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Mozart’s Modicum

Starport Gondola

Mozart’s Modicum was a tea shop at the intersection of Orange Main and Blue Main, a good jog from the Gondola Book Market, well over into the green section of the port. Jog, Theo did, a bag of booksticks slung over her shoulder, and pleased that she’d advertently coded a second alarm into her watch, once she got a look at what she’d be dealing with. The book market was easily the size of Anlingdin Academy; a person could spend days—years—inside, browsing the wares and stopping every now and then at one of the convenient market cafes for tea and a handwich.

Of course, she didn’t have years, she had exactly two hours, ship-time, before her meeting with Merchant Bilinoda.

Right here. At Mozart’s Modicum.

After the book market and her jogging tour of the port, she had expected the “tea shop” to be oversized, brightly lit, and crammed with people.

In fact, the address she had been given was a small shop with a striped awning shading a modest green door. On the door, picked out in subdued glitterchips, was the name of the shop, and a subtitle: Classic teas and chernubia.

Theo sighed, pleased by the quiet neatness of the words, the door, the awning. Then she shook herself, remembering that she was here for a reason, and that time was moving.

She went forward; the door opened for her and she stepped into a pleasantly dim interior. Tables were set at odd angles across a wide, shallow room. Many of the tables were occupied, and there was a pleasant hum of unhurried conversation in the air.

Along the right wall was a long, low transparent case, with sweet things of all kinds on display, from simple butter cookies to a cake carved into the shape of a long-necked animal Theo didn’t recognize.

At the far left of the sweets bar sat a single, unoccupied table, almost invisible in the dimness. Hers, by direction. Theo crossed and sat down, sliding the bag off her shoulder and onto the floor next to her.

By the time she’d put her hands on the table, a man was at her side—slight and short, but not, she thought, Liaden, dressed in black shirt and trousers, with a spotless white apron over all.

“Service, signorine?” he asked. “Something sweet? Something tart? Something sour?”

“I would like a glass of Joyful Sunrise, if you please,” she said, which was the phrase her instructions had given her to say.

The waiter bowed.

“An excellent choice, signorine. It will be but a moment.”

He left her, and Theo deliberately sat back in her chair, trying to look relaxed and calm, despite a sudden tingling of nerves. She took a deep breath to calm herself.

This is your first in-person pickup, she told herself. It’s normal to be nervous. Keep at it long enough and it’ll be natural and easy.

“Your tea, signorine.” The waiter smiled at her start, and settled a cup and saucer on the table before her. He poured, and put the pot on the table.

“Has the signorine reconsidered a chernubia?”

Theo smiled and shook her head. “They look wonderful, but today I’m on short-time.”

“Understood, signorine. Please, enjoy your tea.”

He tucked the tray under his arm with a flourish and left her, as silent as he had come. Theo frowned. Hard-heeled shoes on a stone floor ought to make some sound! For that matter, even as isolated as her table was, she should at least hear the murmur of voices from other tables. She had heard the sound of voices, when she came in, but now . . .

She bent her head and closed her eyes.

Nothing, that was what she heard; her table was a dead zone—or, she thought, her uneasiness back in full force, the table was inside a security field. She wondered if the other patrons would see more than a silhouette, if they glanced her way.

She opened her eyes, finding the teacup, a delicate pale pink affair rising like a flower from the leaf-shaped saucer. The scent of the tea was likewise delicate, with a sharp undernote that promised alertness.

Carefully, she placed her hands around the flower cup and raised it to her face, inhaling the aroma before assaying a cautious sip.

Complexity pirouetted brightly across her tongue: rose, citrus, new rain. Beneath was a tang like ozone, edgy and exciting, as revitalizing as a snap of ammonia beneath the nose.

Her whole body warmed—and she realized that she wasn’t alone.

Gently, without haste, she lowered the cup to its saucer, and raised her head to meet the eyes of the woman across from her.

They were shiny and as hard as river stones, those eyes, black and narrow in a round pink face.

Theo felt a shiver of distaste, even as the words she’d been directed to say rose to her lips.

“My uncle sends his best wishes.”

“Your uncle takes unnecessary chances, which endanger more than his precious liberty,” her companion snapped, which wasn’t the answer Theo had been told to expect.

She raised her eyebrows, pushed the chair back, and reached for the bag by her boot.

The woman’s pink face got pinker. She raised an inelegant hand in the sign for hold.

“Please assure him of my continued regard,” she said, which was the right answer. She placed a packet next to the teapot. It was not quite as long as Theo’s hand, as broad as both together, and two fingers thick. It was wrapped in purple mesh and tied with a purple-and-gold ribbon, like a Mother’s Day present.

It could, Theo thought, be an old bound book. Or almost anything else.

“I suggest,” said the woman across from her, “that you place that in an inner pocket. The shielding around this table is good, but we can’t discount the presence of those with sharp eyes.”

Theo nodded, and picked up the packet—it was heavier than she had supposed, and rigid, which neither confirmed nor invalidated the notion that it was a book. She slipped it into the largish inside left pocket, and pressed the seal.

