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ISBN-10: 1-55404-495-2
Genre: Science Fiction/Suspense/Thriller
eBook Length: 459 Pages
Published: September 2007

Total Readers: 1

From inside the flap

Lacey, formerly a captain in Arlen’s Special Force, finds the idle life of a wealthy ship-owner boring. When he seeks information regarding the issuance of government shipping contracts from Darley, an official, Darley offers to introduce him to Adrienne. Lacey’s preconceived notions having shattered when he attends Adrienne’s nightly gathering, he becomes her lover, displacing Marcus, the corrupt Minister of Internal Resources, thereby making a dangerous enemy. Lacey grows to love the legendary courtesan.

Persuaded by Neville, First Minister, to host a gathering of the merchant spacers whom Arlen and Signe wish to meet, Lacey does Signe a welcome favor. Out of spite, Marcus directs the Co-Commanders to Cyril’s, at the hour when Lacey customarily escorts Adrienne there. Faced with handling a socially incendiary situation, Arlen reacts in a way that stuns the patrons of the coffeehouse.

Signe offers Lacey an advantageous shipping opportunity. About to go to space again, Lacey persuades Adrienne to marry him. Exquisitely conscious of her status as social outcast, the ex-courtesan deftly handles an embarrassing situation arising during the offloading of cargo. When a member of Lacey’s social set frostily refuses to speak to him, Adrienne wonders bleakly what effect a succession of such slights might produce on his touchy pride.

Provoked into dueling Rupert, Yancey’s second officer, Lacey prevails. Before Lacey arrives in Gaea, Brendan, the industrialist to whom Signe recommended him, discovers that Lacey married a courtesan, but the shrewd judge of character divines why Signe condoned his act. Lacey meets a former enemy, and behaves most gallantly. Lacey and Adrienne impress Brendan and all of his family members but one. When that one insults Adrienne in the privacy of the bathcabin, Jess utterly routs Morgan’s spiteful relative, thereby astonishing the ex-courtesan. Adrienne finds to her delight that the men and women of the Interworld Corps accept her on her merits.

Commissioned by Brendan to sell Gaeanite in Columbia, Adrienne achieves a stunning economic breakthrough, thereby infuriating Marcus, who draws Yancey, a shipper hated by all Gaeans, into a plot to kill Lacey. Kerry, a renegade backed by a crew of ruffians, captures Lacey, Adrienne, Morgan and Jess. Adrienne outwits Kerry, enabling Lacey, Morgan and Jess to overcome the surviving outlaws. Arlen, Signe and Basil investigate the daring attempt at piracy aimed at blasting the accord between Columbia and Gaea.
This stirring narrative, the first volume of the two-volume eighth novel of the series, continues an ongoing saga of futuristic action, adventure and romance.


Chapter One

Silence fell as Lacey strode into Cyril’s. Merchant spacers avidly exchanging details of the duel that only six hours earlier thinned their ranks of a compatriot fell mute as the victor in that lethal encounter took his accustomed seat in the coffeehouse. If the newcomer noticed the brief lull before the talk shifted to less inflammatory topics, he gave no sign. His ruggedly handsome face, as always, concealed his inmost thoughts.

A seasoned duelist-a fatalist accustomed to awaiting the appointed time without generating the slightest nervousness regarding the outcome-Lacey unconsciously shrugged as he recalled thinking, while awaiting the word to begin the bout, that dying while fighting a duel might well be preferable to living with chronic discontent.

That idle thought in no way affected his performance. The man formerly a high-ranking captain in Arlen’s Special Force fought cannily, displaying his customary iron nerve and unshakable determination. Having coolly maneuvered so as to take advantage of a weakness he spied, early on, in his adversary’s style, he succeeded in driving thirty centimeters of steel through the challenger’s heart.

