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Chapter Twelve

“Now, Ansten. The first thing I want the yard dogs to do is—”

“The first thing, Skipper,” Ansten FitzGerald interrupted, “is for you to get into your dress uniform and get your posterior into a pinnace headed dirtside.”

Commander FitzGerald was still a bit short of anything Terekhov would have considered fully recovered from his wounds, but he’d returned to duty as Hexapuma’s executive officer, letting Ginger Lewis revert to her position as engineering officer. She’d been happy to surrender the responsibility to him—splitting her duties between XO and overseeing such massive repairs had been exhausting—and he’d dived back into his role with all his accustomed efficiency. Terekhov had been glad to see that, and not just for professional reasons. FitzGerald had become more than just a smoothly functioning XO.

Just at the moment, though, what the captain felt was intense exasperation.

“I know time’s tight, Ansten,” he said a bit testily. “But we still don’t even have her docked. For that matter, we don’t even have a schedule for when a berth will come open! They were supposed to have one waiting for us, but there’s been some kind of FUBAR—as usual—and that makes it even more important that we lock down as many details as possible right now.”

“Skipper, Ginger and I have this one. You’ve told us exactly what needs doing; we’ve got all your memos; we’ve got copies of all your message traffic and correspondence with Hephaestus; and I promise we’ll check off every box just as soon as the tugs get here. What you don’t have is time to dillydally.”

Dillydally?” Terekhov repeated in the tone of a man who couldn’t quite believe what he’d just heard.

“That was Chief Agnelli’s term, I believe.” FitzGerald smiled at him. “And while I realize you’re a captain, and so—obviously—not afraid of any chief steward ever born, I’m a mere commander. I don’t want to think about what she’ll do to me if you aren’t into that uniform and off this ship in plenty of time.”

He was smiling, but he was also serious. And he also had a point, Terekhov realized when he glanced at the chronometer. They’d been supposed to be berthed at Hephaestus by now, and they weren’t. That would make the shuttle flight at least ninety minutes longer, and that meant they really were cutting it close. And FitzGerald was also right that this was one schedule he couldn’t afford to bobble. But Hexapuma was his ship, his responsibility, and—

And you have perfectly capable subordinates—God knows they’ve proved that several times over! Ginger practically rebuilt Engineering by hand just to get her home, for God’s sake! I think you could probably trust her and Ansten not to break her again while you’re away!

And if you can’t, it’s no one’s fault but your own.

“All right,” he said. “All right!” He threw up his hands. “Tell Joanna to lay out my uniform because I’m on my way.”

“Skipper, I hope you realize just how pointless that message would be. She’s the one who told me she had it laid out fifteen minutes ago…about the time she ‘suggested’ I not let you dawdle up here. That was just before she used ‘dillydally’ on me.”

* * *

“Have you managed to find my wife, Amal?” Terekhov asked over his personal com as he half-trotted into the boat bay gallery.

“No, Sir. I’m afraid we haven’t,” Commander Nagchaudhuri replied apologetically. “We’ve tried all the combinations you gave us, Skipper, and all we’ve gotten is her voicemail.”

Terekhov scowled. Sinead Patricia O’Daley Terekhov was a daughter of two of the oldest naval dynasties in the RMN. She was also a cousin of the present Duke of Winterfall, and her ancestors had been commanding Queen’s ships—and serving in sensitive Foreign Office positions, come to that—for the better part of a T-century before the very first Terekhov’s shuttle ever touched down in Landing. She understood the realities of a naval career, and the one thing she’d never done, in the almost half-century of their marriage, was fail to answer her com within thirty seconds when she expected him to screen her. And she’d known exactly when Hexapuma was due back. For that matter, unless he missed his guess, Hexapuma’s and Warlock’s greeting from Home Fleet had been broadcast over the entire star system! So where was she?

“Keep trying,” he said as the flight engineer beckoned courteously but peremptorily from the inboard end of the boarding tube. “Put her through to me aboard the pinnace the instant you reach her.”

“Yes, Sir. Of course!”

