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Lacey's ship settled onto Brendan's lock at 0910 of the morning after the Captain ascended from Bessemer: the site of the unsuccessful attack planned by Marcus and Yancey, and carried out by Kerry, who failed in his attempt to seize Lacey's ship, and kill Lacey, his wife, and his crewmen. Infinitely glad that the plot designed to blacken his reputation as well as deprive him of his life, and also to blast the accord between Gaea and Columbia, the Captain rejoiced at knowing that he could soon unload and deliver the cargo of restricted goods that so nearly passed into the hands of renegades.
To the spacer-captain's considerable surprise, he beheld Adela precede Brendan through the hatch.
Impulsively thrusting both arms around Lacey's startled wife, the elderly woman held her in a close embrace.
"Morgan called us, Adrienne, and told us what you did," Adela exclaimed, her voice quavering. "I haven't the words to tell you how grateful we are!" Her eyes brimming with tears, she added, "We've come close to losing both Morgan and Jess, so often! Far too often! They lead dreadfully dangerous lives! But this time, it wasn't only Jess's life, but her honor as well. We owe you a major debt!"
Flushing hotly in embarrassment as she recalled just how she killed Kerry, Adrienne tightened her arms around Morgan's mother, and urged softly, "Don't cry, Adela. Please. The danger's past, and no harm came to Morgan or Jess."
As tears coursed down his wife's cheeks, Brendan, his own voice husky with emotion, addressed Lacey.
"For twenty-two Earthyears now, we've lived with the knowledge that we could lose Morgan any day," he confided bleakly."We've been lucky ... more so than others of our family. Owen and his wife lost a daughter ... Madelyn. She died fighting in a lock ... fell before Morgan's eyes ... during that same battle where he ... encountered you. Then ... they lost their son ... Sean. He was one of the two envoys who died when Galt ... as we now know ... sabotaged their ship. That dual sorrow ... loss of their only children ... led to Owen's wife's early death.
"Morgan freely chose to serve in the Corps. Our son loves the life. So does Jess. We've adapted to living with the constant worry, but it takes a toll, Lacey. We most surely do owe Adrienne, and yourself as well. If all of you had been killed, the news would have devastated us, but never ... never! ... would I have believed you'd gone renegade ... turned thief! Never! I hope you realize that."
Shaken to his depths by the revelation regarding Owen, touched to the core by Brendan's vehement final declaration, Lacey gripped his associate's hand in both of his own, as he replied huskily, "Signe tried to tell me that you wouldn't have believed me capable of such treachery. I'm surely grateful that your faith in me, and hers, didn't have to be put to so harsh a test. I appreciate your trust, and I'm deeply sorry to learn of Owen's tragic loss: one dreadful for all of you."
Standing holding Brendan's hand clasped in his, Lacey recalled the past.
Sean! the veteran silently expostulated. One of those murdered envoys was Owen's son! That day got etched so deeply in my memory! I loosed a pulse that came within a few meters of blasting a Gaean ship, and only recently did I learn that Signe watched the envoys' descent from the board of that vessel! Damn Galt to the mythical fire!
Brendan's reply impinged, overriding vivid recollections. "Owen's sorrow aged him. My brother is twelve Earthyears younger than I, but you'd never know it."
"I honor his ability to rise above hatred, after experiencing such bitter pain," the Captain affirmed with transparent sincerity. "I value Owen's friendship the more, for knowing what you just revealed."
"You've put injuries behind you as well, Lacey. I'm glad those men are in custody. Your world's well rid of them."
"I expect that between the Corps and the Columbian government, the plotters behind the attack will shortly be taken. That'll undoubtedly remove one formidable obstacle to interworld trade, if the man we suspect to be the instigator turns out to be guilty."
"I hope so!"
Turning to Adrienne, whom Adela had released, Brendan embraced the ex-courtesan in his turn. "Thank you," he murmured, his voice unsteady, and his own eyes moist. "You're as courageous as you are resourceful!"
Near tears herself, Adrienne hugged the Gaean in her turn.
Mastering his emotion, Brendan held her away. "And simply as a broker, Adrienne, you're unbelievable!" he declared. "You've exceeded my wildest hopes!"
The successful negotiator managed a tremulous smile. "I was lucky, Brendan. But now, we need to work out a schedule of periodic deliveries to Meyer's clients, and to Alexis. I have to know what you'll take in return. Alexis prefers to barter, and Meyer's clients hope to arrange such an exchange, if possible."