The unfortunate sacrifice to Lacey’s self-respect might have departed life with even more chagrin, had he realized that he died a casualty, in a sense, of the anger his opponent’s wife provoked in her normally unflappable husband just prior to his entry into the coffee-house. That cold wrath-anger already simmering in the back of Lacey’s mind when the arrogant ex-Third Corpsman drawled his provocative insult-rendered the ex-spacer’s touchy pride all the more hypersensitive. An offense that might otherwise have been settled by a mere bloodletting precipitated a coolly stated but highly inflammatory response: one that the mouthy veteran of the space war in Gaea knew would be considered a mortal insult by all those within hearing distance. That certainty prompted him to issue a challenge to fight to the death.

That reaction of Lacey’s represented an unusual departure from the norm for the man formerly one of Arlen’s most trusted captains. Father of two girls he dearly loved-women now married and gone from home-Lacey seldom allowed any word or deed of a family-member to generate virulent anger. The emotion his wife customarily evoked in the husband who habitually concealed how he felt, was indifference.

No less passionate than the average Columbian spacer, Lacey nonetheless differed from most, in that he disdained to patronize the myriads of courtesans who plied their ancient trade in the Columbian capital. A taste for preserving an exclusive right to anything he enjoyed, coupled with ample personal wealth, drove him instead to incur the considerable expense of supporting a succession of mistresses.

His wife knew that he did so. As long as her husband’s infidelity remained hidden from the prying eyes and wagging tongues of their acquaintances, Elena, a woman far less passionate than was her husband, felt gladder than not to leave the satisfying of Lacey’s physical desires to another.

During the twenty-five Earthyears his marriage spanned, Lacey lived a life nowise lacking in adventure. The owner of a commercial vessel, he oversaw a cargo-hauling business even as he pursued a career as a military spacer-fighter. Entrusted with the captaincy of a first-class military ship when Arlen rose to the rank of Commander of Fifth Corps, Lacey offered the new Commander unswerving loyalty. Two Earthyears later, that loyalty earned him the right to play a pivotal role during the relatively bloodless coup staged by the canny survivor of vicious political infighting: a brilliant warrior/statesman who eventually achieved dictatorial power over his world. Possessed of high seniority in Arlen’s Special Force, Lacey captained an Earth-armed military ship throughout the seven Earthyears of the war in space.

The pretty girl who so captivated him in his twenty-third Earthyear that he married her in a life contract, contentedly settled into the leisured, secure life of a matron whose husband supported her lavishly. Adept at entertaining the wives of Lacey’s friends and business associates, Elena bore the spacer-captain two daughters, managed his household with casual extravagance, and philosophically endured his all but constant absence from home.

When the war ended, freeing the veteran then forty-three Earthyears of age to enjoy his wealth while occupying an enviable social position, his spouse welcomed the chance to utilize to the fullest her talents as a hostess. In all other respects, however, Elena lived much as she had all along. The warrior returning to civilian life discovered that his still-pretty wife had not generated a single original thought during that quarter-Earthcentury so packed with adventure for her husband.

That discovery produced vague dissatisfaction in the former combatant. Possessed of all for which a man of his society could wish, Lacey had assumed that he would enjoy a leisured life in the capital of a homeland now at peace. However, as five Earthyears passed-dragged by, in his perception-he grew painfully conscious of a steadily worsening world-weariness. When particularly afflicted by a burgeoning malaise that he shrank from identifying as boredom, he sought solace in the company of his latest mistress, but to no avail. Discontented, restless, he nonetheless habitually treated Elena with cool, unvarying courtesy unmarked either by malice or contempt, his manner towards her no different now than it had been throughout the past two and a half decades.

Lacey’s liaisons progressed to various endings. Most often, he and the woman arrived at a mutual decision to part. Once, he discovered himself betrayed for a rival whose ability as a swordsman approached his own, and the girl suffered a double loss. Just recently, his latest acquisition frankly confided to her lover her desperate desire to enter a stable if humble marriage. Liking the girl’s candor, Lacey made her a financial settlement that smoothed the way for her to achieve her wish. That amicable if bittersweet parting left him with little desire to seek out a new partner. The incident merely intensified his restlessness.

