have been two seats down from the Cinnabar bureaucrat.

An ensemble of Kostroman flautists playing both straight and transverse instruments stood on an internal balcony at second-floor level. Their music echoed as a high, insectile overtone in the huge room. Adele found the effect surprisingly pleasant when mixed with conversation and the clink of the dinner service.

A light-skinned, tow-haired servant, a native of one of the impoverished northern islands, set the next course in front of Adele. It was minced something on a bed of lettuce. Kostroman lizard was her best guess, but some of the planet's insect equivalents got very large also.

Beggars can't be choosers, and the tiny portions hadn't yet managed to slake the fires of three weeks of hunger. Adele took a bite and found the meat tasteless but the sauce intriguingly spicy.

"Do you keep in touch with Mistress Boileau, mistress?" Markos asked pleasantly.

Adele's head jerked sideways. Markos took another forkful of food, his attention apparently focused on his meal. He glanced toward her with her a bland smile.

Aloud Adele said, "I haven't as yet. When I settle in"-she suppressed a grim smile-"I'll let her know how things are going."

She cut a wedge from the mince, noting with pleasure that the fork didn't tremble in her fingers. "You haven't been on Kostroma long, Mr. Markos?" she added. She turned to look at him again, her lips wearing the muted smile of strangers talking at a dinner party.

Markos's expression didn't change, but shutters closed behind his eyes. Adele chewed with tiny movements of her jaw. The food was sawdust now.

He's deciding what to say. Whether to tell the truth or to lie, and if a lie-which one.

Oh, she knew the type very well. They came to the Collections not infrequently-and trembled since they couldn't use a system so complex without help, but they feared to ask for help because their questions could become weapons to use against them. They were folk to whom the truth was always a thing to be determined on the basis of advantage, never spoken for its own sake.

"Only a matter of hours, mistress," Markos said with a tinge of grudging approval in his tone. "I arrived on the Goetz von Berlichingen this afternoon. Perhaps you saw us land? The dispatch vessel."

"I was busy in the palace all day," Adele said truthfully. "I have no interest in anything that takes place beyond the library. Not that I could tell one ship from another anyway."

She went back to her meal, wishing that she could taste it. Markos had proved he knew her background to see how she'd react; she'd reacted by showing that she knew things about him also. Because of the sort of person he was, Markos would twist like a worm on the hook of how much Adele Mundy knew about him. It should keep him from picking at her during the remainder of the dinner.

In fact Adele knew almost nothing, and certainly she didn't know the answer that mattered most to her. It was inevitable that the Alliance delegation would include a high-level intelligence agent.

What Adele really wanted to know was why the agent had arranged to be seated next to her.

*****

The latrine was in the apartment building's courtyard, adjacent to the kitchen facilities. Cassian opened the latrine door and stepped out, feeling a great deal easier than he had a few moments before. He'd had a strong temptation to walk onto his suite's minuscule balcony to save himself a trip down the unlighted stairs.

He wouldn't have been the first, of that he was sure, but naval training had held. Personal hygiene was a matter of greater concern in a starship's close quarters than anyone raised on a country estate could imagine.

Hogg was in the kitchen, removing another bottle of brandy from the locked pantry. He grinned at Cassian, bobbed his head in salute, and said, "The arrangements 're to your taste, I hope, sir?"

"Hogg, you're the wonder of the universe," Cassian said. He bowed to the servant in drunken formality. A naval officer was never too drunk to carry out his duties. . . .

Though that raised a question that Cassian supposed he had to address sometime. "But say, Hogg," he said. There was enough still to drink upstairs that his guests weren't going to miss him-or the fresh bottle-for a minute longer. "I don't mean to complain, but are there going to be questions raised about . . . ?"

He dipped his chin in what could be read as a gesture toward the brandy bottle.

"Oh, don't worry yourself, sir," Hogg said. He eyed the bottle with critical pride. "They'll all be filled, resealed so's the vineyard couldn't tell, and put back neat as you please. The local slosh is plenty good for a jumped-up grocer like Admiral Lasowski anyhow."

Cassian grimaced. He thought of saying something about the unopened bottle, but he decided that would be too much like refusing to kiss the girl goodbye in the morning.

"Ah, not to pry . . . ?" he said instead, prying. Compliance of the purser and stewards in something this blatant couldn't simply have been bought.