Terekhov signed off and hurried towards the personnel tube. The flight engineer stood aside to let him dive headfirst into the tube’s zero-gravity, then followed. He was on Terekhov’s heels when the captain caught the grab bar and swung feet-first into the pinnace’s internal gravity, and as Terekhov headed for his seat, the engineer sealed the hatch and checked the telltales.

“Good seal!” he announced to the flight deck.

“Copy good seal,” the response came back, and the seatbelt signal flashed on the forward bulkhead.

Terekhov settled into place and looked out the port to watch the umbilicals disengage in spurts of vapor, retracting smoothly in the boat bay’s vacuum. The docking arms unlocked, maneuvering thrusters flared, and the boat bay bulkhead’s ranging lines slid vertically upward as the pilot eased the pinnace out of the bay. It was smoothly done, Terekhov noticed, and made a mental note to compliment the lieutenant when they landed, but it was a distracted sort of note.

Where are you, Sinead? he worried, turning his attention to the bulkhead display as Hexapuma’s huge bulk and the distant, gleaming mote of Hephaestus dwindled behind them. And why the hell aren’t you answering the damned com?!

* * *

She sat one of the VIP concourse’s almost sinfully comfortable float chairs, right inside the arrival gate, and her nimble fingers were busy with her pad and stylus. They almost always were when she waited. At least a dozen art critics would have been astonished—possibly even outraged—to discover that one of the Star Kingdom’s more acclaimed artists saw her paintings mainly as ways to keep herself occupied when she needed distracting.

It was very quiet in the superb soundproofing, and she supposed she was glad for that. A little bustle and flurry might have helped pass the time, but the newsies had been damnably persistent ever since word of Monica broke. That had eased a bit over the last month or two, as other stories filled the ’faxes, but with Hexapuma and Warlock’s arrival in-system, that was likely to change, so she’d been grateful when the respectful young lieutenant suggested—

Aivars!”

* * *

His wife’s stylus and pad went flying the instant the lift car doors opened, and as he watched the pad hit the floor with a sharp, crunching sound, a corner of Aivars Terekhov’s mind found time to hope she’d saved her latest creation before she demolished it.

And then she was in his arms, slender and graceful, warm and soft, so heart-stoppingly beautiful his eyes burned and his vision blurred, and he forgot all about broken pads. He forgot about everything as he crushed her in his embrace and buried his face in the sweet-smelling silk of her feathery red hair.

“Oh, Aivars,” she whispered, and turned her face up to his. Her lips were soft and sweet, and he drank the fire of her kiss deep for endless seconds while her arms locked around him like iron.

But then, finally, he made himself step back slightly, easing the grip which had threatened to break ribs, and drew a deep breath of badly needed oxygen.

“And why”—despite himself, the first two words came out husky—“aren’t you answering your com, young lady?”

Her lips twitched at the long-standing joke—she was all of eleven hours, twelve minutes, and nineteen seconds younger than he—but her expression was puzzled.

“Answering my com? Aivars, I’ve been sitting here waiting for you to screen for over two hours!”

“What?” Terekhov frowned. “I’ve been trying to reach you ever since we tied into Hephaestus’ communications system!”

“You’ve what?” She blinked up at him. “That’s ridicu—”

She stopped, green eyes narrowing, and lifted her wrist. She tapped a quick diagnostic inquiry into her uni-link, and those green eyes narrowed still further.

“I’ll kill him,” she said in a conversational tone. “I won’t even need a pulser. He’s a dead man as soon as he comes in reach.”

Terekhov’s eyebrows arched, but then his expression changed and his own eyes narrowed.

“Charlie?”

Charlie,” she confirmed grimly. “Unless you know someone else who could’ve hacked into my personal account and put your information on the blocked contacts list? Or let me rephrase that. Unless you know someone else who would’ve thought it was a good idea to hack into my personal account and put your name on the blocked contacts list on today of all days?”

“Not right off the top of my head, no.” His voice was suspiciously unsteady, and she glared up at him, as if daring him to laugh. But that was the sort of mistake no good tactician was likely to make.