On this day, the man now forty-eight Earthyears old discovered that the duel to the death, while exhilarating, served as a grim reminder of his mortality. Lapsing into reverie, the survivor of the encounter sat alone at his favorite table, absently stirring a cup of fragrant coffee as he mourned his lost youth, and railed in impotent wrath at the lack of excitement characterizing his life at the present juncture.

Perceiving the touchy swordsman’s abstraction, his acquaintances generated no urge to intrude on his reflections, remembering only too vividly his icily cutting, wholly unforgivable response to the studied insult tossed off by a sardonic seeker of notoriety whose reputation as a duelist might have daunted even an opponent of Lacey’s prowess.

Rousing himself at length from thoughts bordering on the morbid, the disgruntled patron glanced about, suddenly desirous of pleasant company. Observing no close friend, he strolled over to a table where an acquaintance sat alone, draining the last drops of a cup of coffee.

"Darley," he inquired cordially, "do you mind if I join you?"

"Sit down, by all means, Lacey," the mid-level government official responded eagerly, pleased at receiving such a request from a man who moved in the highest social circles of the Columbian capital. "I’ll fetch us refills."

Seating himself, Lacey smiled at the youngish, rather good-looking bureaucrat hastening back from the dispenser to set a fresh cup of steaming brew before his companion. Having expressed polite thanks, the newcomer observed, "I hear you recently received a promotion."

"To my considerable surprise, I did-before one fell due. My detailed, written suggestion for changes in the scheduling of safety inspections of autocabs caught Gunter’s eye. He saw immediately that my idea would save the Ministry considerable credit, so he implemented my plan."

"Gunter continually strives to increase the efficiency of his operation, and he’s famous for rewarding merit while exhibiting no undue concern for seniority. Admirable qualities, those, in a minister."

Flushing with pleasure at the compliment to his own self implied in that praise of his superior, Darley nodded. "Gunter’s known to have stepped on quite a few senior toes since he rose to the rank of Minister of Surface Transportation eleven Earthyears ago. His methods have made him enemies as well as friends, but no one can deny that those methods produced a host of notable improvements."

"Indeed not. Too bad all our ministers aren’t as single-mindedly set on changing things for the better." Surmising that this bureaucrat well entrenched in the system might well know the answer to a question currently weighing on his mind, Lacey inquired in a tone kept studiously casual, "If you developed a lively interest in finding out who besides Yancey and Durand might stand a chance of landing one of the five most lucrative annual shipping contracts due to be reissued by the government, Darley, how would you go about making discreet inquiries?"

Shrugging, the man well acquainted with the current gossip passed surreptitiously among highly competitive officials jockeying for advancement within a bureaucratic system run by ambitious careerists-men who quite often placed their personal interests above that of the populace they ostensibly served-smiled knowingly. "Your employing the word discreet suggests that you hit a blank wall when you asked openly."

"Hit, and bounced. The Minister of Interior Resources hires his staff on the basis of an applicant’s ability to give nothing away in the wordiest manner possible."

"Marcus keeps a firm handle on the issuing of contracts."

"He does indeed, even though supposedly the issuance of such a contract represents a joint decision by the eight members of the Interior Commission."

A snort of disgust greeted that observation. "For all practical purposes, Marcus is the Interior Commission. He has wormed his way into a far more powerful position than his predecessor occupied before he retired. Devereau operated with a genial, foot-dragging, uninspiring, tradition-bound predictability, but he dispensed his Ministry’s formidable wealth of contracts more or less fairly. Marcus ostentatiously did a lot of shifting of employees when he took over, while waxing highly vocal about improving efficiency. The chief result seems to be increased power in his hands, and fewer checks on how he wields it. The Commission’s a set of yes-men."

"So I’ve deduced," Lacey retorted with visible heat.