"One of the stewards thought she could play poker," said Hogg with a reminiscent smile. "She and her buddies fleeced me all the way out from Cinnabar in florin-limit games, they did. When we got here, I told them I'd gotten into my master's private funds and could play for real money."

Cassian snorted. "My private funds would just about stretch to a florin-limit game, that's so," he said.

"Ah, but they didn't know," Hogg said. "Take my word for it, sir: the best investment you can make is convincing some snooty bastard that he knows what really he don't know. The stewards got the purser to back them with the big money, so that made things a good deal simpler."

Oh, yes. A purser dipping into his ship's accounts could spend the rest of his life on a prison asteroid. That was much more of a problem than questions about a dozen bottles of wine souring on a long voyage.

Cassian laughed loudly. He eyed the stairs, then said, "Go on ahead, Hogg. I'm going to wait a minute to let my head clear before I navigate my way up."

Hogg bobbed again obsequiously and shuffled away on the narrow treads. The servant had probably drunk as much as any member of the dinner party, but he had a lifetime of training besides his barrel-shaped body with plenty of mass to stabilize the alcohol. Cassian drank like a naval officer, but Hogg drank like an admiral.

Two women came out of the landlord's apartments, talking quickly in a local dialect. They were heavily muffled; in the darkness Cassian wasn't sure whether they were sisters, nieces, or some combination. He walked farther into the courtyard so as not to be loitering at the door of the latrine.

Kostroma City had no street lighting, and the citizens shuttered their windows at night. The stars shone as bright as they did in Bantry, but they weren't the stars of Cassian's childhood. The "bird" flitting around the eaves tracked its prey by heat-sensitive pits in its snout, not echo location like its equivalent nightflyers on Cinnabar and Earth.

Even Kostroma's seawater tasted strange on Cassian's tongue. It was tinged with a different mixture of salts and less of them in total than the fluid that lapped the shore of Bantry.

Anger and Uncle Stacey's stories had taken Cassian Daniels far from home. Standing here in the night, though, he knew he'd found another home: the stars in all their wonderful profusion.

*****

Adele nibbled through the dozen thin slices of meats and vegetables set before her on a wooden skewer with charred tips. The provisions merchant had listed the ingredients in a voice pitched to be heard by the aristocrat from a minor island seated across from him. If Adele heard correctly-gathering information was instinctive for her, both a blessing and a curse-one of the slices was "poisonous love-apple."

She smiled despite herself. "Poisonous" would cover most of the love affairs she'd seen played out; though that was a subject of which she had only academic knowledge or interest.

They'd consumed twenty-two of the menu's thirty dishes. Because Adele had never attended a Kostroman banquet before, she hadn't realized each dish would be a separate course. At this rate it would be well after midnight before the gathering concluded.

Most of the guests were accompanied by an aide who stood near the main doorway, chatting with others in the same boring circumstances. If a message came for the guest, a palace servant informed the aide, who in turn passed the information on to his or her principal. Occasionally a diner rose after such a consultation and left the salon to deal with the crisis.

Much more frequently a guest staggered out to the temporary toilet facilities curtained off in the hallway. Kostroman society was very advanced in many respects, but Adele considered the sanitary arrangements of even the ruling class to be barely minimal.

The menu hadn't listed the ocean of wines, beers, and distilled liquor that flowed with the food, probably because that went without saying on Kostroma. Adele had neither a taste nor the head for alcohol; she would have drunk with great care even if this function were not a matter of her duty as a member of the Elector's staff.

Part of the reason for the banquet was to honor the two delegations bidding for Kostroma's friendship-and to put them on their mettle by bringing them face to face in public. Equally important from the Elector's point of view was to display his power to the politically important folk of Kostroma. Most of the two hundred guests were Kostromans being shown to be subservient to Walter III.

Because collating information was Adele's life as well as her vocation, she found the actual order of precedence at the tables to differ strikingly from that planned in the original guest list. Something had gone seriously wrong within the ruling coalition.

Kostroman political life was a shuffling of clans which were more or less congruent with individual islands. Kostroma Island was a melting pot where virtually all the politicians lived, but those worthies had their power bases elsewhere on the planet.

Walter III had come to power through an alliance of his Hajas clan with the chief personages of the Zojiras, another large clan. Both major parties had collaterals, minor clans that looked to them for leadership and protection and which in turn could supply support and manpower.

