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Xenos on Cinnabar
The pair of footmen at the head of the stairs bowed to Daniel; the older one said, "Senator Kearnes will be most pleased that you're able to attend, Lieutenant Leary."
"Pleased to be here," Daniel said. He smiled as he passed into the ballroom which took up most of the second floor of the Kearnes townhouse. Indeed, he was pleased.
The invitation to Lira Kearnes' fortieth birthday gala specified that officers were to wear full medals rather than ribbons. The request might well have been intended to display Lieutenant Daniel Leary at his most splendid; certainly it had that effect.
The Republic of Cinnabar Navy was the sword of the republic, not a weapon of party politics. High RCN officers couldn't attend this ball because Bruno Kearnes was the central figure in several political battles of the sort that the RCN kept out of. The unspoken ban on attendance didn't apply to a twenty-four year old lieutenant. The fruit salad on the breast of Daniel's Dress Whites would've been impressive even for an admiral, however.
Daniel, lately commanding the corvette Princess Cecile,had returned with dispatches from Admiral Keith's squadron just in time to give Senator Kearnes his show. Daniel in turn was getting the kind of adulation that came to those whom the citizens of Cinnabar decided were genuine heroes. It was Lira Kearnes' gala, but it was Daniel Leary's night.
Daniel scanned the crowd, checking for anyone he might know among those present. The invitation had been to all four officers from the Princess Cecile: Midshipmen Dorst and Vesey, and First Lieutenant Conn Medorn, who not coincidentally was the nephew of Admiral Keith.
The Princess Cecile's signals officer, Adele Mundy, had been invited also-but not because she was an RCN warrant officer. Adele was Mundy of Chatsworth, head and sole survivor of one of the most noble families in the Republic. Her father-before his execution for treason-had been leader of the Popular Party. That was the territory if not precisely the title which Bruno Kearnes appeared to have marked for his own.
Daniel didn't see any of his fellows from the Sissie, but there was plenty of room in this swirling crowd to get lost. Besides, Daniel hadn't come here to find shipmates....
The small orchestra in the loft above the balcony swung into a polacca. Couples who weren't up to the lively music left the dance floor in the center of the enormous hall, but others took their place.
A portly banker with investments in shipbuilding remained with the younger couples, however; he danced with an enthusiasm that made up for his limited skills. His partner was probably closer to his granddaughter's age than that of his daughter. She complemented the banker's steps perfectly, just as the tiara of sapphires she wore complemented her blue eyes.
And those blue eyes caught Daniel's across the room as she dipped and spun.
Much of the Republic's wealth and beauty was here tonight. Daniel Leary could have any share of it he chose, any share, simply by stretching out his hand.
He grinned: which he'd likely do before long. He was a healthy young man, and the voyage back from the Galactic North with Admiral Keith's dispatches had been a long one.
"Leary!" called a saturnine man in a red velvet suit; his waistcoat flashed with metallic gold. Mawhire of Rondolet, recalled a rarely visited portion of Daniel's mind; an acquaintance of Daniel's father. Mawhire's clothing had made an impression on a child who even at seven was more comfortable hunting on the family estate than he was with the much crueler games that politicians got up to. "Daniel Leary! Come over here, boy, and let me introduce you to some friends of mine. My but you've grown since I last saw you!"
Which would've been about seventeen years ago, when Speaker Corder Leary broke the Three Circles Conspiracy and drowned it in blood. Daniel vaguely recalled that Mawhire had lost a cousin in the Proscriptions. ...
"Daniel Leary, may I present Senator Russell-that's Russell of Walsingham, you know ..." Mawhire said. Daniel bowed-nodded deeply-to a man with vacant eyes and more facets glittering on his fingers than there were in the crystal chandeliers above.
"... and Tomas Bayard of Bayard and Sons." Daniel bowed again, this time to an ancient man-he supposed Bayard was male-supporting himself in a walker. Stone-faced servants stood at either elbow just in case they were needed.
"Surprised to see you here, Leary," Bayard said in a cracked voice. "Given how your father and Bruno Kearnes get along. Don't get along."
He turned his head toward Mawhire, a quick motion that reminded Daniel of an ancient, poisonous, lizard casting for prey. "You know that story, Mawhire?" he demanded.
"I recall rumors," Senator Mawhire said, having the decency to look uncomfortable. "But it's not really a matter-"
"Speaker Leary and young Kearnes there don't get along because Leary and Lira Kearnes got along too well!" Bayard continued in glee. "Far too well!"
He broke into cackling laughter; it ended abruptly in a paroxysm of coughing. One of Bayard's attendants held his shoulders while the other slipped a large handkerchief over his mouth.