"At the beginning of this Earthyear, Neville tried setting some limits to Marcus’s power, without much success." Having calculatedly revealed more to this wealthy entrepreneur noted for being closed-mouthed than he would have spilled to most casual acquaintances subtly probing for inside information, Darley leveled a speculative glance at the chance companion so unexpectedly-and so forthrightly-asking his advice.

"Neville should have taken a few lessons from Arlen, while the Commander was still around to give them," the former close associate of the ex-military dictator growled.

"Arlen more often made an object lesson of an offender, than gave him one," the official retorted with a grin. Both men chuckled, as each recalled the former Columbian Commander-in-Chief’s victories over four ruthless, unscrupulous political rivals.

Casting a speculative glance on his companion, Darley added, "I’ll tell you where I’d go to conduct discreet inquiries, though, Lacey. You’re more likely to pick up a clue in casual conversation with the right people, than in any direct approach. Try joining Adrienne’s nightly gathering."

"Adrienne." That echo of the bureaucrat’s suggestion came couched in a lazy drawl. "She still entertains the key figures of the current power structure, I’m well aware. Amazing, her feat of maintaining so potent an attraction for our leaders for so long a time. She gained a hold at one time or another on the most dangerous masters of intrigue in our recent history."

Astounding, actually, that circumstance, Lacey silently added. Even Arlen succumbed to her witchery for a time. Unique woman, a courtesan who could manage that feat!

"Are you acquainted with her?"

"No. All through the war, my responsibilities kept me far too busy to join any such gathering, let alone one frequented by political figures I heartily despised. Besides, I harbored absolutely no desire to spend time socially in the company of most of Adrienne’s lovers, no matter how fascinating the charms of the hostess."

"Too tame a word, that, Lacey. You’ve got time now."

"Time, yes, but perhaps not the inclination, if she favors bastards like Marcus."

"I won’t deny that you’ll encounter that particular bastard at her quarters," Darley agreed in a placatory tone, "but you’ll also meet a cross-section of the most influential men in our governmental, commercial, and military establishments, as well as the occasional University professor, artist, or actor. Adrienne ranks as an institution, Lacey. She’s a personage in a class by herself. She’s as brilliant a conversationalist as any habitué of her salon, on the rare occasions when she displays that ability. You’d enjoy the company she attracts, these days. We’ve far fewer bastards in government at this point in our history, than we once did."

And Adrienne took the worst of those as lovers, Lacey reflected censoriously. Leon. Dexter. Courtney. Roylott. Galt. And then…a man of stainless honor: Arlen. I’m still amazed that he’d fall under the spell even of the most legendary courtesan of them all. Well…given that he did…she must not be as coarsened by her experiences as I’d have suspected otherwise.

Perhaps she needed a break from the usual run of her clients, the information-seeker conjectured with wry humor. She has entertained our leaders for-how many Earthyears now? Twenty, at least. Come to think of it, she must have more going for her than good looks, if she’s able to cast so consistent a spell. She’s still a prize the possession of which confers sought-after prestige. Darley can’t be much over thirty, and he’s obviously smitten. An institution, he calls her. Well. I wonder…

Succumbing to curiosity, the former spacer-captain asked with creditable nonchalance, "How does one gain the right of entry to Adrienne’s circle of admirers?"

"I’d be happy to introduce you. Tonight, if you’d care to join me when I drop in."

Glancing hopefully at his companion, Darley reflected that doing a favor for a prominent wealthy citizen might at some point yield unexpected benefits to an ambitious, career-minded employee of a ministry.

"I’d be obliged, if you consider hauling me along no trouble."

"No trouble at all! I’d planned on going, and I’d be delighted to have company. Adrienne entertains from 2000 until 2200."

"We’ll arrive just in time, then." His ennui dispelled by the prospect of a novel experience, the ship-owner accompanied Darley to an autocab post in the corridor outside the coffeehouse, and summoned one of the public conveyances.