Her companion stood.

“Enjoy your tea; it would be a shame to waste it.” She turned away then, setting her feet deliberately, like she was used to walking where the footing wasn’t always firm. Every step should’ve rung against the floor, instead she moved in complete silence until she reached the chernubia display, turned left—and vanished from view.

Theo sighed, and picked up the flower cup to sip some more tea.

It would be a shame to waste it.

- - - - -

The Less Pilot was yet a stranger to his key.

The Captain—the Captain was hale and at liberty, moving freely among the worlds. The Overkey provide a route: from Volmer to Liad; from Liad to Denko, thence to Gondola. Busy worlds. Dangerous worlds. The Builders particularly forbade Liad as a port Bechimo might seek, even in the most extreme need.

Gondola was not forbidden, but the archives indicated it was a port to approach with the utmost caution. There were pirates there.

That entry had been cause for concern, and Bechimo monitored the Captain’s key closely, recalling the damage visited by pirates upon the Less Pilot. Thus far, the Captain’s safety had not been compromised, which was well. And yet . . .

Why did the Captain not come? What were these errands, that they were allowed to come before Bechimo’s rights? Did the Captain think the vessel unworthy? Was there some test, some rite of proving that was yet to be accomplished?

Bechimo scanned archives, protocols, the Builders’ files—all and everything. There was no mention of rite or test. Either the Captain would come, or the Captain would signal Bechimo to approach. The bonding, promised by the Builders. There would be, at the Captain’s order and desire, a Less Pilot, and crew, cargo. Perhaps . . . there would be family.

Perhaps, this time, properly bonded, and the Captain willing, Bechimo would not fail them.

- - - - -

The fair-haired pilot walked like she owned the port. She was, therefore, admirably easy to follow, and follow Operative pin’Eport did.

Standard procedure.

Most of Smalltrader Bilinoda’s clients had some sense of . . . caution about them; some sensibility that what they had received was valuable, and therefore liable to be coveted by someone other than themselves. They took precautions; they followed circuitous routes; they stopped at taverns, left a coin on the bar with an unfinished drink, sought the back doors and alleyways.

The fair-haired pilot strode on as if she were limitless; as if there were no doubt that the contents of her pockets would remain precisely there, and that any back-alley unpleasantness would naturally resolve in her favor.

It was a pity, Operative pin’Eport thought, that such confidence should go unchecked, but it did not fall within his orders to school Smalltrader Bilinoda’s latest client. His objective was merely to follow, ascertain her ship, or her contact, and report those things to yos’Vinder, who, as senior, would pass the information up the line.

The pilot turned off Orange Main and onto Ship’s Way, taking the corner wide.

A moment later, pin’Eport turned the same corner, keeping rather closer to the storefronts and being careful not to dispute the walkway with any other pedestrian.

It was therefore something of a shock to find himself staring directly into the face of the fair-haired pilot.

A shop display hemmed him close on the right hand; the pilot herself cut off any movement either forward or to the left.

“What do you want?” she snapped in Trade.

For a moment he simply stood, incapable of framing an answer. She had been aware of him? She was—alone on a strange port and without backup—challenging him?

But was she without backup? Was there a reason he was challenged here—now?

He took rapid stock of the street, the busy pedestrians, the patrons loitering around tables at the curbside restaurant. Perhaps she was not . . . entirely alone. Best not to assume it. Only see what assumption had gained him already.

She held herself as one prepared to answer, should he push her or show any aggression—and it was not within his orders, to—

“I said,” the fair-haired pilot repeated, black eyes snapping, “what do you want? You’ve been following me for blocks.”

He must offer neither aggression, nor engagement; above all, she must not know herself for an object of the Department’s interest.

Operative pin’Eport bowed, deliberately modeless, affecting the kittenish grace that charmed a certain class of Terran pilot. He straightened and gave her a chagrined smile.

“Forgive me, Pilot. Indeed, I have been following you. How could I not? It only amazes me that the entire port is not following you, as strong and as certain as you walk. I confess all; I was taken. I hoped, perhaps, that you might consent to—but perhaps I presume?”

It would seem that he did presume; the ruse was not working as he had planned. The pale, pointed face retained its expression of irritation; the ready stance did not relax into flattered generosity.

“I’m not interested,” she said, with scant courtesy. “Find somewhere else to be. Now.”

She stepped back, clearing the way for him. Pedestrians altered their courses for her and swept on. She crossed her arms over her breast and stared at him.

pin’Eport bowed again,“Pilot,” and walked away, keeping his stride smooth and just hurried enough to convey embarrassment. He passed the tables at curbside, and swept into the duty-free shop, where there was an overview of the street on-screen.

For a moment, he thought he had lost her. Then he saw a wiry, fair-haired figure cross the street at a run, overlarge jacket flaring behind her, still on course for the shipyards.

Operative pin’Eport counted to twelve, then slipped out onto the street to once again take up the pursuit.

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