Daniel smiled pleasantly. I hope you bring your lungs up, you nasty little bastard, he thought. Aloud he said, "That would've been before my time, sir. And of course it's not the sort of thing a gentleman talks about."
"Gentlemen!" Bayard sneered. "All a gentleman's good for is feeding the worms!"
"That's the common lot of mankind, my dear Tomas," said a woman suddenly standing at Daniel's right elbow. Her voice was cultured and as smoothly cutting as a scalpel. "However the lieutenant here has already accomplished things that will keep his name alive after the worms have devoured what the doctors have left. Not so?"
"Faugh, glory!" Bayard said. "Women and fools set great store by it, I understand."
He started to turn away, but stiffness and the walker prevented him from doing so quickly enough. The woman added sweetly, "I suppose women you've had to learn about second hand, haven't you, you poor dear?"
Daniel allowed himself a satisfied smile toward the magnate's back. He wouldn't have responded to Bayard directly, out of courtesy toward a sick old man-however nasty-and from the sense of propriety ingrained by living within the rigid order of the RCN. He certainly wasn't displeased to watch somebody else kick the old bastard in the balls, though-and then put the boot in as he writhed on the floor.
He turned to the woman. She looked to be in her thirties, but that was probably as much a medical marvel as the fact Tomas Bayard was alive at all. She was undeniably handsome, but even "the thirties" was far too old for Daniel's taste.
"Mistress Jacopus," said Mawhire to the lady, "allow me to present the Lieutenant Daniel Leary of whom we've heard so much. I'd say Daniel was an old family friend, but in fact I can't claim to be any closer to Speaker Leary today than Kearnes is-or you are yourself, boy, from what I hear? Had quite a falling out with your father when you joined the navy, I heard?"
"I haven't spoken to my father in some years, that's true," Daniel said, letting his eyes rise as if to view the frescos of the high ceiling. Cherubs were teasing lions in various fashions in each panel, while between the paintings were stucco moldings of furious giants straining to burst through the frames they supported. He supposed the scenes were allegorical; another way of saying they were without interest to him. "I wonder if there's something to dr-"
"Do let me be your guide, Lieutenant," Mistress Jacopus said, taking his right arm in both hands; gently, but in a proprietary fashion nonetheless. "I have so many questions to ask you about your medals!"
The Jacopus family was famous for wealth and a determined neutrality in the Republic's rough-and-tumble-sometimes very rough-politics. Daniel had heard that one member of the family was the most famous hostess in Xenos; he didn't doubt that he'd just met her.
The orchestra was playing a hornpipe, but it was a restrained thing compared to what went by the same name in the spacers' bars around Harbor Three-or any other RCN liberty port. Daniel had spent his time in those bars when he was a midshipman, an officer by courtesy but not yet commissioned. Since fame had brought him invitations to dos like this one, he'd found little to regret about no longer being poor and obscure. The liquor was better and the women were much prettier. He'd never had much interest in dancing anyway.
Mistress Jacopus led him toward the refreshment table which was set in a corner, in front of double doors onto a parterre. Servants passed in and out, exchanging full trays and bottles to replace the those that had been browsed and drunk empty.
Jacopus was taking him by the long route, however, and at each step she nodded graciously and smiled to another guest. Occasionally she murmured a first name-"Dear Janni ..."-or title-"Senator, how nice,"-as they passed, savoring the looks of respect and-from some of the women-fury.
"I hope you don't mind me showing off my trophy, Lieutenant," she said in his ear as though murmuring endearments. "Because you are quite a trophy, you know."
"Ah, mistress-" Daniel said.
"Christine, please," she said. "And you needn't worry that I'll embarrass you later. I know quite a lot about your tastes, including the sort of young friends you prefer for recreation. I'd offer to help you there, but I'm sure a handsome hero like yourself is capable of making his own arrangements."
"That's generally been the case in the past, ah, Christine," Daniel said. "And I do appreciate you, ah, helping me out of an awkwardness."
Daniel didn't like to talk about his father for a number of reasons, not least that he didn't have anything to say about Corder Leary. They'd had little contact even before the break-which was over Corder's remarriage, not Daniel's career. He'd joined the RCN in reaction to that blazing row, not as the cause of it.
Daniel had spent his childhood on the family estate of Bantry, learning a little about decorum from his mother-a saint, as everybody agreed-and a great deal about hunting, fishing and manhood from Hogg, a family retainer. There'd been Hoggs poaching on Bantry from the days of the first human settlement, long before the Hiatus in star travel drew a thousand-year line through history.