Relaxing as far as the rigidity of the uncomfortable seat in the cramped vehicle allowed, the older man pondered his impulsive acceptance of Darley’s eager offer.

This legendary lady’s no girl, he reflected sardonically. Space knows how many men have bedded her. Undoubtedly she’s hard as sword-steel, and calculating as a chief military supply clerk, under a seductively coy exterior. Clinging and calculating. Not my type. Well, you’re seeking information, spacer-captain, not the dubious delights of dalliance with the proprietress of a durable institution. So keep your ears open.

As he stepped out of the vehicle, Lacey scarcely heard Darley announce, "Here we are," so shocked was he at perceiving the location.

By all the wealth of Earth, he marveled, this courtesan lives in quarters more advantageously located than my own! This place must be direly expensive to rent. Surely she can’t own a section in this bank of habitats!

Bemused by his discovery, the newest visitor to the durable institution awaited a response to Darley’s brisk knock. When the door slid open to reveal a woman so surpassingly lovely as to render the stunned viewer all but speechless, every supposition the Captain had entertained of this legendary lady shattered like glass in a single instant.

The unwitting cause of that upheaval couched a cordial invitation in clipped, cultured accents. "Come in, gentlemen," the courtesan urged.

Suppressing the inner hilarity produced by the expression on his companion’s face, Darley suavely made the introduction.

Mastering his shock, the newcomer to the courtesan’s salon smiled, and held the interested glance of arresting, darkly blue-green eyes wide-set in a face of exquisite beauty. He knew right well that even among people whose diet and medical technology enabled them to retain youthful vigor until their ninetieth Earthyear, when hair developed streaks of gray and bones grew brittle, most people’s faces betrayed age through fine lines produced by the stresses of living. Adrienne’s vibrantly alive, fluidly expressive countenance offered no hint as to her age. She might have been thirty, or seventy, or any age in between. Creamy smooth skin seemed to announce that its owner had never known a care.

The entrancing smile the premier artist bestowed on the unexpected guest, he saw to be devoid both of brittleness and of calculation. The woman projected an allure that transcended mere sensual appeal. Lacey grew instantly conscious of an underlying warmth, and a most beguiling charm. With no warning whatsoever, the former spacer-captain’s defenses crumbled into the moat. One thought lanced with surgical precision through his mind: this is the most breathtakingly attractive woman it has ever been my privilege to meet!

"You’re the owner of a cargo vessel, are you not, Captain?" Adrienne inquired, her limpid smile exhibiting no trace of purposeful seductiveness. Her voice, low, clear, touched with the magic of a forgotten sun, fell on her visitor’s ears with bewitching force.

"Please…call me Lacey." Gathering his scattered wits, Adrienne’s newest conquest smiled into eyes in which mischief danced. Moved by some inexplicable impulse, he extended his hand, which the woman clasped firmly, as would a man. "You’re right," he affirmed. "I own the cargo vessel Barclay captains."

Favoring her younger admirer with a sidelong smile, the hostess declared, "Darley, I’m in debt to you for exercising your power of persuasion on a man I’m delighted to welcome." Turning back to the unexpected guest whose role during the war was well known to her, she urged, "Sit down, gentlemen, and I’ll fetch you coffee. You’re the first visitors to arrive. Lacey, I expect you’ll know most of my guests, but if you wish any special introduction, I’ll be most happy to oblige." Gesturing the two men into seats, Adrienne withdrew to her galley.

Observing that the courtesan’s sitting area exhibited not only a spaciousness unusual in Columbian quarters, but also an elegance testifying to an impeccable taste, Lacey wondered briefly how she managed to afford to rent a residence which any high official would leap at the chance to buy. That line of thought gave way to another, as his glance irresistibly fastened itself upon his hostess. Bold black eyes roved slowly down the lissome, shapely feminine figure clothed in a dusky rose suit artfully tailored to accentuate the curve of hip and breast. Well able to appraise accurately the cost both of expert tailoring and of rare, brightly colored fabrics, Lacey unerringly judged the provocatively cut ensemble to represent a formidable investment of credit.