"We can do that right now. Lacey, we'll have to vacate this part of the ship, will we not? Could the two of you join Adela and me for coffee, and then stay to lunch after my broker and I confer? I've got a crew standing by to help Rafael to offload, and stow the new cargo."
"We'd enjoy that, Brendan."
Seated in the family-head's private office, where Adela served coffee, Lacey engaged the matron in conversation, while Adrienne and Brendan compared lists of desired items, and arranged barter exchanges.
Shyly, the Gaean matron confided, "When Brendan finishes conferring with Adrienne, Lacey, I've a list of my own to give her. Caitlin and I, and three other women--wives of Brendan's cousins--went together on an order for small feminine items. That demand could grow, I rather think. I hope it doesn't become a nuisance!"
"No way do I regard it as such, Adela. We'll fit your items into odd spaces in the hold. If necessary, we'll reserve space just for such small orders. So feel free to expand the demand, if you can."
"Caitlin still enthusiastically tells everyone how much she enjoyed the trip. They're not here today, nor is Owen. The family business includes branches and facilities located on other planetoids, so Anselm and Owen are gone fairly often."
Feeling at home, Lacey chatted pleasantly with the hostess now fully in command of herself. When his colleagues finished, he computed shipping charges, juggling offerings so as to achieve nearly ideal loads.
When at length the three associates concluded their business, and sat talking over fresh cups of coffee, Lacey remarked, "I'll start a systematic search for a ship to purchase, when I get back to Columbia, Brendan. I'm well acquainted with one elderly owner who might consider selling out if he knew he'd receive the full price when he closed the deal. The man has reached the age where he wouldn't have to reinvest that credit promptly, in order to escape a huge profit tax. I'll approach him, as soon as I can."
"I'm having Efrem install the two-way equipment. As soon as that chore's completed, I'll establish a credit balance in the Columbian bank under my name--register my surname code there--and deposit two and a half million credits. That amount will be available by the time you've arranged for a purchase. The seller won't have to suffer through the tedious process of clearing interworld drafts through two Ministries of Communication and Finance, as did Marshall."
"That would be convenient for all concerned."
Warmth suffused the Columbian as he lifted his ship. Brendan and Adela consider us close friends, he reflected, savoring the joy that conclusion produced. When a Gaean accepts you, he goes all the way. Damn! What a tragic life Owen has lived! It's a wonder he could put the war behind him. To lose a daughter that way!
Wrenching pain washed over the man himself a father.
I expect I've lost my daughters, he mourned. They'll likely never forgive me for what I did to Elena. I suppose I should have called each of them, and tried to explain, but what could I say, after promising Elena I'd not contest anything she said? I'd only have made matters worse ... deepened the breach. Well ... at least I know that Nicole and Cecily are alive and well ... comfortably settled, and married to decent husbands.
Making a conscious effort to shake off depression, Lacey glanced at Adrienne, who lay smiling to herself, her pleasure in the recent visit unalloyed by any painful reflections. I told her, he reminded himself with a trace of smugness. We have made a place for ourselves--in three worlds!
After descending at 1100 on the following day, Lacey oversaw the offloading and fueling. No sooner did he and Adrienne return to the bridge, than Alexis raised one of the two men manning the board, who summoned the Captain. Smiling into the ruggedly handsome face of his associate, the Minister extended his invitation.
"Arlen hasn't left, given that he's still working with Basil, Lacey," he added. "I've invited Signe and Arlen. Neville and Basil are coming, with their wives. Both men wish to thank Adrienne personally. Colette looks forward to seeing your wife again. We're hoping you and Adrienne can come. Would 1700 be a convenient time for you?"
Lacey shot a glance at his spouse, whose face exhibited a comical blend of surprise, pleasure and dismay. He raised his eyebrows in a mute question, his expression leaving no doubt in his partner's mind that his appeal merely constituted a polite formality. When she nodded weakly, Lacey replied warmly, "We accept with pleasure, Alexis."
Rising abruptly from the place she had taken at the board, where Liam and Truman tactfully kept their eyes on their work, Adrienne made an eloquent if silent appeal that Lacey follow her to their cabin. No whit loath to do so, he headed in that direction. Keeping his inner mirth off his face, the autocrat fixed his wife with a stern glance, and awaited her comments.
