WHEN THE TIDE RISES – snippet 2:



            The soup had been whisked away; the steward leaned in to offer Dame Cathleen the fish. She accepted a slice and he moved down to Daniel.

            It was in a cream sauce with chopped greens. The firm yellow flesh was probably that of a saffron hake, a flatfish which sometimes grew to the size of a man. No matter how good the chef was, this wouldn't be able to match the hake sprats Daniel and Hogg had gigged near shore at Bantry and grilled only minutes later….

            "Well, I for one don't mind the citizens getting a little good news," said Senator Forbes as the steward served her. "And I don't care if it's true. Though from what I've heard, Leary–"

            She looked at him. Her eyes reminded him even more of a hawk's.

            "–that business on Dunbar's World wasn't a simple thing at all. According to the Summaries–"

            She must mean the Intelligence Summaries, which she'd see as the chair of a Senatorial committee.

            "–your very nice piece of work saved the Republic from a future headache." Grimacing she added, "Now, if somebody'd just do the same in the Jewel System."

            "I assure you, Senator," Captain Sterret said stiffly, "that the RCN is doing everything possible with the limited resources available. Admiral James is a first-rate fighting spacer. If anybody can break the siege of Diamondia, it's him."

            Daniel nodded, though cautiously. A senior officer in a bad mood could interpret enthusiastic agreement as an attempt by a junior to sit in judgment on him. Sterret's mood hadn't been good even before Forbes brought up Diamondia.

            Daniel could've been honestly enthusiastic, though. James of Kithran, Admiral James, was of aristocratic birth. This hadn't hurt his chances of promotion, but if the RCN'd been a democracy–which thank the Gods it was not!–James might well've won a vote of serving officers to command the defense of the Jewel System.

            He and his squadron were nonetheless being asked to make bricks without straw, and it'd take a lot of bricks to save Diamondia from the Alliance forces besieging it. Perhaps an impossible number of bricks.

            "One wonders whether Admiral James is getting the support he needs and deserves, though, doesn't one?" said Dame Cathleen in a tone of false concern. She looked at Senator Forbes and raised an eyebrow. "It just seems that a trade nexus as important as Diamondia should have enough ships to defend itself. Still, no doubt the Senate has been following events carefully, haven't you, Beverly?"

            "We are, yes," said Forbes. The words were neutral, but the glance she directed toward Captain Sterret at her side was not. "Though of course we can't interfere in the operational control of the navy. That's the responsibility of Navy House, whom we're told are the professionals."

            Captain Sterret had only a horseshoe of hair running from ear to ear around the back of his head. When he flushed, his bald pate turned scarlet.

            "Look, Senator…," he said. He was a tall man and could probably be imposing in the right setting, but his features and personality both appeared to've had the edges rounded off. "It's all well and good to say James should have more ships, but where are they to come from? And if we had the ships, where would the crews come from? Why, we've stripped the merchant fleet bare to man the ships in commission now!"

            "And yet the Alliance doesn't seem to have problems manning its warships," Cummins said. "More warships than the Republic has in service, as I understand?"

            The fish plates vanished in their turn. The dish had indeed been hake, and the memories of foggy mornings at Bantry gave Daniel a twinge. Life had been simpler then, and it hadn't been so long ago. He was only 25 now, very young for a full commander.

            "Guarantor Porra fills his crews with drafts from the relief rolls, Patron," Daniel said to Cummins. "You're better placed than I to say whether that'd be politically acceptable in the Republic–"

            Speaker Leary's son didn't need Cummins to tell him that it'd lead to riots sufficient to level Xenos.

            "–but speaking as an RCN officer, I'd very much regret seeing us go that route. The crews are likely to be disaffected and are sure to be inefficient. The Fleet–the naval arm of the Alliance–tries to get around the problem by assigning three crewmen where we'd use two, but that leads to overcrowding even though Fleet vessels are larger for their class. And in many circumstances, most in fact, more unskilled hands mean more confusion."

            Servants to right and left offered Daniel tiny cutlets on a bed of rice, or squab with a bright purple root vegetable. Because his hobby was natural history, he was able to identify the "feathers" covering the bird as petals from the hearts of Hussite cardoons. With Hus deep within the Alliance, Dame Cathleen must've paid a fancy price for a product that hadn't been naturalized off its home world.

            He took a squab. It'd been expertly boned and was remarkably tender. Force-meat stuffing preserved its shape.

            Daniel'd seen Sterret relax noticeably as he spoke. The captain'd been getting even redder as he struggled to find words that wouldn't cost him a reprimand when they got back to the Navy Board. However Admiral Vocaine might feel about the Senate, it was from that body that the RCN's appropriations came. Even Senators who disliked Cummins personally would close ranks if one of their own were insulted by a mere servant from the permanent establishment.

