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Chapter Sixteen

The captain’s dining cabin aboard HMS Tristram was considerably smaller than that aboard the Quentin Saint-James. That said, however, it was far larger than any other destroyer’s dining cabin Helen Zilwicki had ever imagined. Which, she supposed, shouldn’t have been all that astonishing, given that Tristram was bigger than most navies’ light cruisers and needed personnel space for fewer people than anyone else’s destroyers.

Chief Steward Clorinda Brinkman watched like a broody eagle as her minions finished delivering food to the table and withdrew like wisps of fog on a breeze. She gave the entire cabin one more gimlet-eyed inspection, then nodded in satisfaction and followed the messmen out the cabin door.

“You were right, Naomi,” Sir Aivars Terekhov observed with a smile. “She is a lot like Joanna, isn’t she?”

“I think BuPers has a secret manufacturing facility somewhere that turns out stewards,” Lieutenant Commander Alvin Tallman, Tristram’s XO, put in. “Of course, that could be simply my overactive imagination. There does seem to be a master template for captain’s stewards, though.”

“Only when it comes to bossing around their captains,” Naomi Kaplan said from the head of the table. “Aside from that, they come in all sorts of flavors.”

“I don’t know about that, Ma’am,” Abigail Hearns demurred. “I think Chief Steward Brinkman goes easier on you than most. She reminds me of my mother Sandra, actually. She doesn’t so much boss you around as look at you with that reproachful gaze. Or, worse, she trusts you to do the right thing.”

“And you think that kind of judo’s better than just issuing orders?” Kaplan demanded, and Abigail shrugged.

“It’s probably more effective in the long run. It at least leaves you the illusion that you’re the one making the decisions, too. And the Tester does teach us that it’s by making decisions—and exercising our free will—that we grow and mature spiritually, so it’s probably even good for you.”

“Oh, thank you,” Kaplan said dryly.

“You’re welcome, Ma’am.”

“I don’t suppose I could give her back to you, Sir?” Kaplan asked, smiling at Terekhov, who chuckled.

“I’d love to have her, but…no, I’m afraid that particular transaction’s not refundable.”

“Pity.” Kaplan sighed and shook her head wearily. “I suppose it’s just one of the burdens of command.”

“I’m sure you’ll bear up under it just fine,” the commodore consoled her.

“I’ll try not to be too great a trial, Ma’am,” Abigail assured her earnestly. “Of course, there is that bit about growing to meet your Test to think about.”

“Well, I guess when a tactical officer’s shown a modicum of true talent, one just has to accept her occasional rough-around-the-edges spots,” Kaplan said.

“I found that true aboard the Kitty, now that you mention it,” Terekhov agreed. “Now what was that TO’s name…don’t tell me, it’ll come to me…I remember it started with an ‘N,’ though.”

“Ouch.” Kaplan winced, then raised one hand in a surrendering gesture. “You win, Sir. Besides,” she glared laughingly at Abigail, “it’s always a good idea to let the senior officer win. You might want to write that down, Ms. Hearns.”

“And so should you, Ensign,” Terekhov informed Helen rather sternly as she cut another morsel of the delicious Montanan beef.

“Oh, I already have, Sir,” his brand new—and extremely junior—flag lieutenant assured him. “I entered it under the chapter heading ‘Sucking Up to Authority.’”

Terekhov chuckled and shook his head, then smiled at Kaplan’s XO across the table.

“I sometimes think it’s harder to figure out which is more stubborn, a Grayson or a Gryphon Highlander.”

“Not much to choose between them, in my experience, Sir,” Lieutenant Commander Tallman replied. “On the other hand, with a few exceptions, most of them do seem to do good work.”

“That they do,” Terekhov agreed. “Never a good idea to let their heads get too big for their berets, though.”

Tallman nodded with an answering chuckle, yet he couldn’t help thinking how few officers of Terekhov’s seniority—and reputation—could manage to un-bend so thoroughly with his subordinates without in any way undercutting his own authority. Naomi Kaplan had the same gift, but it seemed even stronger in the commodore. No one could possibly doubt his deep affection for both Abigail Hearns and Helen Zilwicki, but only an idiot could have expected that affection to affect his judgment or the level of respect, discipline, and performance he would expect—and demand—of them.