The winning coalition had shared out offices following Walter's victory. Adele's staff was a typical mixture of folk owing allegiance to either Hajas or Zojira, granted their places for reasons that had nothing to do with their enthusiasms or their ability to make a library function.

Adele didn't know the banquet guests by sight-she knew almost no one on the planet-but all of them wore their clan colors as collar flashes or in their headgear. The Zojiras and their collaterals were consistently three places below where they'd been seated in the original plan. The change was minor in one sense-the food was the same, whichever chair the diner sat in. In context the change was comparable to shifting a decimal point in an equation.

The woman to Adele's immediate right was a Zojira collateral; her beret was quartered orange and horizon blue, but the pompon topping it was Zojira black and yellow to indicate affiliation. She was well-dressed and had put more emphasis on style than on cost, but Adele knew nothing else about her. The woman had sat with rage mottling her complexion throughout the meal. At a guess, she should have been sitting above the Hajas supporter now two places to her right.

Between the silently contemplative Markos and the silently furious woman on the other side, Adele was having a quiet meal. Her lips quirked in a tiny smile. She couldn't complain about being bored during dinner either. Boredom was one of those things that improved with absence.

"Now, many of my competitors make the sauce from any fish at all," whined the provisions merchant. "Fish parts I suspect in-"

Leonidas Zojira, the head of the clan, leaped to his feet at the high table. The servant behind him prevented his chair from hitting the floor with a crash. Not to be balked of a scene, Leonidas picked up his plate and hurled it into the serving tray. He stalked toward the hallway doors.

As though Leonidas had snagged a line, scores of other diners got up. All wore black and gold either as their primary colors or as quarterings. The woman beside Adele stood, leaned forward deliberately, and spat in the dish of her Hajas rival before she joined the exodus from the Grand Salon.

"Rather to be expected," Markos said to Adele in tones of suave amusement. The trouble appeared to have restored his good humor. "The whole history of Kostroma indicates that no alliance lasts much longer than the common enemy. A mercurial folk, the Kostromans."

The table decorations were stemless flowers floating in silver bowls. In reflection, Adele saw the Alliance spy waggle a finger toward the main doors. A youngish woman came toward him from the gaggle of aides there. She wore Kostroman business dress, out of place to a degree among the bright livery of those with whom she'd been waiting.

The woman bent over Markos and whispered in his ear. He nodded solemnly and said to Adele, "You'll have to excuse me, Mistress Mundy. My secretary tells me I have an urgent call. Perhaps we'll meet again."

"Good day," Adele said without inflection. She watched Markos leave the hall with a lengthening stride.

The Cinnabar "Navy Office" functionary was already out the door because he hadn't bothered with the fiction of being summoned by an aide. If Adele hadn't seen Markos's gesture, even she might have accepted his charade at face value.

The Alliance and Cinnabar delegates were frantically signaling for their aides. Le Golif of the Aglaia looked startled and concerned. He wasn't a diplomat, and he had no idea what had happened.

Adele went back to the dish which had been put before her at the instant of the Zojira exodus. It was sliced vegetables in a very spicy red sauce; she wouldn't have guessed the sauce had anything to do with fish were it not for the merchant's description.

She didn't suppose the fuss would affect her task one way or the other. Vanness, the only assistant she'd have made an effort to keep, was a Hajas; by the same token, Bracey was a Zojira collateral and she'd already dismissed him herself.

Kostroman politics were a concern for foreign intelligence agents, not for librarians. . . .

*****

Aircars were common enough on Kostroma that the sound of one approaching probably wouldn't have interrupted the drinking if Lt. Mon hadn't recognized the fan note. "That's one of ours, by God!" he said.

The midshipmen sat at the end of the table nearer the balcony, but they'd drunk themselves almost legless. The three lieutenants proved their greater capacity, professional as well as alcoholic, by getting onto the balcony almost simultaneously despite the litter of chairs, glasses, and Midshipman Cassanos on the floor behind them.

The Aglaia carried a quartet of ducted-fan aircars, an unusually high number for a naval vessel but in keeping with the expected mission of a communications ship. The duty car, 73 on the bulbous forward fan nacelle, idled up the street while a rating checked building fronts with a spotlight.