His gaze returned to the wavy brown hair flecked with glints of gold: hair that framed that exotically lovely, heart-shaped face. Long, thick tresses, gathered loosely into a coil in the back and secured by two ornate silver pins, seemed ever on the verge of spilling down over the courtesan’s shoulders. A few tendrils that had escaped being drawn into the coil curled downward around the piquant face, the stray strands artfully arranged to suggest wanton disorder.

This woman uses makeup with such artistry that if I hadn’t spent twenty-eight Earthyears watching Elena apply hers, I’d never suspect that Adrienne wore any, Lacey acknowledged in wonder. She’s unbelievably attractive-not at all what I expected. I see what enabled her to keep her hold on the cream of our leadership. Well! You’re forgetting why you came, spacer-captain.

Tearing his eyes from the sinuously curvaceous figure of his hostess, now greeting a steady stream of guests, Lacey smiled wryly at Darley. "You didn’t exaggerate," he conceded with engaging candor. "I’m in debt to you for the introduction."

Warmed by the frank admission, the bureaucrat shook his head. "No debt," he demurred. "Do you know Harvey?" Having thus identified the lean man in his early forties drawing up a chair next to them, he smiled on the newcomer.

"By sight, but we’ve never met."

"Harvey, I’d like you to meet Lacey."

Bestowing a crooked, faintly sardonic smile that bespoke a wry sense of humor on the man he knew to be no habitué of the establishment, Harvey asked, "You’re the owner of the ship captained by Barclay, Lacey, are you not?"

"I am. And you’re an eminently successful broker and investor specializing in the short-term market."

"I appreciate the qualifier, undeserved as it may sometimes be."

"I’m glad to know you, Harvey." In responding thus, Lacey said no more than he meant, being aware of the man’s reputation for an unusual degree of honesty in his commercial dealings.

Darley having enthusiastically engaged the broker in conversation, Lacey observed the guests. As he watched, Marcus made an ostentatious entry. Advancing to a couch in the center of the sitting area, the newest entrant took the place obligingly vacated by a businessman who accompanied his action with a most ingratiating smile. The portly Minister of Interior Resources reclined at his ease, surrounded by an attentive collection of officials of lesser rank.

That’s Sutton, Eugene’s deputy, Lacey noted. And Crowell, Gunter’s most trusted aide. And isn’t that… It is! Matthias looks older close up than he does on the stage. Darley was right about Adrienne’s entertaining the occasional actor. Well! No one’s discussing anything remotely connected with the imminent reissuing of shipping contracts.

His eyes strayed to his hostess, as she circulated among her guests, enlivening various conversations with remarks that revealed a sparkling wit. No one person seemed to engross the courtesan’s attention, but Lacey noticed that at one point, her hand rested familiarly on Marcus’s shoulder, evoking an expression of smug satisfaction on the part of her current lover.

Adrienne must value power over pleasantness, the observer concluded disdainfully, though Marcus by no means constitutes the worst bastard she took to bed, over the Earthyears. She kept Galt enthralled right up to the night when Arlen killed him.

Intrigued as a new thought impinged, Lacey strove to count the Earthyears the premier courtesan’s career had spanned. Damn, she was Leon’s mistress twenty-three Earthyears ago! he recalled with shock. How old is she? Surely no less than forty-three or forty-four, and perhaps far older.

Well…the decades set lightly on her, damned if they don’t. She looks thirty. Could the woman have begun her career in her teens? Absolutely not. No possible way! No man of any rank, low or high-not even a weak, all too easily influenced First Minister-would dare to write drafts on his credit balance to a teenaged girl, for sexual favors everyone in the capital knew he obtained! The hard proof of his lawbreaking would have been open to the public view in the national databank! She must have been at least twenty!

