While Gideon helped Jinna clean up in the diner, Killian Del’s carriage came to a halt in front of a particularly notable address on Chaucer Street, where he’d been invited to dine with the owners, and a select number of their acquaintance.
Killian had sent his regrets, expecting to be occupied with settling Jinna Pride into his own townhouse, but as an afterthought accepted the invitation to join the party for after-dinner drinks. And though a certain unwelcome soldier had put paid to Killian’s plans, he saw no reason not to keep his evening appointment.
The Rands were, after all, very important people.
The carriage came to a stop, and in moments one of the Rand servants was opening the door for Killian, who stepped out and under the umbrella held up for his benefit. Thus sheltered, he moved along the raised walk from carriage to vestibule, without so much as a drop of rain touching the cuff of his trousers.
Once inside the foyer, Killian took a deep, appreciative breath of air untainted by grease, or the scents of the working class.
No, here the only scents lingering in the air were of leather, wood, smoke, beeswax, and the echo of a woman’s spicy perfume.
Rich scents; scents Killian associated with power.
“Thought for certain you’d stood us up, Kill.”
Speaking of power…
Killian looked to his left, where the parlor door had just opened to reveal General Jessup Rand, Senior Commander of the Colonial Air Corps, and rising star in Nike politics.
A man of average height, average weight, and average, caramel-colored skin, nothing about Jessup Rand should speak of power, and yet no one seeing him would doubt for an instant that this man could do more damage with a word than most could with a Mark 11 crysto-plas repeater.
“My plans misfired,” Killian said, following the martial theme of his thoughts as he took Jessup’s offered hand. “It caused some delays.”
“Every campaign has its misfires. I doubt this one will slow your advance,” Jessup said, leading the way into the parlor, where several of Nike’s movers and shakers were comfortably ensconced amongst the deep-cushioned chairs and the buttery leather sofa.
Jessup’s wife, Celia, was standing in front of the grand fireplace, glass in one hand and cigarette in the other, her dark hair cut in a cheekbone-enhancing angle which was echoed by the slash of her red, one-shouldered gown.
She was posed, as if on the stage, as she regaled her seated guests with yet another of her shocking stories.
Celia Rand, Killian had often thought, collected scandals as avidly as she collected the artifacts scattered whimsically throughout the room.
Certainly she was a bright contrast to her husband, with his graying temples, and his simple uniform. Even as he thought this, she looked to Jessup, and her lips curved up in a smile for him alone, and Killian was reminded that power was a potent attractor.
“She is a vision, is she not?” Jessup asked as she returned her attention to her guests, but the question was soft, as if he were addressing himself. “Come along, then,” he added, as if shaking off the vision that was his wife, “I’ll set you up.”
Killian followed him to the sideboard, where—speaking of artifacts—a Guinness bottle (only slightly cracked), and two empty Budweiser cans were displayed amongst the prosaic cut-glass decanters.
Jessup selected one of the decanters and poured two glasses before handing one to Killian, who raised a brow at the three fingers of single malt in the heavy tumbler.
“You’ll need to catch up with the rest of us,” Jessup explained.
“And who are you catching up with?” Killian asked, as Jessup had been just as generous with his own liquor.
“A dutiful host doesn’t let his guest drink alone.” Jessup raised the glass in a toast.
And why not, Killian thought, haven’t we earned it? He touched glasses with his host and downed half of the liquor.
“Keepers, man!” Jessup gaped. “I didn’t mean catch up on the instant!”
“My apologies,” Killian said, somewhat roughly, as the whiskey burned its way through his system. “The evening has been something of a trial.”
“Yes, well, that sort of thing does seem to be going around,” Jessup said, his eyes a bit distant.
Killian, despite the earlier disappointment, was willing to be diverted by his friend’s statement.
After all, the Pride woman wasn’t going anywhere. One of the details which had made him late to the gathering was putting Jinna Pride on the Colonial Security watch list. Even with the new peace, factions remained on both sides who refused to accept the war’s end, and some few of these deluded souls had made their displeasure known by acts ranging from protests, to vandalism, to planting a frag grenade in one of the mag levs traveling between Nike and Tendo, in Fuji.
Because of this, all of the United Colonies were deeply conscious of the continued need for internal security, hence the watch list, which prevented those under suspicion from traveling unless cleared by a local branch of the UC Transport Office.
Since Killian was on the transportation committee, and had, in addition, contributed heavily to Nike’s sitting Transport Minister, it had required only a single teleph exchange to confirm that Jinna Pride would not be departing Nike without Killian Del’s say so.
All of which meant that Killian could now enjoy this very fine single malt and, in exchange, listen to his host’s apparent woes. “Trouble with the peace accords?” he asked, grasping at the most likely candidate for Jessup’s unease.
