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Xenos on Cinnabar

Daniel Leary waited to board the rented tramcar which would carry him from the Pentacrest to Chatsworth Minor, the townhouse which had been his home in Xenos ever since he became friends with its owner, Lady Adele Mundy. He didn’t spend much time in Cinnabar’s capital city—or anywhere on his home planet, for that matter—but it was good for his state of mind to know that there was a comfortable, convenient burrow whenever he needed it.

Because of the crowd noise he bent slightly toward Miranda, his bride of approximately five minutes, and said into her ear, “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a car this fancy. What isn’t wood inlays”—he recognized the tigerwood, but some of the exotics were beyond even his naturalist’s eye—“is gilt.”

He pursed his lips and corrected himself: “Or possibly solid gold, I suppose.”

Miranda hugged herself even closer without turning toward Daniel. “I’ve never been so happy,” she said. “I’ve never dreamed of being so happy.”

She turned then and kissed him, which made the crowd cheer even louder; try to cheer louder, at any rate. “I’ll try not to disappoint you, love,” said Daniel. Or disappoint myself or the Republic of Cinnabar Navy or Adele or the crew of whatever ship I command at the moment. Or anyone else I care about.

Which included the Republic itself, he supposed, though Daniel didn’t often think in political terms. The Learys had been involved in Cinnabar politics since before the thousand-year Hiatus in interstellar travel, if the family records were to be believed. Daniel had always been drawn toward the stars instead, and any urge he might have had toward a political career had ended when he was sixteen and had broken violently with Corder Leary—Speaker Leary; one of the Republic’s most powerful politicians, and Daniel’s father.

“The car doesn’t have the Bantry crest,” said Mon, his best man, splendid in his dress uniform. For years Mon—though still a half-pay lieutenant in the RCN—had been managing the Bergen and Associates shipyard for Daniel, who had inherited a half interest from his Uncle Stacey. “We could have knocked out the three fishes for you in the yard, easy enough.”

Mon grinned. “In gold, if you like. A gift from me and the crew.”

Not only had Daniel given Mon a ten percent stake in the shipyard but also a free hand in hiring his personnel. Most of them were ex-RCN, and many had lost limbs in the service. There wasn’t another yard on Cinnabar which could match the staff of Bergen and Associates for skill or loyalty, and Mon had become very wealthy on his share.

Uncle Stacey’s silent partner—and now Daniel’s—was Corder Leary. The elder Leary earned the most from the yard, but for him that income was too small to notice.

“I directed that the car not carry any crest,” Daniel said mildly. “We’re going to Chatsworth Minor now, after all. When we have a second ceremony at Bantry, there’ll be plenty of fish present. A few of them will be symbolic, I suppose, but I suspect that my tenants will be more interested in the wedding banquet.” And the wedding ale, of course.

Adele, Lady Mundy, had boarded the lead car of the procession with her bodyguard Tovera and with Miriam Dorst, Miranda’s mother. No one else had gotten on, and the usher stationed at the door had turned several would-be riders away. Something was going on, which made Daniel uncomfortable; but he would learn about it in good time.

He liked his new mother-in-law and got along well with her; as for Adele—Daniel had no closer friend. Whatever Adele was doing was for his benefit, or at worst not to his detriment…but he liked to know what was going on, and he didn’t this time.

Daniel glanced toward the line of trams waiting behind his own. It was a very long procession.

As though Miranda were reading his mind, she said, “How many cars are there, Deirdre?”

Her maid of honor, Daniel’s sister, shrugged. “I told the transit authorities to be sure there were enough to carry all those attending the ceremony to the reception,” she said. “Only the first forty will be new, but I’m confident that there will be a sufficient number. Service in the suburbs may be delayed, but—”

She smiled, though there was very little humor in the expression.

“—after all, how often does a daughter of the late Captain Timothy Dorst get married?”

The four of them laughed, Miranda as brightly as ever. “Only once, I expect. And since I don’t have a sister, I suppose our neighbors in the suburbs can accept the delays for one afternoon.”