The Honorable Charles Travis O’Daley—Charlie, to his friends and long-suffering family—was fifteen T-years younger than Sinead and universally regarded as a wealthy, overbred, conspicuously idle layabout who amused himself playing at the Foreign Office job he’d acquired solely through family connections. It certainly couldn’t have been because of competence, at any rate! Everyone knew that.

Or almost everyone, at any rate. Terekhov was one of a select few who knew Charlie O’Daley was a very tough customer, indeed, and that his Foreign Office position was pure window dressing. Charlie could have had a brilliant diplomatic career if he’d wanted it, but that might have been inconvenient for one of the Special Intelligence Service’s more accomplished field operatives. It would never have done for his cover to get in the way of what he actually did.

He did have an occasionally—no, permanently—dubious sense of humor, however, not to mention access to SIS’ cyber specialists, most of whom owed him favors for one disreputable reason or another. And given that combination, it was no wonder Sinead’s suspicions had instantly—

“Did I just hear my name taken in vain?” a pleasant baritone drawled, and Sinead whirled as a well-groomed gentleman in formal court attire, with hair exactly the same dark red as her own, strode into the VIP lounge.

“You are so going to die, Charles Travis O’Daley!”

“Now, now. None of that!” he admonished, reaching past her to extend his hand to Terekhov. His grip was hard and strong, at sharp odds with the foppish appearance he took such pains to project, and his green eyes were warm. But then they swiveled back to his irate sister and he released Terekhov’s hand to wave an admonishing index finger in her direction.

“If you and Aivars had been able t’ screen each other, we’d never’ve gotten you off the com in time for his appointment,” he informed her in the maddening, aristocratic drawl that was totally absent in her own speech. “And if you’d spent all that time talkin’ to him, there wouldn’t be time for him t’ muss you properly in the limo on the way t’ the Palace. Now, I ask you, in the view of any reasonable person, how else could a lovin’ brother determined t’ look after his sister’s best interests have responded t’ a situation like that?”

Despite herself, she giggled, although she also shook a fist under his nose. He looked down at it, eyes crossing, and her giggle became a spurt of laughter.

“All right, so you’re not going to die—this time! But you do remember the consequences the last time something like this happened, don’t you?”

“Such a petty, vindictive attitude,” he sighed. “Alas! It’s ever my fate t’ be maligned and abused. However, I’m accustomed to it. I’m sure I shall bear up with all my customary nobility when that small-minded moment arrives.”

He elevated his nose with an audible sniff, and she punched him none too lightly in the chest.

“Brutal woman,” he said, smiling as he rubbed the spot. But then his expression turned a bit more serious.

“Really, Sinead. If you want a few minutes—private minutes—before they drag him off t’ the reception, you’d better grab them in the limo on the way there. I’ve already told the driver when you need t’ arrive, and he’s ready t’ circle until then.” He reached out and touched her cheek lightly. “That’s the only place you’re goin’ t’ get him to yourself, away from newsies, court functionaries, and—God help him—Her Majesty, any time in the next, oh, five or six days. And that’s assumin’ they don’t have somethin’ else planned for him, as well.”

He glanced over her head at his brother-in-law and something tingled inside Terekhov. Their eyes met, ever so briefly, and then Terekhov nodded.

“He’s probably right,” he said, wrapping one arm around her shoulders.

“Oh, I’m sure he’s right.” She gazed at her brother with a fulminating eye. “He’s always right. It’s the only reason he’s still alive!”

“Maybe,” Terekhov acknowledged. “Doesn’t change his point, though.”

“No, it doesn’t,” O’Daley agreed pleasantly. “And times a-wasting.”

“All right,” Sinead said. “I’ll let you live. I may not even trip you down two or three flights of stairs. This time.”

“You’re so good t’ me.” He smiled and leaned down to kiss her on the cheek. “Now go, you two! And try not t’ look too disheveled when you finally get t’ the Palace. Mind you, I’ll be disappointed if you don’t look at least a little disheveled, Sinead, but it is a formal audience with the Queen, after all.”


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Framed