"Here we are!" Mon bellowed. The balcony flexed; Cassian hadn't thought more than two people would fit on it, but that had been when he was sober. "Aglaia!"

The spotlight swept them at leg level, illuminating but not blinding the officers. The car angled closer, keeping slightly above second-floor level.

"Sir!" called the petty officer behind the light. He bellowed to be heard over the fans' whooshing intake. "Lieutenant Mon is to take a cutter up and launch a message cell. The middies are to round up crewmen on leave, and Lieutenant Weisshampl will hold the ship in readiness for the captain's return!"

Cassian relaxed-as much as anyone could, squeezed so tight that the railing creaked. Something had happened, but it couldn't have been too serious if Le Golif himself hadn't reported back. This was diplomatic excitement, not the kind of emergency in which lives or the very ship herself depend on fast action. It was more important to finish a formal dinner.

"Bring the boat close," Weisshampl ordered with the decisiveness expected of a naval officer. "We'll board from here."

The aircar dipped toward them. If the crewmen aboard had an opinion of the idea, it wasn't theirs to question.

Weisshampl put her right foot on the low railing. The railing toppled with her into the street ten feet below. Weisshamp rotated a perfect 270 degrees in the air, landing flat on her back on the stone pavement.

The aircar bobbled back and dropped to the street. "Cancel that order!" Weisshampl roared. She started to get up, then turned to vomit so that the street's slight camber would carry the ejecta away from her uniform.

Cassian nodded approvingly as he clung to the transom. Weisshampl was a real professional, no question about it.

He turned. The stewards were shepherding Cassanos and Whelkine down the stairs. The gentleness of the process was a positive commentary on the way the Aglaia's ratings regarded the midshipmen. Lt. Mon walked behind them alone. He had a sort of funereal grace, holding a glass of brandy with the dignity owed a communion chalice.

Hogg eyed the debris of the party. There was no breakage except for the railing, some glasses, and a chair. The latter hadn't been in good shape even before Cassian trampled it on his way to the balcony. "In twenty minutes we'll have it clean as your mother's parlor, sir," he said judiciously. "That's if we have a clear field, I mean."

He quirked an eyebrow at Cassian to drive home the point that the master would be very much in the way of the clean-up.

The aircar's crew had loaded Lt. Weisshampl onto the open vehicle's middle seat. The midshipmen entered the street under their own power, though stewards were hovering nearby. Cassanos raised his foot to step over the car's low side. He lost his balance, pirouetted on one foot, and fell backward into the rearmost section. Whelkine toppled directly on top of him.

Mon entered the middle section. His drink sloshed as he eased Weisshampl to the side. "Whee!" cried Midshipman Whelkine. "I've got brandy on my butt!"

The dinner might have loosened Whelkine up to a useful extent, Cassian thought. Assuming she didn't hang herself out of embarrassment when she sobered in the morning.

"Home, James!" Weisshampl commanded from where she lay. The aircar skidded forward on surface effect, then rose in a turn with the fans screaming.

Petty officers would have to coddle the midshipmen who'd be nominally in command of the parties calling in leave-men, but that wouldn't be either a problem or the first time. Cassian could remember the night only the grip of a husky rating on each elbow had kept him navigating the Strip outside Harbor #3, searching for no-shows who were a great deal less drunk than he was.

He returned his attention to the waiting servant. "I'm going to take a stroll down to the docks, Hogg," he said. "I'll watch the cutter lift, and then I'll see if I can find some other entertainment. You needn't wait up for me."

Hogg pursed his lips in whiskery concern. "You'll be alone, then, sir?" he asked. "One of the stewards here-"

"I'll be alone," Cassian said, just as firmly as Weisshampl had spoken before she toppled into the street, "until I find that other entertainment. Carry on, Hogg!"

He strode toward the staircase with a martial stride; and, because Hogg snatched the remains of the chair out of the way, Cassian didn't trip and plunge down those stairs nose first.

*****

The gardens behind the Electoral Place were unlighted except for the lamp hanging in front of the shelter where a dozen guards chewed tobacco and complained of being bored. They watched Adele pass without concern. If she'd been trying to enter the palace they might have challenged her; and again, they might not. Boredom created apathy, and apathy swallowed first initiative and then life itself.