Daniel realized that his sister had been testing Miranda to see how she reacted to what was at best black humor. Captain Dorst had been a respected RCN officer who had died of a stroke not long after his last promotion. Perhaps if he had lived longer he would have plodded his way to admiral rank and modest wealth; as it was, his widow and children had a social position without enough money to sustain it.

The son, also Timothy, became a midshipman in the RCN and served under Captain Leary. Midshipman Dorst was a model of a fighting officer: brave, active, and as thick as a brick. He was also unlucky: his cutter had taken a direct hit from a twenty-centimeter plasma cannon which would have vaporized most of a corvette.

Timothy’s bad luck had turned out to be very good luck for his mother and sister, because his former commanding officer had visited them to convey his personal regrets. Meeting Miranda Dorst had been good luck for Daniel Leary, also.

He hugged Miranda closer without looking at her.

“Looks like they got ’em loaded,” Mon said, giving the crowd a practiced eye. He added with a grin, “Though nobody’s going anywhere till you’re ready to start, of course.”

Deirdre—or more likely, one of the businesses which she controlled—had provided the ushers who were loading the trams, but Lieutenant Cory and three long-service warrant officers were overseeing the work. Some of the spacers who had attended the wedding of Captain Leary were too ragged to pass the scrutiny of a doorman borrowed from the Shippers and Merchants Treasury, but if they’d served with Six—Daniel’s call-sign aboard the Princess Cecile—there’d be places in the wedding for them.

Perhaps thinking the same thing, Deirdre said, “Daniel, how do you know that some of those spacers claiming to have served with you aren’t just bums looking for a free drink? Not that I care, of course.”

“You can’t fool a veteran, Deirdre,” Daniel said. He felt suddenly saddened. “I don’t remember the name of every tech who’s served under me and I doubt my engineering warrant officers do either, but the phonies are all heroes. They don’t say, “I was an engine wiper on the Milton and I haven’t shipped again since that missile took everything off from three frames astern of the power room.”

Thirty-three of his crew had died that day. Daniel didn’t remember anything after the impact, because flying debris had knocked him silly. If the jump-seat had struck an inch lower, it would have broken his neck and there would have been thirty-four dead.

And I wouldn’t have gotten married today, which I would regret. He squeezed Miranda’s fingers and said aloud, “I think we can board now. If board is the correct word for a tram?”

Daniel handed his bride into the car. Mon offered Deirdre his arm. She accepted it with a bemused look. Deirdre was used to toadies, but meeting a gentleman was probably a new experience for her. The RCN was old-school in many ways, which Daniel—grinning—thought was just as it ought to be.

Daniel also wore a first class uniform, his Dress Whites. He was far more splendid than Mon, however. Daniel’s rig included flashy foreign honors which he would have been embarrassed to wear in a strictly RCN gathering. Deirdre touched the scarlet and gold sash over his left shoulder and said, “What in the world is this, brother?”

“That indicates I’m a Royal Companion of Novy Sverdlovsk,” he said. “I have the right to wear a scimitar in the presence of the monarch.”

“Do you have a scimitar?” Mon asked.

“I’m sure Hogg could find him one if Daniel ever visits Novy Sverdlovsk,” Miranda said primly.

“Speaking of Hogg—” said Deirdre.

She paused as the tram rocked to a start a moment after the lead car. The monorail vehicles weren’t coupled, but the central computer was moving the procession as a unit. Ordinarily it directed the trams to call boxes and then by the most efficient route to the riders’ destination.

“—why is he riding on top of the car? And there’s someone on the lead car also.”

She gestured through the front windscreen. A Xenos tram with unscratched windows was at least as remarkable as one with wood inlays.

