"And that's when you suspected the Fifth Bureau," said Mistress Sand, leaning back in her comfortably appointed club chair at Bleeker's.
Adele inclined her head. "It seemed... prudent," she said. Neither of them chose to bring up the source of Adele Mundy's knowledge of their enemy opposite numbers or, indeed, the time she spent as their catspaw before being recruited by the intelligence forces of the Republic of Cinnabar.
"So things started out as normal?" asked Sand.
"Precisely as anticipated, for several entire minutes."
It was a fine morning in New Saskatchewan as Captain Daniel Leary and his friend and signals officer Adele Mundy got off the ship at the Lloydminster docks. The flying creatures were squawking, the sun was shining and the temperature was slightly above 37 degrees*.
"The reports of the undocumented biota on the steppes are promising," Daniel said, as he shouldered his bag. "By the looks of the ongoing trade talks, Secretary Hull won't need to be escorted back for some time. With any luck, we should be at liberty long enough to explore them properly." He smiled with the happy, open enthusiasm of an amateur naturalist finding a rich source of new species - which he was. Daniel Leary was a youngish, somewhat plump man of average height, with a friendly look about him, under peaceful circumstances. When he smiled like this, from the right angle, he looked almost cherubic. A stranger would have been hard-pressed to pick the fighting captain of the RCS Princess Cecile, pride of the Royal Cinnabar Navy, out of a crowd at the moment.
A librarian to the core, Adele had her personal data unit out before she even knew she was doing it. She gestured with a data wand, flicking irrelevant data out of the way. "If you take the skimmer, you should be able to explore for over a week, before beginning preparations to depart. A large portion of the Western continent, particularly the ice fields, remains largely unexplored."
"Wonder why," grumbled Hogg, behind them. Daniel's servant, who had known him since childhood, was a blunt country man, not prone to mince words. Adele and Daniel ignored him.
A servant in full Saskatchewaninan livery ran up to them as they stepped onto the dock. "Captain Leary, Lady Mundy," he panted, as he knelt and held out a sealed envelope. "Premier McCormick requests your presence in a private audience this afternoon."
"I suppose nature will have to wait," Daniel said with a wry shrug.
With dark wood panelling, numerous rugs and skins of exotic animals, airy windows and delicate floral furniture, the room looked like the salon of a rich hunter's put-upon wife. Instead it was the office of New Saskatchewan's Premier.
McCormick was a thin, nervous-looking man in a gray kurta suit that was in fashion in Pleasaunce the year before. "Leary, Mundy," he said, addressing his guests in a manner that seemed calculated to sound informal and confidently blunt, "Just what the situation calls for. An honest one to one talk."
Adele forcefully restrained herself from telling him that with three people in the room, it could not possibly be a one to one anything.
"There are some things," McCormick said, adjusting his cravat, "That can't be dealt with through the official channels. We all know who you work for, so be so good as to tell them that my inducement needs to be higher."
It was a very near thing that McCormick left the room alive, much less unoffended. There are things one does not say to an officer of the RCN, let alone a Cinnabar noble. Adele Mundy, Mundy of Chatsworth, had killed people for far less, and there were reasons that Daniel hadn't followed his father and sister into politics. McCormick didn't notice, but both friends could read the murderous intent in the other. That's why, when the Premier went missing three days into the summit, Daniel almost certainly entertained a moment of terrible doubt.
"So what do we know about the situation?" asked Secretary Hull, glowering at Captain Leary in the dim light of the Cecile's bridge.
"Not a great deal, Secretary," he said placatingly. "Perhaps I should turn this over to my signals officer and information specialist?"
Adele took this as her cue and took control of the bridge display. "As you know, Secretary, New Saskatchewan is an important new source of iridium, which in turn is an important new source of wealth to the planet's otherwise destitute economy, one that is entirely government-controlled, 'for the benefit of the people'. I'm not suggesting," said Adele, in a dry tone of voice that definitively did suggest, "That this would inevitably lead to corruption, but the danger exists. McCormick as yet hadn't tipped his hand one way or the other, so creditable threats exist from both pro-Alliance factions and pro-Cinnabar factions within his government, pro-Alliance external factions as well as more reform-minded personal opponents."
"...And people who would prefer to collect the bribes themselves," finished Hull, crossing her arms.
"Of course," said Adele, matter of fact. Neither of them mentioned pro-Cinnabar external factions. Those would be Adele and her servant Tovera, and both of them had been busy at the time.
"So what do you suggest?" asked the Secretary, resigned.