Adele smiled. She'd always found whatever she was doing to be extremely interesting. Her experience didn't include standing in one place and expecting nothing to happen, but there was no lack of other ways to spend one's existence. The guards would probably say that their duties were better than having a real job, but Adele was by no means sure they were correct.

First initiative, then life . . .

The vast black mass of the palace was between her and the vehicles arriving for the other guests, but even so she had a hint of the pomp of the leavetaking. Most of the foreigners and a good third of the Kostromans at the banquet came and left in aircars, either personally owned or hired for the event. Their lights swam across the sky in temporary constellations, multicolored and blinking. Even the guests who used ground vehicles or canal boats appointed like yachts made the air waver with searchlight beams to advertise their importance.

Adele wove past the construction vehicles and locked equipment trailers parked along the rear driveway. The clutter must have complicated deliveries of food for the banquet. The whole area reminded her of the floor of the library.

Walter III was renovating portions of the palace and changing the garden layout as well. Were his other projects as ill-conceived as his creation of an Electoral Library?

An aircar cruised by a thousand feet overhead. Its klaxon grunted over the howl of its drive fans. The racket was unpleasant at ground level and must be downright hideous for the occupants of the car, but pride would be served. The owner could have gained even more attention by painting himself-or herself!-blue and dancing nude in the Grand Salon; though as fat as the banquet guests tended to be, the result might have been even more unaesthetic than the klaxon.

She reached the back of the gardens. The right half of the wrought iron gate was missing, a casualty of the night Walter Hajas became Elector. "Hey!" called one of the guards as Adele walked by.

She threw up her right hand so that the light aimed at her face didn't leach away all of her night vision. "I'm a guest going home," she said and resumed her brisk pace in the direction of her lodgings.

"Don't you have a lantern?" a guard called.

"No," she said without slowing or turning her head.

A light would make her a target. By walking close to the darkened buildings she would be past muggers before they were aware of her presence. If they chose to come after her, then, well . . . her left hand was in her pocket, and it wasn't empty.

The carpenters were sorted out, though she'd revisit the cabinet shop in the morning to make sure Mistress Bozeman hadn't had second thoughts. The crew had the proper materials, now; enough for a start at least.

Three workmen-two, in all likelihood; the Master Carpenter still wasn't going to get shavings on her robes-weren't enough to accomplish anything quickly, and the journeymen weren't trained for this job however good their intentions now were. Still, one step at a time. Adele was further forward than she had been at this time yesterday.

Rainbow light flared several seconds before the roar of plasma motors reached her. A starship was lifting from the sea. The wavering torch of its exhaust continued to climb even after the beat of the motors muted to a throb that was felt rather than heard.

One step at a time.

*****

Cassian stood beside the timber piling at the end of a pier in the natural harbor, now used only by surface traffic. Half a mile to the west, the tide rocked starships in the Floating Harbor.

When Cassian was younger he'd have sat cross-legged on top of the piling instead of resting his palm on the wood as he did now. The staff at Bantry used to joke that the boy thought he was a seabird, though it wasn't anything so simple as that. The pose required a degree of agility, an awareness of the wind's strength and direction.

And yes, it set Cassian Daniels a little apart. He relished the feet-on-the-ground human world, but he hadn't been willing to be limited to it even as a boy.

Cassian snorted. He'd be on the piling now if he weren't wearing his only 2nd Class uniform. The damp wood would stain the cloth, and he had further use for the uniform tonight. Women noticed a uniform, oh yes they did. A uniform meant the wearer was committed and disciplined. You didn't have to be much of a naturalist to know that females of most species were hardwired to value those traits.

The surface harbor was active even at this hour. The larger vessels that fed the people and industries of Kostroma City generally docked during daylight hours, but loading and unloading proceeded around the clock. Several big freighters sat in floodlit pools across which their irregular outlines threw wedges of shadow. A derrick squealed; whistles called, and once a voice boomed in tones of unintelligible anger from a distant ship.

Lighters served the starships in the Floating Harbor, transferring cargo in both directions. One was even now nosing toward a quay to the right, its diesel engine chuffing an ill-tempered rhythm. Tarpaulins covered three pieces of heavy equipment on the open deck. Tokamaks for fusion power generation, Cassian thought, but he couldn't be sure even when he dialed his goggles' magnification and light-gathering features full on.