“Ah,” said Daniel. He coughed into his hand. “That’s Midshipman Hale, who served with me on two recent voyages. She and Hogg”—Daniel’s servant, mentor, and father figure since his earliest days on the Bantry Estate—“thought they’d have a better view from up there in case of trouble. A needless precaution, but if it pleases them to do it…”

He shrugged. He didn’t mention that the long blanket-wrapped bundle Hogg had beside him was a stocked impeller, nor that the slightly built Hale’s shorter bundle was a carbine. Within her range, Hale was as good a shot as the countryman who had been poaching game all his life.

Above them the tram’s magnetic suspension rattled over junctions. The streets were still lined with cheering citizens.

“I wonder if they’ll stretch all the way to the townhouse?” Deirdre said. “You’re a famous man, brother.”

“It’s just the spectacle that draws them,” Daniel said uncomfortably. “There’d be as many people if I were being carried in the other direction to have my head cut off and nailed to Speaker’s Rock.”

“Don’t you believe it!” said Mon. “Listen—they’re shouting, ‘Cacique! Cacique!’ They’re cheering the man who beat the Alliance above Cacique and brought peace after decades of war.”

“Daniel?” Miranda said, scanning the lines of shouting, happy faces along the route. “How will they all fit in Chatsworth? It’s a big house for the center of Xenos, but…?”

Deirdre smiled. Daniel gestured toward her with an upturned palm and said, “I’ll let my sister answer that. She was in charge of the arrangements.”

“Mistress Sand, Lady Mundy’s colleague, had as much to do with it as I did,” Deirdre said in a nonchalant voice. Bernis Sand was the Republic’s spymaster. She wasn’t precisely Adele’s other employer, because Adele didn’t take money for the work she did on Sand’s behalf. “In addition to Chatsworth Minor, all six houses on the close have opened their ground floors to the reception, and refreshments will be served in the street itself.”

“How the bloody hell did you do that?” Mon blurted. “Kidnap their children?”

Daniel felt his lips purse. He’d had the same thought, but he hadn’t asked because he’d been afraid that he wouldn’t want to have heard the answer.

“No, no, no strong-arm,” Deirdre said.

Her easy smile implied that the notion was absurd. It wasn’t absurd.

“One of the owners was kin to Lady Mundy on her mother’s side,” Deirdre continued. “Distantly enough that he survived the Proscriptions, but happy to do her ladyship a favor. Another neighbor was enthusiastic to help the Hero of Cacique. You may get a dinner invitation, brother. You’re not obliged to accept it, of course.”

“I will,” said Daniel. Miranda nodded crisply.

“Apart from those, there was a little extra time on a mortgage, help with a client’s legal problems, and an invitation to a party at which neither you nor I would be caught dead, brother. It will be the achievement of a life’s social ambition, however.”

Deirdre coughed. “Finally,” she said, “Mistress Sand arranged for the suppression of certain information. I don’t know precisely what the information was, but we were suddenly offered free use of the house on the south corner for as long as we wanted.”

The tram slowed for the stop at the head of the cul-de-sac on which Chatsworth Minor was located. Three passengers were getting out of the leading car. The pavement within the close was packed with people, all shouting.

Miranda leaned closer. “Welcome home, darling,” she said into Daniel’s ear. “Welcome home, hero.”

* * *

Adele took a front-facing corner seat in the lead tram. She wasn’t surprised when Miriam Dorst followed her and Tovera: Miranda’s mother had to ride somewhere, after all. Two middle-aged couples, dressed in up-to-the-minute fashion with ruffs at their wrists and necks, started to get on.

Miriam blocked them. Miranda played field hockey; her mother was fit and had the same stocky strength. “The bride’s family has reserved this car,” she said in a sharp tone. “Please find other places.”

“We’re friends of Captain Leary!” said the leading woman. She wore a striped top and a stiffly conical skirt, a combination that made Adele think of a shuttlecock.

“No, you are not,” Adele said, looking up from the display of the personal data unit in her lap. “Mistress Dorst has requested politely that you find other places. Please do.”

“Would you like me to shoot them, Mistress?” Tovera said. She gave the intruders a bright smile.