            "The Republic will not be drafting spacers, Commander," Senator Forbes said dryly. "There's enough unrest already in Dockside and the Lowlands."

            Those were the old working-class districts of Xenos. Daniel suspected that the worst problems would come from the newer tenements ringing the city, however. These housed recent immigrants from the worlds dependent on Cinnabar.

            "Oh, the proles are always making trouble, Betty," Forbes's companion said petulantly. Daniel hadn't caught the boy's name, but he doubted that the information would be of future use to him. "Really, I wish somebody would do something about them."

            "No doubt someone will if it becomes necessary, dear boy," said Cummins with an unctuous chuckle. "But I'm sure we all hope that it won't be necessary, don't we?"

            "What I hope is that the Alliance navy will prove as negligible as the Commander implies," Forbes said. "With respect, Leary–"

            She turned and nodded.

            "–I must say that neither history nor the present Diamondia situation gives me much reason to agree with you."

            "Do diamonds come from Diamondia?" asked the handsome youth. He made a moue. "I'd hate for the Alliance to take all our diamonds."

            He toyed with the three-inch rope of little stones hanging from the lobe of his right ear. Senator Forbes hunched as though she'd been struck, but she continued stolidly chewing on a mouthful of cutlet.

            "The Jewel system lies near a junction point within the Matrix," said Captain Sterret. "Were we to lose Diamondia, routes from Cinnabar to several of our allied worlds would be lengthened by as much as thirty days."

            After the recent exchange, another man might've crowed at Forbes's embarrassment. Sterret–wisely–sounded rather relieved to change the subject to something that didn't bear directly on Navy House.

            "Conversely," he went on, "if the Alliance held the system, they'd cut a comparable length of time off voyages from Pleasaunce to the Bagarian Cluster. A rebellion against Guarantor Porra broke out there a few months ago."

            He looked up, at Forbes rather than her companion. "The Alliance won't succeed in capturing Diamondia," he said earnestly. "Admiral James won't permit that to happen."

            "It's hard to imagine how Admiral James can prevent it, as badly as his fleet is outnumbered," said Dame Cathleen. "Unless you send him reinforcements, Captain?"

            "You should send Commander Leary, Sterret," said Cummins. It was obvious to Daniel that he and their hostess entertained themselves with a routine of baiting guests to fight one another. "He only needed thirty men to capture a base held by thousands of troops on Dunbar's World. I'll bet he could do just as well in the Jewel system."

            "That…," said the captain in a tone between shout and a snarl. He was looking at Daniel as he spoke between clenched teeth. "Is bollocks!"

            "Yes," said Daniel, pleased to notice that he sounded calm. "That's bollocks. There was an initial assault by thirty spacers to disable the anti-starship defenses on the base, but I wasn't within a hundred miles at the time. It was led by one of my officers, and under other circumstances–"

            At the time there'd been good reason to fear that the RCN would repudiate the whole business as an act of piracy. It'd seemed best to Daniel not to force Navy House to look closely at what'd happened.

            "–medals would certainly have been appropriate. Not for me but for the leader of the assault force. That is, for–"

            He paused, wondering what Adele would want him to say.

            Adele isn't here. I'll tell the truth and to bloody Hell with what she'd want!

            "–my Signals Officer, Adele Mundy."

            "Ah, that would be Mundy of Chatsworth, would it not?" Dame Cathleen said. "We should have her at one of these little gatherings, don't you think, Andrew?"

            "Lady Mundy, yes," Daniel said thickly. Now that he'd spoken he regretted it. Besides her RCN duties, Adele worked for Mistress Bernis Sand, the Republic's spymaster. Publicity could make that portion of her activities more dangerous.

            "You called her your 'signals officer,' Commander?" said Sarah Sterret. "Goodness, I'd never heard that euphemism before. To be honest, I'd expected to see her here tonight, but I see–"

            She leaned over the table again to glare at Miranda. Her eyes had a reptilian glitter.

            "–that you've already replaced her with this very healthy young person."

            Nobody spoke for a moment. Miranda set her fork neatly on the plate so that a servant could clear it for the rib roast which the steward was carving on the sideboard.

            "Why my goodness, Sarah," Miranda said sweetly. "Surely you didn't imagine there was anything romantic between Lady Mundy and Daniel? You must not know Daniel very well. Why dear, Lady Mundy is almost as old as you are."

            She gave a silvery laugh. Daniel forced his lips tight on the rim of his glass. When everyone else at the table except the two Sterrets began to guffaw, he joined in as well.

            A very clever young woman….

About Eric Flint

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