“On a somewhat more serious note, Sir,” Kaplan set down her wine and began buttering a second roll, “what do you think’s going on with the New Tuscans?”

“Not anything we’d like.” Terekhov shrugged and frowned in distaste. “Bernardus Van Dort and Admiral Khumalo asked me that, too, and like I told them, I haven’t had enough time back in Talbott to form any considered opinion. That said, I wouldn’t trust a single one of them in the same airlock with me.

“Their oligarchs—especially that idiot Yvernau—did everything they could during the constitutional convention to buy immunity from any domestic changes. And according to Baroness Medusa, they’ve been insisting ever since that their exclusion from the economic incentive package represents some kind of economic retaliation, not the inevitable consequence of their own decision not to join the Star Empire when they didn’t get the special guarantees they demanded.”

His frown deepened and he shook his head.

“They remind me an awful lot of the old Legislaturalists, to be honest. I’m damned sure they’re deliberately contriving these incidents in Pequod; I’m just not sure what they hope to achieve. But I don’t like what I’m hearing about Cardot’s take on all this one bit.”

Helen felt herself nodding in agreement. Alesta Cardot was New Tuscany’s minister of foreign affairs, and as Terekhov’s flag lieutenant, Helen had seen the complete footage of Cardot’s protest note about “Manticoran provocations” in the Pequod System. The protest in question had clearly been aimed at someone besides Prime Minister Alquezar and Baroness Medusa, since the “provocations” were totally fictitious. Helen doubted Cardot would have discussed them in such detail—or shown so much visibly (and obviously) restrained outrage—over nonexistent affronts to New Tuscan’s sovereignty if she hadn’t intended that recording as future evidence of how dreadfully her innocent New Tuscan spacers had been treated by those horrid, arrogant Manties.

“I don’t like it either,” Kaplan said soberly, as if she’d just heard Helen’s thoughts. “Especially since I can only think of one audience for her to impress.”

“OFS,” the commodore agreed with a nod. “To be honest, what worries me most is that we don’t know if this was a brainstorm of Yvernau and Prime Minister Vézien, trying to pressure us into granting the economic concessions they still want, or if someone else’s put them up to it for purposes of his own.”

“Like the same someone who put President Tyler up to something, Sir?” Tallman asked quietly.

“I don’t want to be looking under the bed for bogeymen just because of what’s already happened, Commander. That’s one reason I try to remind myself it’s possible this was an internal brainstorm of the New Tuscan government. After all, this is only the second orchestrated effort to break our kneecaps out here.”

“Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, and three times is enemy action, you mean, Sir?” Kaplan said dryly, and Terekhov nodded.

“But the second time isn’t always a coincidence,” he pointed out grimly.

“You fill me with confidence, Sir.”

“Well, I wouldn’t panic just yet, Naomi. After what happened at Lovat, I expect the Admiralty should be able to reinforce us much more heavily sometime soon. Whoever pulled Tyler and Monica together with people like Nordbrandt has already demonstrated he’s willing to do just about anything to get what he wants, but manipulating something like the League isn’t a project that’s going to proceed at lightning speed. No matter how corrupt the Sollies are—and trust me, I’m not about to underestimate that Terekhov’s lips quirked, “any effort to organize some sort of repeat performance will have to burn a lot of time just sending conspirators back and forth. That should give us a window to build strength in the Quadrant before the puppetmasters’ next move.” He shrugged. “I’m sure we won’t like whatever they have in mind, but, then again, New Tuscany may not like what we have in mind when it finally hits the fan.”

“And Admiral Gold Peak’s just the person to show them that,” Kaplan agreed. “I pulled my snotty cruise aboard Agni when she was in command.” She snorted softly. “I understand she hasn’t exactly mellowed a lot with time, either!”

“I imagine that’s one way to put it,” Terekhov agreed. “And from everything I’ve ever heard about her, she’s still a cruiser captain at heart. Like someone else I know.” He smiled as Kaplan and Tallman chuckled, choosing not to mention any reservations about how desirable that might be in a fleet commander. “I’m sure she’ll have quite a bit to say about New Tuscany when she gets back from Montana next month.”

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