“I’ll call an usher if necessary, Tovera,” Adele said. The question was an example of Tovera’s sense of humor: if she had really thought that shooting the civilians was a good idea, she wouldn’t have bothered asking.

Tovera would shoot them if asked, of course. She was a sociopath who rather liked killing people, to the extent that she had any emotional involvement at all with people.

The woman who had spoken froze. Her husband tugged her backward; the second couple had already backed away. As the speaker—Mistress Ethyl Smith with her husband the Honorable Edward Smith, according to image recognition software in the data unit—left the car, she snarled, “You’re sick!”

Miriam closed the door. Tovera giggled and said, “If she only knew.”

The tram started off. Miriam said, “I suppose you wonder why I’m here. I decided it was the best way to have a private conversation with you, Lady Mundy.”

Adele looked up again, frowning; she’d been searching to learn the Smiths’ relation to the bridal couple, not from any need but rather for her usual reason: she liked to learn things. Miriam hadn’t seated herself. She looked stern and very possibly angry, which was puzzling.

“It’s none of my business where you ride, Miriam,” Adele said. They had been on a first name basis in the past; Adele far preferred to remain informal with Daniel’s mother-in-law. “It hadn’t occurred to me to wonder.”

Adele’s mouth twitched in the vague direction of a smile. She suddenly realized that if she had been watching imagery of this scene, she would find it interesting. She needed an interface between herself and information before it really touched her.

Miriam looked puzzled, as Adele had found people often did when she answered their questions. In order to ease the situation further, she said, “I was glad that you requested that the Smiths leave. I haven’t found any connection between them and Daniel yet. I suppose you would know if they were friends of your family?”

“What?” said Miriam. The tram jounced between connectors hard enough to rattle the suspension against the overhead railing. She grabbed a support pole, then lowered herself onto the seat across from Adele.

“Oh, Ethyl Smith was an admiral’s widow before she remarried,” Miriam resumed. “Quite full of herself when she was Mistress Admiral Colfax. I suppose Daniel might have served under him at some point. If so, I sympathize. Timothy did, and it wasn’t a happy posting.”

“Daniel did not serve under Admiral Colfax,” Adele said with satisfaction. She shrank the holographic display of the data unit and transferred both control wands to her right hand, then looked Miriam directly in the face. “What was it you wanted to discuss, Miriam?”

“Oh,” the older woman said. She swallowed. “What I was going to say is that Daniel, that Captain Leary, has been very supportive of, well, his friendship for you. He’s having the initial ceremony here in Xenos. He’s even taking his bride to the Mundy townhouse, your house, ah, Adele. Instead of at the Leary estate, Bantry.”

“Yes,” said Adele. She didn’t add “of course” because she found that just as silly as stating the obvious in the first place. Miriam Dorst wasn’t stupid, so there would be a point coming sometime.

“Well, why then did you refuse my daughter’s request that you be her maid of honor?” Miriam said. She grimaced and said, “Are you angry because Miranda married your friend?”

Adele started to bring the data unit’s display up again. There was nothing she wanted to check on it, but it would be a normal thing for her to do. When faced with an absurd situation, she very much wanted to return to normalcy.

Retreating into the data unit would be a better choice than drawing the pistol in the pocket of her tunic, the other tool that experience sent her to when reality seemed to be coming apart. Nonetheless, the best choice was the usual one, to answer the question calmly—and to be ready to deal with whatever the reaction might be.

“No,” Adele said aloud. “I’m pleased that Daniel is marrying someone whom I like and respect, unlike the bubbleheads whom he favored before he met Miranda. Though if he had married a bubblehead or a dozen bubbleheads, it wouldn’t have been either my business or a matter of concern to me.”

“Why, then?” Miriam said. She was gripping her own hands fiercely; her knuckles were white as her fingers writhed together. “Why did you refuse to be Miranda’s maid of honor?”

“I didn’t have any feelings about the matter,” Adele said. “I thought it would be more politic for Miranda to involve Daniel’s sister. I believe Deirdre thinks well of your daughter, but the honor would mean something to her.”