There was more than human activity going on in the harbor. Ripples crossed the water in faintly starlit V's. By switching to thermal imaging Cassian could see the rippling forms of the fish that cruised beneath the surface, browsing the microorganisms which bloomed in the nutrient-rich sewage borne here by the city's canals.

Cassian was focused on a fish longer than his arm. A leatherfin, he thought, though the Aglaia's natural history database hadn't been specific to Kostroma.

A shadow flicked in and out of the goggles' present narrow focus. The water exploded in foam.

Cassian reflexively switched back to a normal field of view while remaining in the infrared spectrum. A whiptail had been sitting on a bollard not far from him. It had just glided out over the water and snagged the fish with a stroke of its barbed, prehensile tail.

"Bravo!" Cassian shouted. A perfectly executed attack on a worthy opponent!

Flapping laboriously with the fish snugged close to its belly, the furry-winged "bird" swept in broad circuit around the harbor. The whiptail's vans flared like stage curtains as it landed on a freighter's foremast. Its lower beak stabbed once, severing its victim's notocord at the base of the skull; then it began to feed on strips daintily pincered from the flanks.

Cassian supposed it was a common enough sight to anyone on Kostroma who paid attention to what went on around them; but it wasn't common to him. And indeed, how many people on any planet paid attention to anything at all?

The freighters served the city; the lighters served the starships in the Floating Harbor. Smaller vessels yet, bumboats, served the crews of those starships.

Some of them were little more than dingies. They carried fruit, liquor, and sexual partners to the personnel who had to remain on board. Not infrequently the boats returned to land with drugs and other contraband, but that had been a fact of ports throughout human history.

At this hour most bumboats clustered either along the harbor shore or were tied to concrete floats among the starships. A few of the craft burred slowly over the water, driven by tiny engines. They were probably acting as water taxis, taking officers out to their ships or bringing to shore ratings finally released on leave when they completed their duties.

Officers, even Cinnabar naval officers, allowed the bumboats to attend their ships because they couldn't stop it. A captain who tried to isolate his crew after a voyage through sponge space would lose his personnel to desertion if not his life to mutiny.

Starship crews had to be highly trained and motivated to do their jobs. They understood the need for groundside maintenance and an anchor watch; but a wise captain, a sane captain, likewise understood the need for relaxation after touchdown. A disciplined, happy crew kept its on-board partying within bounds; but it would party.

Plasma bloomed in the Floating Harbor, casting into relief the starships tethered on the land side of the Aglaia. Cassian watched the cutter lift on its single plasma jet.

The little vessel was fitted with High Drive, but it was too small for the masts and crew necessary to enter sponge space. Lt. Mon would carry a message cell above Kostroma's magnetosphere, then launch it toward Cinnabar.

Interstellar messages had to be carried, either by ships or by unmanned message cells. A message cell was programmed to a fixed interdimensional course. Because the Matrix through which it proceeded wasn't fixed, not really, cells were much less trustworthy than a manned vessel.

Their advantage was their relatively small size. The Aglaia carried ten 30-foot message cells in a volume that would have been barely sufficient for a single pinnace capable of interstellar travel. A fleet would include dispatch vessels, but a single ship which needed to send a message home used a message cell.

To Cassian's surprise another cutter rose, this time from the opposite end of the Floating Harbor. It had been launched from the Goetz von Berlichingen, the Alliance dispatch vessel.

No doubt the Alliance crew was on the same mission as Lt. Mon, to send home a message of great import. The Alliance delegation must have used shore-to-ship radio despite the risk of interception, since no courier had flown out to the starship to deliver the message.

The message was probably about the deep diplomatic significance of somebody farting at the official dinner. People who spent their lives studying minutiae found crises in events that would be utterly forgotten in weeks if not days. The stars were eternal, and there was always something genuinely new among them for humans to discover.

Cassian laughed with joy at being alive. The pause had brought his system back close to normal functioning despite the load of alcohol he'd taken on board. He could navigate without the risk of falling over.

The supper club where he'd met Silena the other night was only a few blocks away. It was possible that she'd be there again; and if not, well, places like that usually had at least one sweet young thing who'd welcome rescue by an officer of the RCN.

Whistling a gavotte, Lt. Cassian Daniels sauntered toward his duty.

Copyright 1998 by David Drake

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Baen Books 03/08/02