In the eight years since the row, Daniel and Corder Leary'd had no contact whatever. Words had been said that would've meant pistols at dawn if those speaking hadn't been father and son, but even beyond that ...
Corder Leary was a stiff-necked, stubborn man who'd never backed down in a fight. Daniel wasn't his father and wouldn't have wanted to be him; but much as Daniel revered his late mother, he knew very well that his temper and his backbone hadn't come from her side of the family.
There was a crush at the refreshments table. Daniel hadn't really been thirsty, just uncomfortable at the direction Mawhire had taken the conversation, and Christine Jacopus simply wanted to be seen with the lion of the evening. Instead of forcing his way through, he paused to look around again.
By the etiquette of upper-class Xenos, the only regular servants on the floor were those behind the refreshments table. The guests' personal attendants were in the balcony above. They could be summoned to meet their employer in a hallway if required or even escorted onto the floor by a member of the Kearnes household in event of an outside emergency.
Many of the guests-perhaps a quarter of the total, Daniel guessed, smiling faintly-were accompanied by silent men and women in simple dress. If you didn't know who they were, they could pass for poor relations of the glittering guests they stayed close to.
In fact they were ... well, calling them guards would be harsh but not inaccurate. They were employed by various couturiers, jewelers, and pawn brokers. They accompanied not the guests but rather the clothing and accouterments which the guests wore and hadn't paid for; that they very probably couldn't pay for. By convention, nobody "noticed" them.
"What is this one, Daniel?" Christine said, touching the spray of gold feathers dusted with real rubies waving from the peak of his dress hat. She leaned against him a little more closely than she need to have done.
"Oh, the aigrette?" said Daniel, squinting sideways. "That's the Kostroma Star, a, ah, foreign decoration. From an allied foreign power, of course, or I wouldn't be permitted to wear it."
Though in truth the fourragere of gold and silver cords across his left breast was the Order of Strymon in Diamonds; the stones on the clasp at his epaulette were the size of a child's teeth. In theory it entitled the wearer to the freedom of Strymon, a planet Daniel didn't expect ever to visit again as an RCN officer.
It was stretching the point a good deal to describe President Delos Vaughn as an ally of Cinnabar, as the events that put him in power had been not only unauthorized by Cinnabar's Ministry of External Affairs but actively hindered by those well-meaning diplomats. Still, the award was too striking for Daniel not to wear it unless he were flatly forbidden.
Foreigners had vulgar taste, far inferior to that of Cinnabar, of course. But Daniel had learned that girls-the girls he found attractive-didn't object to a bit of vulgarity; and truth to tell, the taste of rural districts like Bantry wasn't nearly as muted as that here in Xenos, the capital.
Christine touched one medal after another, her lips working silently. A circle of guests was forming about them like mother-of-pearl coating a sand grain in the mantle of a shellfish; not pressing, but rapt in anticipation of what they might hear. Powerful nobles and very beautiful women, wondering what the heroic Lieutenant Leary might say!
Daniel knew it didn't matter. These same people would howl and kick his naked body down the street tomorrow if he were disgraced and executed; they'd done that with many of those implicated in the Three Circles Conspiracy. The folk quickest to spurn the fallen were those who'd cheered the loudest in the days before their overthrow.
It didn't matter-but he was young and he was human. "That ..." Daniel said as Christine ran the sash of red silk and cloth-of-gold between her fingers. He spoke to the older woman, but his eyes met those of the petite blonde beaming from just beyond her. "... makes me a Royal Companion of Novy Sverdlovsk as I understand it. I was fortunate enough to recover a valuable artifact for the throne and gained Sverdlovsk's support for a Cinnabar initiative in the Galactic North as a result."
The artifact was a diamond engraved with the continents of Old Earth before the wars in which asteroids had smashed the planet out of its former shape. Daniel had traded it for a warship, and with that ship he-and the finest crew that ever blessed an RCN captain-had smashed an Alliance squadron. The sash was showy. For the same incident Admiral Keith had awarded Daniel the Medal of the Republic in Red-a small bronze cross with a ruby point in the center.
Civilians marveled at the sash. RCN officers braced to attention and saluted when they saw the medal.
The orchestra played a few bars as a signal. Couples began forming for a sarabande.
"Now, Daniel," Christine said, holding his right hand with her left but turning to take the hand of the blonde beside her. "May I present Thora, the daughter of my great friend Senator Bencini?"
She brought their hands together. Thora simpered becomingly; her fingers gripped Daniel with more than formal enthusiasm.
Excerpted from The Way to Glory by David Drake Copyright ©2005 by David Drake. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted June 29, 2009
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