“If only.” Jessup topped off both drinks. “Nine months after the treaty’s signed, and we’re still dancing around the crystal issue.”
“And the slaves,” Killian reminded the general. “Which, between us, I have no particular issue with. As long as the Coalition is allowed the use of unpaid labor, they might be less inclined to push for access to our crystal veins.”
“Hopefully those bleeding hearts from Ford and Fuji will come around to that point of view.” Jessup raised his glass in a toast of agreement.
“But if, as you say, the talks aren’t the problem?” Killian let the question hang.
Before answering, Jessup glanced at his wife, who’d reached the climax of her tale, and was now basking in a round of laughter and applause.
Seeming satisfied, he stepped closer to Killian, and turned slightly away from the crowd in the center of the room. “I recently learned that a difficulty from my past—a difficulty I’d thought permanently resolved—has come around again,” he said quietly. “And, as it happens, this particular difficulty arrived in Nike earlier this evening.”
“A man,” Jessup clarified.
“Anyone I’m familiar with?” Killian asked over a sip.
“Only if you were paying attention to news from the ranks six—no, closer to seven years ago, now. News of a colonel of infantry being court-martialed for treason, and attempted murder.”
Killian let his eyes cross over the room, and the glittering company within, as he thought back to that troubled time… a time of economic growth for those with certain investments.
Killian’s shares in Tenjin Corporation, the company which supplied crystal to the Air Corps, had resulted in immense profits, as so many airships were in need of crystal to power their engines, and cannon and… cannon… that was it.
“Yes, now I remember,” he looked back to Jessup. “The colonel who went over to the other side, or tried to, and then attacked you when he was found out.”
“My knee still aches on damp mornings,” Jessup said, looking out the window. “And in Nike every bloody morning is damp.” He raised his glass and took a gulp as hefty as that for which he’d berated Killian earlier. “But Quinn confessed to the—to his crime—and was sentenced to Morton because of it.”
Even brimful of whiskey, Killian couldn’t miss Jessup’s quick correction. Not that it was his concern. If Jessup said this Quinn person deserved punishment, then punishment he deserved. “And you believe he’s here, in Nike?” he asked.
“I know he is,” Jessup said, his expression grim. “My contact in the prison telephed the news on the day Gideon Quinn was released.”
“And you believe this man means to—wait,” Killian raised his glass, with one finger extending to point at Jessup. “You say his name is Gideon Quinn?”
“A name I’ve cursed daily for seven years,” Jessup said, then his eyes tracked over Killian’s shoulder, his expression changing so drastically that Killian knew someone was approaching. “Darling,” Jessup greeted his wife, “Killian’s just been telling me about his difficult evening.”
The hint was obvious. For whatever reasons, Jessup didn’t want his wife to know of this problematic colonel. “As you may know,” he took his cue, turning to Celia, “the mother of my grandchild is proving difficult. After months of arguments and tantrums, I’d finally made arrangements on my own, to establish her in my own home until the birth of the child.”
Celia made appropriate noises as she poured more whiskey for the men and, as the story of the evening’s escapade continued, both Rands listened with a gratifying interest.
And when he came to the point of the tall, blue-eyed soldier appearing out of nowhere to best the Ohmdahls, he turned his gaze to Jessup. “I confess myself shocked to find a man of the infantry—and a colonel at that—involved with a woman of such character.”
Jessup’s facial expression remained calm, but Killian saw his eyes sharpen.
“It’s not so shocking, is it?” Celia asked, seemingly oblivious of the undercurrents to the story. “After all, most soldiers—especially the infantry—come from the lower classes.”
“Perhaps it was simply that he was so much older than the girl,” Jessup murmured.
Celia smiled. “I was more impressed by the way you described his eyes,” she recalled with a delighted shiver. “How vividly you tell the story, Kill.”
“Perhaps I was inspired by my hostess,” Killian said with the smallest of bows.
“Celia,” Jessup broke into the moment, “it looks as if the Porters are leaving. Would you do the courtesies?”
There was the slightest of pauses, no more than three beats of the heart, as she met her husband’s gaze.
“Of course,” she said, then turned to Killian. “Kill, thank you for confiding in us. If there is anything the general or I can do to help you with the matter, I hope you’ll not hesitate to ask.”
Killian, watching her walk away, was again struck by feelings a man of his age truly ought not to be feeling anymore.
Jessup was a lucky man.
He turned to his host, meaning to say just that, when he saw Jessup was also watching his wife. On his face was an expression so raw, so conflicted, it was all Killian could do to keep his own expression bland as yesterday’s eggs when Jessup’s focus finally returned to him. “Vivid as it was,” he said to the frank question in the other man’s eyes, “I did not tell the entire story. I did not tell you the soldier’s name.”
Jessup waited, saying nothing.
“The urchin called him Gideon.”
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