Forcing his attention back to his companions, Lacey focused his mind on the conversation.

"Is it true, Harvey, that the price of nickel steel just took a two percent rise?" Darley asked.

A burly figure turned from a companion, to fix the lean broker with a quizzical eye. "I heard that too, this afternoon. How about it, Harvey?"

"Unfortunately, you heard correctly, Bolton. One point eight percent, to be exact. That’ll translate into an increase of four or five percent for manufactured goods, over the next fourweek."

"Strange. This is an odd time of the fiscal half-Earthyear for an increase to be levied."

"Bolton, do you know Lacey?" Darley inquired.

"We’ve met." The burly man thrust out a hand, which the newcomer to the group of habitual patrons gripped. "A rise in value will affect the price of shipping, won’t it, Lacey?"

"Not noticeably. The cost of freight is figured on mass and volume, not on the value of the goods. Any markup will be added by the manufacturer, not the shipper. The time we’re forced to increase what we charge occurs after the price of fuel takes a jump, or when the government increases the cost of renting locks, and hikes docking charges."

"Fuel should stay relatively steady, as it has since the war, eh?" Harvey ended that supposition on a questioning note.

"I fervently hope so!"

"Speaking of fuel…" Gathering his audience with his eyes, Bolton launched into an anecdote.

You let an opening slip by you, there, Lacey chided his alter self. Odd time indeed. Any rise in price usually occurs after the issuing of annual shipping contracts, and reflects an increase in the cost to the government of contracting for mining as well as shipping. You should have probed that angle. Well, likely no one will speculate aloud regarding the issuing of contracts in the hearing of the official who awards them. Dead end, this venture, I’m afraid.

Eyes black as the deeps of space focused on the raconteur, but Lacey nonetheless sought to hear what Marcus’s satellites discussed. In that latter endeavor, he enjoyed only indifferent success.

A cloud of fragrance wafted about the man straining to listen on two levels, as Adrienne strolled over and drew up a chair next to his. She wears perfume as costly as her suit, her newest admirer reflected. Prepared to indulge in the delicate verbal fencing in which a skilled courtesan customarily engaged a man whose favor she hoped to attract, the frustrated news-gatherer smiled with magnetic warmth at his hostess.

"What aspect of business or government interests you so intensely that you came here seeking information, Lacey?" Adrienne asked bluntly, her tone noncommittal, her face serene.

The newcomer to the woman’s salon failed to hide the shock produced by that thrust in the guts. Deciding in a split second to match her frankness, he replied candidly, "I’m curious to know who might land the five most lucrative shipping contracts due to be reissued by the government at the beginning of the upcoming fiscal period. Three of the holders will likely retain theirs, but two prime contracts may be up for grabs."

"I’ll see if I can be of any help," the courtesan murmured. Amusement lurked in the eyes resting appraisingly on the ruggedly handsome, coppery face of the compactly built duelist whose superbly tailored black suit hid nothing of his lithe grace.

Leaving a tantalizing fragrance in her wake, Adrienne rose and sauntered away, seemingly with no special bevy of conversationalists in mind. Lacey watched her halt by a group that included a man clad in the dark blue traditionally favored by the captains and crew of commercial vessels. When a pause occurred in the conversation, the courtesan rested a provocative glance on the commercial spacer obviously electrified by the gesture.

"I suppose we’ll lose the pleasure of seeing you as often, after the new fiscal period begins, Doyle. Nice hiatus in your busy schedule, this annual break, is it not?"

Rendered suddenly and unwontedly hopeful that he might stand a chance of purchasing even an hour’s worth of her services, the man thus singled out replied regretfully, "It surely is, Adrienne. I’ll be putting in as infrequent an appearance as ever, as soon as Whitley gets the contract renewed on the ship."