Resolved never again to bring down on her head a repeat the incandescent wrath that led to her husband's resorting to violence, Adrienne chose her words with exquisite care, and delivered them in a voice of deceptive calm.
"Lacey, do you suppose Audrey just experienced a change of heart? And what's Basil's wife like?" she inquired.
"I admire your delicate phrasing, woman. I hate to have to tell you this, but I doubt that Audrey has changed her thinking. I rather suspect that Alexis invited three men he knew would enjoy your company, without giving much thought to how their wives would react."
"What's Basil's wife like?" Fearing the worst, Adrienne regarded her smiling husband out of stony eyes.
"To be truthful, Adrienne, Enid's a haughtier version of Audrey."
Glaring mutinously at the husband concealing the bulk of his inward hilarity, Adrienne could not trust herself to speak calmly. Men, she railed bitterly. They want everything their own way!
Admiring his irate wife's self-restraint, Lacey pulled her stiffly unresponsive body close. "Adrienne, you needn't worry that either woman will allow her feelings to show. Neville will persuade Audrey to behave in a manner befitting the wife of the First Minister, and Basil will bluntly order Enid to exhibit fitting politeness. I know both men well. Neither would tolerate one slip by his wife!"
"What a comforting thought!"
Lacey's inner merriment spilled around the guard he had maintained, emerging as a chuckle. "Don't look so glum, woman," he chided gently. "Colette and Signe will be glad to see you. I expect that Arlen drove home to Neville and Basil that you did the Columbian government a valuable service. Both Neville's and Alexis' careers would have suffered drastically if that attempt had succeeded.
"Audrey's not a bad person. She's likeable, actually--just very conventional. She and Enid are bosom friends of Elena's, which no doubt stiffens their resistance to accepting you, but I feel sorrier for Colette than for you! She's got her work as hostess cut out for her!"
Holding his wife away, Lacey smiled into her reproachful, pink-cheeked face. "Adrienne, Colette's a friend worth winning. She faces a difficult task, tonight. I don't suppose Alexis consulted her before inviting the other three men. You and Signe can both think rings around Audrey and Enid. Help Colette to manage a difficult social duty, and she'll rest in debt to you. I'll wager she spends half her life bored stiff by the wives of Alexis' fellow ministers!"
Brightening as she pondered that shrewd appeal, the woman still fearing social ostracism by frigidly disapproving matrons conceded, "I do like Colette, Lacey, and I think she likes me. I suppose I'll have to resign myself to meeting her in such gatherings, if I'm ever to get to know her well. I'll do my best. What do ladies wear to the homes of ministers?"
"Signe will wear her uniform, as will Arlen. I doubt that Signe owns any civilian clothes. You can wear your spare blue suit, as will I. Audrey will wear an outfit similar to the one she wore to the reception--perhaps the same one. They're not inviting us to observe our attire, woman. Of course, you could wear your rose outfit. The men would be entranced!"
Outraged, Adrienne snapped, "I was thinking of seeing if my tailor could deliver me a new ensemble in time! One cut conservatively!"
His black eyes dancing with mischief, Lacey shot back, "If doing so serves to repair your shattered self-confidence, I'll buy it for you!"
Glaring at her patently amused spouse, Adrienne valiantly controlled her own badly frayed temper.
Aware that he had pushed her to the edge, Lacey again pulled her close, and murmured, "No matter what you wear, wife, you're still the most beautiful woman in Columbia. That's not why I love you, but it's a nice bonus."
Before she could reply, her husband's mouth closed over hers. Her stiffness swiftly dissolved under the ardent force of his intimate caress.
Lacey means that, Adrienne admitted, responding to his questing tongue. Buoyed by the strength of her partner's still-potent determination, she resolved to wring what pleasure she could from the dinner-party.
On hearing the request, Letitia apologetically protested that she saw no chance of producing a suit in just a few hours. "My girls are caring for my mother, who's in her last illness, Adrienne. They haven't worked for ten days now. The end will come any time. Even if I start a suit, I might have to leave it suddenly. My salon will be closed for a few days, then. I regret being unable to oblige you."
"I'm so sorry to hear of your imminent loss, Letitia! Of course I understand. I'll call you soon, and order a suit, after you're past this time of sorrow. I'm thoroughly pleased with the outfit your girls fashioned!"