Tovera was smiling from a third corner as she watched them. I’m glad somebody’s finding this funny, Adele thought; but Tovera’s expression wasn’t necessarily connected with humor.

Miriam sagged. “I’m sorry,” she muttered to her hands. “Miranda said that you weren’t insulting her, but…I feel very foolish now.”

You should, Adele thought. It was as though Miriam had told her she believed Adele dined on murdered children.

“Miranda has had more opportunity to get to know me,” she said aloud. “In another instance”—which I sincerely hope will never occur—“you might reasonably be guided by her judgment.”

The older woman straightened in her seat. “Well…” she said. Then, more briskly, “Well. I’m very glad we had a chance to talk. I feel much better now. I was very much afraid that you felt that Miranda was your enemy and, well, you’re Captain Leary’s closest friend. That would have been terrible.”

“Yes,” Adele said, rising to her feet. She slipped her personal data unit away in the cargo pocket in the right thigh of this dress suit. She had a similar pocket in every pair of trousers she owned. “That would have been terrible.”

It would also have been terrible if a giant invisible asteroid struck Xenos. To Adele the one seemed as likely as the other, but she had learned long ago that her world view differed from that of most people.

The car slowed as it neared their stop. Adele had wondered whether the crowd would overflow onto the tram line, but Deirdre had planned for that with a human barrier which—

“Those people are wearing liberty suits,” Miriam said, peering through the forward window. “They’re RCN?”

“Yes,” said Adele. “Instead of hiring civilians to control the crowd, Deirdre”—or possibly Daniel himself—“seems to be using spacers. I hope they’re not carrying batons.” Or wrenches and mallets.

“The people who’re most likely to get pushy are other spacers,” Tovera said. “They’re not going to complain about getting their heads thumped at a party. They’re used to it.”

As Miriam had said, the spacers were in liberty suits: RCN utilities tricked out with ribbons and patches commemorating every landfall the spacers had made and every ship they’d served aboard. Senior personnel wore rigs whose mottled gray base fabric was almost completely hidden.

Woetjans was in charge. She had been Daniel’s bosun from before he captured his first command, the Princess Cecile. Well over six feet tall and strong even for her size, Woetjans was the perfect person for the job, but she could have been among the wedding witnesses in the temple had she wished. This was what she preferred. Pasternak, the chief engineer, and two bosun’s mates had helped Cory advise the civilian ushers at the temple.

The tram’s door opened automatically when it stopped. Adele gestured Miriam out and followed with Tovera. The joyous roar echoed from the building fronts, amazingly loud. The transit computer shunted their car out of the way to make room for the vehicles following.

“Miranda has married a great man,” Miriam said. She was looking back, so that Adele as much read the words on her lips as heard them over the cheering. “I only hope he is also the husband who suits her.”

Adele nodded. “Yes, I hope that too,” she said. It didn’t really matter to her, of course: Daniel was her friend regardless of his private life. He would be happier if his marriage went well, and Adele genuinely did like Miranda.

She stood facing the close, viewing the sea of faces past the wall of gorgeously beribboned spacers. She had seen similar scenes from the window of her bedroom when she was a child and her father was addressing an election rally of Popular Party supporters from his fourth-floor balcony. That had been the same sound, the same mass of people so enthusiastic that they seemed to blend into a single organism.

Those cheers had ended a matter of days after sixteen-year-old Adele left Cinnabar to continue her studies at the Academic Collections on Bryce, a member world of the Alliance of Free Stars. The speaker of the Senate, Corder Leary, had accused Lucas Mundy and his closest supporters of plotting against the Republic. He had moved quickly to crush the conspiracy by summary executions and the confiscation of property.

Now the close below Chatsworth Minor was rocking with similar enthusiasm for Speaker Leary’s son, Daniel, and his new bride.

Adele turned to face the tram which immediately followed her own. She smiled as the bride and groom got out to redoubled cheers.

I don’t believe in omens, she thought.

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