"Staying out of it," suggested Adele. It was not to be.
Waiting for a tense planetary situation to resolve itself or snap into violence was a tedious business. Adele Mundy dealt with the problem the same way she dealt with everything - by working. Currently, she was helping oversee inventory for the various parcels and boxes full of New Saskatchewan samples and specimens for the Cinnabar diplomats and trade experts.
Several feet away, she heard an ominous beep from one of the scanning units.
"Ma'am?" said Midshipman Cory, "There's something off with this one. It looks right, but it isn't registering diplomatic and secret."
"That is interesting," Adele said, running down the shipping manifest and checking it against the label's data. Fraud. "Daniel, I think there's something you'd like to see," she said over her comm channel.
Soon, with midshipmen tidied away, hardsuits on for safety and Engineering Chief Pasternak on hand with bomb protection materials, they gingerly opened the box.
And there, within the box, was Premier McCormick. Adele looked at Daniel. Daniel looked at Adele. As one, they carefully closed the lid.
"Dasi!" called Daniel. "One bag for loading!"
As the rating trundled the box unquestioningly away, they shared a look. In no way did this bode well for the RCS Princess Cecile. Or, indeed, Cinnabar.
"We have an hour," said Daniel, "If I don't miss my guess, before it wears off."
Adele nodded, short and sharp. An hour.
Charles Bralles was having an ordinary mid-afternoon in the large shed that served as the Lloydminster RCN shipping outpost. Wading through customs forms, puzzling over the incompetence of dockhands and wondering what sort of coffee to make when he got up. Until he felt the gun against the back of his head.
He looked up and attempted to scramble out of his chair.
"I wouldn't," said the RCN warrant officer in front of him, also holding a gun. A very non-regulation iridium-barrelled pistol, which she held very competently.
"Mistress," said another female voice behind him, pleased, but inhumanly cold, "May I kill him?"
"No," said the officer, cool and grave. "I think he might be able to help us. Won't you, Master Bralles?"
"There's a supernumerary aide at the Alliance consulate," said Adele, to the terrified clerk, "Who has lately taken to a weekly card game with you. He was losing, regularly. Until a month and a half ago, when his game miraculously improved." She smiled, cold as the grave. Adele didn't believe in that kind of miracle. "I imagine he told you it was simply a harmless prank. A prank that happened to be worth several hundred guilders."
He nodded, quickly.
"A prank that could have ended diplomatic relations between two planets."
"You know this won't end well for you," she said, pressing on, "But it could always end worse."
Behind her, now Tovera smiled, and did so with the watchful hunger of the waiting shark.
"Here," said Adele, "Is what you are going to do."
"I'm sorry," said Johannsen, the stolid, but not terribly bright shipping clerk, "But the label routing was all wrong. The gentleman down at the yards said to return it to you for reprocessing."
"Fine," said the Alliance consulate doorman, "Stars forbid any form is filled out incorrectly. It isn't as if we have anything better to do here at a time like this."
"I only do what they tell me," Johannsen said with a shrug.
Premier McCormick woke up slowly and horribly. It was dark and warm and cramped and for a while - a great while - he thought he was still dreaming. And then he realized that he was not. He tried to call for help, but his mouth was bound shut. He tried to bang on the lid, but the confines were too close. With great difficultly, he managed to hop the box back and forth.
And then, he heard a voice. A stern, officious male voice, Saskatchwanian. "Sir, we have reason to believe that a package belonging to one of the foreigners contains material evidence on the disappearance of Premier McCormick. We request your assistance in this matter, as we are of all parties to the recent talks."
"Please, please, proceed!" said another voice, in a distinct Alliance accent. "Save for the packages marked diplomatic and secret, which, of course, it would violate our treaties to touch, you may open anything you see!"
And then, the lid opened.
"And McCormick was returned to the bosom of his government, with a dim view of the Alliance of Free Stars," said Mistress Sand.
Adele looked out the window, and bit back her bitterness, "And a free hand to indulge in corruption all he likes, a returned hero."
"But a returned hero on a planet that turns toward Cinnabar," Mistress Sand chided her. "In time," she said with an abstracted and meaningful air, "I have no doubt certain documents will surface. By which time, his opponents will come to rule a planet that already shares meaningful ties with our republic."
"And iridium," said Adele, looking her in the eye.
"Of course," said Mistress Sand. "More tea?"
*Fahrenheit, not Centigrade. Cinnabar measurements are represented by their American counterparts whereas Alliance measurements are represented by their metric counterparts.