Concluding the call, Adrienne resigned herself to appearing in spacer blue. Poor woman, she reflected. Letitia works so hard. She raised two girls alone. She deserves better out of life than she got, after losing her husband in the war.
After a leisurely shower, which did nothing to relax the knot in her gut, the social outcast emerged from the bathcabin with her hair flowing over her shoulders, and seated herself before her dressing table. Lacey strode over to stand behind her. Their eyes met in the mirror.
"Woman, I'm issuing an ultimatum," he informed her in a tone conveying finality. "When you finish arranging your hair, I want to see waves. And I expect you to smell like Adrienne!"
Meeting that glance of pure determination, the lovely woman indulged in the wicked smile. "Playing the heavy Columbian husband yourself, are you? All right. Waves I can manage."
Leaning down, Lacey kissed his wife under an ear. "One of these days, you'll develop self-confidence enough to wear your hair the old way. I can wait." Collecting his spare suit, he retired to the bathcabin.
As she brushed and coiled her hair, her fingers deftly sculpting the heavy tresses into waves framing her heart-shaped face, Adrienne addressed the image in the mirror. "I somehow doubt that Enid and Audrey will greatly bolster the self-confidence of an ex-courtesan broker who just killed a lecherous brute planning mass murder, after servicing him right under the eyes of a Gaean more rigidly upright even than Audrey," she muttered aloud. Sighing, she relapsed into silence, and pondered direly unsettling notions.
My perishing soul! Jess never blinked when she heard Arlen say what he did. She looked ... amused! As if she condoned my turning the tables on Marcus the same way I did on Kerry! She said she and Morgan knew what profession I'd followed. Whatever did they hear? And from whom? Surely not from ... Amin? Oh, my frazzled nerves. Would Arlen have told Signe that he and I at one time ... No way. He'd never tell his wife that! Most especially not a Gaean wife!
But ... might she have guessed? If she does suspect, she seems not to hold our once having been lovers against me. Nor did Jess hold what she saw me do with Kerry, against me. Well ... I am what I am. What I was. If I hadn't duped and killed Kerry, he'd have raped Jess: injured her dreadfully, and perhaps even let his men ... Oh, don't think of what horrors might have ensued! Don't. Just be glad Owen gave you those pins perfectly designed for your dire need.
Owen. Poor man, what sorrow he has known! Don't reject his gift, because of that foul brute's dying the way he did. No--Lacey's right.
Resolutely, the woman proud of having won Owen's friendship reached into her enameled case, and withdrew the two gleaming black pins. Purposefully, she thrust them through the coil rather more loosely formed than had been her recent wont.
"There," she vouchsafed to the image she again addressed aloud, "I'm past the squeamishness." Observing the securely bound if rather elaborately fashioned coil in the retractable hand-mirror extending out from the side wall, which reflected the view to the eyes looking into the silver-framed main mirror, Adrienne laughed aloud.
My overbearing ruffian of a husband will have to be satisfied with this arrangement, she declared to herself. No wanton locks--no bobbing curls that send an utterly inappropriate message. No way!
Conscious of having pushed his wife to the brink of mutiny earlier, Lacey resolved at this crucial juncture to bolster her self-confidence. "Your hair looks lovely, woman! Much better than it has looked lately," he assured her with perfect truth. "And I'm delighted to see that you're wearing Owen's gift. Let's go." Appearing in the mirror behind the wife still seated with her back to him, the Captain affectionately squeezed her shoulders.
Host and hostess warmly greeted the first guests to arrive.
"Adrienne, you saved my career as well as Neville's, by your daring act," Alexis vouchsafed with vehement force as he gripped the ex-courtesan's hands in his own. "I still can't believe Marcus went to the lengths he did! If he had succeeded, the political consequences would have been unthinkable!"
"Columbia owes you," Colette added with patent sincerity. "As do I. I know exactly what Alexis' career means to him!"
Waving his guests into seats in his sitting area, Alexis announced with evident satisfaction, "Marcus's rash act--attempting to hold Neville hostage while wielding a deadly device--served to confirm his guilt even before a tribunal handed down a sentence. That incident seems to have created a backlash of sympathy with our progressive views, within the Council. I'm hoping that..."
A buzz from the door sent the host striding to greet the new arrivals. Signe's and Arlen's entrance coincided with that of Neville and his wife.
Upon reflecting, Audrey had conceded the truth of her husband's shrewd observation that a fatal blow to his political career would have grievously damaged her own social position. Acutely aware of Nadine's horrid plight, and exquisitely conscious of the duties Neville's position laid on his wife, Audrey arrived in a far different frame of mind than that generated initially by the invitation. Resigned to the notion that the ex-courtesan now held a firm place in the society of the capital, the matron greeted Colette, and then remarked politely to the guest of honor, "So nice to see you again, Adrienne. Lacey, how are you?"
Effectively hiding her shock, the inwardly tense guest favored the socialite with a limpid smile, and replied, "What a pleasure, our meeting again."
As if no rift had ever occurred in the relations between them, Lacey responded gallantly, "I'm the better for the chance to visit with old friends, Audrey. You're looking lovely tonight!" His eyes swept approvingly over the new suit the matron decided to wear only after achieving her belated acceptance of the state of affairs.
"Why, thank you!" the recipient of the compliment replied, flushing rosily.
Neville's talents as a diplomat evidently just reached new heights, Lacey decided, amusement contending with admiration, though neither emotion showed on his face.
Having greeted host and hostess, Neville took Adrienne's hands firmly in his own. "My government might not have survived the political repercussions your bold action prevented," he declared with heartfelt sincerity. "I owe you more than I can repay. I thank you, Adrienne."
Touched to the core, the woman well used to conversing with the cream of Columbia's power structure offered a response unmarked by any timidity generated by consciousness of this man's high rank. "Your leadership has brought significant and continual change for the better, ever since your tenure began, Neville. Hopefully, with Marcus gone, you'll find your task easier."
That warm encomium, couched in a cultured voice, both surprised and impressed the First Minister. "I hope so," he responded warmly. "And I appreciate your kind words! I've found engineering beneficial changes uphill work, at times."
At this juncture, Basil escorted Enid through the door. Smoothly, Alexis introduced the couple to Adrienne, who beheld a regal woman, tall, shapely, her square face framed in short, elaborately coiffed, dark-gold hair.
Smiling woodenly, Enid declared, "I'm glad to meet you," in a tone kept utterly expressionless.
Having returned her fellow guest a serene smile, Adrienne replied with non-effusive cordiality, "I'm pleased to meet you, Enid."
Basil forthrightly held out his hand. "My compliments on your recent resolute action, Adrienne. Our government stands in debt to you: my ministry in particular."
Returning the Minister's firm grip, Adrienne smiled into flinty gray eyes. "You overestimate the importance of my action, Basil, but thank you. I'm glad to meet you. I've long admired the manner in which you handled the difficult transition generated by the advent of peace. You've created an efficiently functioning service remarkably sensitive to the civil rights of individual citizens."
Flabbergasted at a woman's offering that polished tribute--one he welcomed, and one he sensed to be wholly sincere--Basil exclaimed, "I don't know when I've been paid a compliment I find more welcome than that!"
On overhearing that exchange, Arlen added praise of his own. "No cinch, the job you faced, Basil. Between them, Galt and Roylott left you a shambles. In eight Earthyears, you've worked wonders."
"Arlen, between you and Adrienne, you risk afflicting an old case-man with a badly bloated ego!"
At this point, Alexis ushered his guests into his sitting area, where Colette served coffee. Smiling at Adrienne over the rim of his cup, Alexis pointedly addressed his remark to the woman whose bearing he admired.
"My researchers discovered five intriguing applications of Gaeanite to electronics, Adrienne, while working in conjunction with Eugene's engineers and technicians. Eugene judges that his purchase will pay for itself twice over, due to those discoveries."
"I'm delighted to hear that! Lacey and I familiarized ourselves with data available in the bank--rather thin data. Efrem suspects that researchers here might possibly discover more uses than even the Gaeans have. He stressed that in some areas, notably laser applications, Columbian technology far surpasses Gaean."
Nodding, Neville observed, "During my last visit to the University, Clayton assured me that a flurry of reports would soon appear under the seals of several departments, his own included."
No whit backward about joining the conversation, Colette sought to satisfy genuine curiosity. "Lacey, I've never seen a sample of the alloy. Have you one you could show me, some time?"
His face wreathed in a mischievous grin, the spacer-captain replied, "If I had known of your interest ahead of time, Colette, I'd have brought the sample Signe and Arlen gave Adrienne and me as a wedding present, but if you'd like to see an item manufactured of the alloy, my wife could probably be persuaded to show you one of the two she's wearing."
Taken aback, Adrienne nonetheless determined to oblige the hostess. "Owen, Brendan's brother and partner, showed us through their manufacturing plant," she explained. "He generously asked us each to choose a gift, which we could use as a sample to show prospective buyers. These pins were designed as inserts for the handles of costly household knives, but I use them as hairpins."
Having drawn one of the sleek black pins from her coil, Adrienne handed it to the economist.
"My word! It's far more massive than one would expect from its size! Look, Audrey. What lovely golden tracery!"
Rising, the hostess passed the pin to the wife of the First Minister: a woman well able to appreciate fine jewelry. "My, yes! Superb craftsmanship, the inlay! Look how sharply the tracery stands out against that lustrous black metal!" Smiling with genuine warmth at the ex-courtesan, Audrey passed the pin to Enid.
"It is highly unusual," that haughty dame remarked, unbending a bit as she unconsciously followed Audrey's lead. After examining the inlay, Enid handed the pin to her husband.
Having read the report submitted by the officer in charge of the squad that hauled away the three corpses following the aborted piratical attack, Basil knew exactly how Adrienne had encompassed Kerry's death. Hefting the pin in his hand while gazing intently at her exquisitely lovely face and lissome figure, the seasoned security officer let his imagination paint a lurid picture of just what this exotically attractive woman must have done, to position her unsuspecting victim for such a swift, deadly insertion. He passed no comment, but Adrienne guessed his thoughts. A painful flush rose to darken her creamy cheeks: a reaction the shrewd observer immediately noticed.
Seeking to draw the eyes of the hostess from his manifestly embarrassed wife, Lacey confided, "Owen presented me with a knife: a weapon as beautifully crafted as those pins. Amazing, the slenderness of the blade! I should have brought my gift along, to show all of you."
Determining on abetting Lacey's attempt to draw attention from the guest of honor's telltale blush, Arlen coaxed, "Since Adrienne has been kind enough to risk disarranging her hair to assuage our curiosity, Signe, would you be willing to display your sample?"
To Adrienne's surprise, the legendary warrior flushed even more deeply than she herself had done. Glancing from face to face, Signe gauged the intensity of the general interest. After a brief hesitation, she nodded resignedly. "I will ... trusting that none of you will ever mention to anyone where I carry it."
Instantly, Colette declared vehemently, "Signe, everyone here is well used to keeping secrets! We won't breathe a word, ever!"
Fully as curious as the hostess, Enid added her assurances. "Of course not! Please show us, Signe."
Rising with fluid grace, the warrior knelt on one knee. Slipping a finger down inside her boot, against the double-stitched outer seam, she withdrew an extremely thin, lustrous, black throwing-knife, grooved down its length on each side of the narrow blade, which tapered to a needlepoint. A trapezoidal ring served as haft. Holding the wicked sliver just above the point, the peerless warrior balanced the weapon in her fingers.
Fascinated, the four men who instantly clustered around her took turns examining the slender blade.
"It's designed for throwing, is it not?" Basil inquired.
"That's right. It's not a chivalrous weapon, as Arlen well knows, but on a very few occasions, when I've been badly outnumbered by unchivalrous types, it proved handy."
"I'll wager you don't miss, either," Lacey remarked.
"If a person isn't certain he won't miss, he oughtn't to try launching it."
Gingerly handing the evil looking weapon to Enid, Audrey tried to imagine a woman's living the sort of life where she employed the skills Signe possessed. The matron's power of mind proved unequal to the task. I wonder what Adrienne used to kill that renegade? she wondered for the twentieth time. I can't ask! And Neville wouldn't say. Perhaps she hit him over the head with something. I could picture a woman's doing that, but to throw this ... The lurid image spreading across the screen of her mind produced a palpable shudder.
Balancing the blade as its owner had, Enid tried to visualize what it would be like to hurl the weapon at someone. I can't imagine, she acknowledged with a shiver. I could never ... A thought struck her. "Signe," she asked diffidently, overawed by the Commander's high rank and air of command, "would you be willing to demonstrate how you throw this weapon?"
"If you wish, I'll demonstrate," Signe responded graciously, not wishful of refusing this proud matron now thawing visibly. Ruefully, she glanced at the host, who flashed her his vivid grin as he asked, "What do you wish to use for a target, Signe? I'll fix something."
"Six bars of soap, Alexis, and stout tape."
Elated at the warrior's acquiescence to his peer's wife's request, the Minister vanished into the bathcabin, and returned bearing the requested items. Deftly, Signe taped the six bars together to form a solid block, which she fastened to a counter.
"Stand to my right, just behind me," she instructed the guests, positioning herself on the far side of the cabin from the target.
Poised lightly on her feet while balancing the blade in her fingers, the Commander gauged the distance. With a blurred motion of her right arm, she launched the missile. A gasp escaped more than one witness as the slim black blade buried itself to the ring in the six bars of soap.
A chorus of astonished exclamations greeted the demonstration.
"By all the wealth of Earth, Signe, that's amazing!" Neville breathed, recalling his brush with death. "Your aim's deadly with any weapon, as I can attest!"
"I'll wager you could spin a few tales connected with that blade," Lacey hinted, his eyes brimming with mischief.
"Signe won't, but I'll tell one, Lacey." Ignoring his embarrassed wife's silent communication, Arlen related how his co-commander once led a force comprised of two captains to rescue Amin from the hands of a band of renegades, and how Signe employed her blade to drop their chief in the act of using a woman as a shield, in a desperate attempt to escape.
When Arlen finished answering the questions sparked by his narrative, Alexis invited his guests to sit down to dinner. Seated between Neville and Basil, diagonally across from Audrey and Enid, and opposite Lacey, Adrienne readily joined in a discussion of the new opportunities opening in the sphere of interworld commerce. Trading comments with the men with her usual flair, she soon grew aware that the two socialites, unable to contribute, were being left out of the conversation, given that Colette had become absorbed in a lively three-way debate with Signe and Arlen. Alexis, at the opposite end of the table from his wife, eagerly contributed ideas to the discussion in which the others engaged.
On impulse, the former social outcast smiled directly at Audrey, and passed a remark that she hoped would draw them into the general discourse.
"Purely by accident, I've discovered an aspect of interworld trade worth pursuing," she announced. After giving a brief sketch of her ordering service, she asked, "Audrey, do you think a tailor as skilled as the one who fashioned that stunning suit you're wearing, would consider it essential to see the customer in person, to equal that feat? Or could a tailor work from measurements accompanied by a description? I'm well aware that people's figures are quite individual."
Realizing with shock that this ex-courtesan--a social outcast with every reason to feel spiteful towards the sort of women disposed to recoil from meeting her socially--just addressed her purely out of a desire to be tactful, Audrey generated genuine gratitude.
"Why, I'm not sure," she replied graciously. "Freda likes to have her regulars come in once an Earthyear for new measurements. People's bodies change somewhat as they age, or slack off on taking their exercise. But if the measurements were current, and quite detailed, I don't see why a tailor would need to see the woman in person."
"Adela and Caitlin both raved over Freda's skill, and made a point of telling me that they'd each ordered a suit from her," Adrienne confided. "Gaean families are scattered over so many isolated planetoids, that it's harder for even wealthy women to travel to the best tailors."
Pleased by that news, Audrey smiled warmly.
Chancing to hear that latter remark, Signe gave out with a peal of silvery laughter. "Your tact I regard as admirable, but unnecessary, Adrienne," she remarked mischievously. "Any Gaean who's honest will freely admit that Gaean tailoring skill is about on a par with Gaean coffee manufacture."
"Surely not!" Lacey demurred, chuckling. "Your coffee occupies a class by itself--at the very bottom of the list of Gaean accomplishments."
Arlen, whose casual elegance of dress had always set him apart even among men who prided themselves on their superbly tailored uniforms, drawled ironically, "Don't believe that, Lacey. Most Gaeans consider clothing to be purely utilitarian. Few seek out exceptionally skilled tailors. I still can't really imagine how Signe came up with those original seventy sets of uniforms that fit each Corpsman to perfection, without having ever seen half of the recipients herself!"
A new peal of infectious laughter warmed everyone at the table. "I knew I had to meet your exacting standards!" the warrior acknowledged.
Himself a model of sartorial perfection, Alexis wrestled with the original question. "There ought to be a way to combine measurements with a holographic image, Adrienne," he suggested, his nimble mind supplying a workable hypothesis. "That would serve to give the tailor a feel for the subtle differences in people's shapes."
"Why, that just might make the difference!" the fledgling entrepreneur gasped, intrigued by the novel notion.
Exhibiting tact equal to Adrienne's, Colette pounced on what she perceived to be a marvelous opportunity to please a guest. "Enid, you create such lovely holographic prints. What do you think?"
Flattered by that appeal, the socially prominent matron whose unconventional hobby had caused a minor stir when she first took it up replied affably, "I don't see why a holographic image--the full three-dimensional projected image, not a holographic print--wouldn't serve as well as having the person standing there, Colette."
Belatedly, Enid realized with shock equal to Audrey's, that Adrienne had gone out of her way to be tactful. Finding the ex-courtesan to be nothing like what she had expected, the haughty matron unbent a bit further.
"Basil's holographers have a way of superimposing measurements over an image, Adrienne," she explained. "They use the process on the views they broadcast to describe fugitives. I learned about that when one of my husband's employees kindly supplied technical help when we set up my studio. Wouldn't that technique work for a tailor, Basil?"
"Why, of course it would! What a superb idea! Crandall could explain the process, Adrienne. The measurements are derived directly from the image, not taken separately, and then added on." Genuinely impressed by the shrewd correlation, the flinty-eyed Minister beamed upon his wife.
Adrienne's face lit with genuine delight. "Enid, that sounds like the perfect solution to a problem I had begun to regard as insoluble! I'll certainly look into your suggestion!"
Warmed to the core by her autocratic husband's ungrudging praise, Enid went so far as to smile graciously on the guest she had so disdained to meet.
After dinner, while the hostess and her female guests cleared the table, Alexis poured each man a generous measure of a costly brandy. Colette served the women coffee, and everyone again gathered in the sitting area. Acting in deliberate defiance of custom, the hostess made no attempt to collect the women in a separate grouping.
Seating himself between Signe and Adrienne, Alexis pointedly engaged the two women in the conversation he initiated. His inner mirth perfectly concealed, Arlen supported the unorthodox effort with the polished courtesy habitual to him. Gallantly, Lacey engaged Enid in conversation about her hobby. Signe, Colette and Adrienne, enlivening the general discussion, took pains to include Audrey and Enid.
His eyes twinkling as he recalled Signe's diplomatic handling of her predicament at Lacey's quarters, Neville conversed with the women with actual relish. Basil, his initial shock at Adrienne's compliment proceeding to profound respect for the ex-courtesan's obvious power of mind, now found himself thoroughly enjoying the unconventional situation. Audrey and Enid, a bit bemused at the turn the evening had taken, but flattered at finding their opinions sought by the men, reached the astounding conclusion that they thought the change refreshing.
Back aboard their ship, Adrienne again found herself admitting wryly to her husband that his judgment had been unerringly sound. "But didn't I tell you, Lacey, that Colette would do her own bit to change the times?" she pointed out. "She certainly set a social precedent tonight--with the First Minister, two members of his Council, and two visiting heads of state. She's working from the top down!"
"She and Alexis together set a precedent. I think Neville and Basil found the change pleasant."
"I enjoyed meeting Basil. I'd surely hate to have to face him if I were a suspect in a crime, though!"
"Little likelihood of that!"
"Lacey, he knew exactly what I did with that Gaeanite pin. I could see it in his eyes."
"He admired you for your feat. You don't suppose Signe ever gives a thought to the men she killed with that blade you inspected tonight, do you?"
"No--nor to countless other enemies she slew in hand-to-hand fights. But she's a warrior, Lacey--a military leader. I'm new to the act of taking life. I still can't bear to dwell on what I did!"
Slipping an arm around his wife, Lacey averred bluntly, "You began on a bastard who flatly deserved to die, Adrienne. You'll get over that feeling."
"You know, Enid and Basil gave me a marvelous idea for expanding my ordering service, and accommodating Gaean women. My tailor's a treasure--fully Freda's equal--and Letitia recently finished training two daughters. I'll wager I could interest her in expanding her business."
"Go right to it! That ordering service may turn out to be as important a development as any other aspect of the multifaceted business we're building. But right now, concentrate on shedding your clothes, wife."
Conversation ceased for a considerable time thereafter.