Darley having entered a conversation with a man Harvey disliked, the broker rested a speculative glance on the ex-Fifth Corpsman. Knowing Adrienne far better than the majority of the men in attendance, he made a shrewd guess as to her purpose. Speaking in a lazy drawl that carried beyond the group surrounding Doyle, Harvey addressed the Captain elated at just having elicited a time in which he might drop in of an afternoon.

"No question in Whitley’s mind that his contract will be renewed, is there, Doyle?"

That remark provoked a satisfied grin. "Not that I can detect, and I’ll confess that I’m not losing any sleep worrying."

Breaking off in mid-sentence, Marcus turned away from Sutton and Crowell, to scowl at the broker. "The Commission has yet to finish assessing all the applications, Harvey," he asserted coldly.

Undaunted by the warning, the sturdily independent-minded broker remarked with deliberate, provocative emphasis, "I’ll wager I could name at least two other men who aren’t losing any more sleep than Doyle is. Care to lay a bet that both Yancey and Durand enjoy complete freedom from worry?"

Silence fell like a pall over the assemblage. The guests sat with eyes riveted to the high-ranking official in whose eyes a dangerous glint surfaced.

"That decision will be rendered by eight men who have just begun to sift through the applications," Marcus grated. "I’d be careful not to impugn the integrity of the members of the Interior Commission, if I were you, Harvey. Several of them might be prepared to challenge a man casting doubt on their fairness."

No whit intimidated, the provocateur indulged in a sardonic snort. "No one’s touchy enough to challenge a man for wagering openly on his ability to make an accurate prediction regarding a key facet of the economy, Marcus. Time will tell just how shrewd a guesser I am. I cast no aspersions on anyone’s integrity."

His manner plainly projecting disdain, the broker coolly weathered the wrathful glance cast on him by the Minister of Interior Resources. When Marcus abruptly turned away, Harvey passed a casual remark to Lacey as the guests resumed their conversations.

Seated so that he could see the irate Minister’s back, Lacey watched Adrienne lay her hand soothingly on the shoulder of the inwardly fuming official. Recognizing the promise implicit in the smile she bestowed on her current lover, he frowned as she strolled to a third group seated close enough for the intent observer to overhear what passed. Her clear tones carried easily above the swell of talk, although she seemed not to raise her voice.

"Is Frobisher enjoying this annual respite from pressure as well, Legrand?" she asked.

"He will be, as of tomorrow," acknowledged a ship-owner clad in a suit the equal of that distinguishing Lacey or Marcus in the costliness of its tailoring.

"I confess to hoping that he’ll drop by. I see him seldom, since he began hauling so steadily."

"I doubt that Frobisher can resist creating an opportunity, Adrienne." That jocular reply accompanied a raking glance.

"You fell into a cozy deal when you landed that long-term contract hauling for Roland Construction, Legrand," a second man interjected. "Do you intend to put in for a government contract, now that Frobisher has about wound up that other?" The speaker, an intense, wiry man notable for lively dark eyes that missed nothing, glanced inquiringly at the acquaintance he addressed.

"Think I’d stand a chance?" Legrand drawled that query in a tone that clearly projected his expectation of hearing a flatly negative response.

"I don’t know. Clyde seems certain he’ll get what he applied for. He turned down three contracts I offered him."

"Really? How long ago?" That sharp query accompanied a noticeable tensing of the elegantly clad body of the speaker.

"Two days ago. He hauls for us quite often. His blunt refusal made me wonder."

"He must feel confident. I know he applied for one of the top five. What sort of goods does your firm need hauled, Woburn?"

Gratified to behold the gleam of imperfectly suppressed eagerness in Legrand’s eyes, Woburn explained, "After Clyde turned me down, I figured I’d do better to wait until after the contracts come out before attempting to sign up a shipper. I suppose you’re hedging until after the announcement?"

"As a matter of fact, no, but Frobisher faces two solid weeks of hauling, still."

"That would work out satisfactorily. I customarily offer contracts well before the shipping dates. When could I meet with you?"

"Drop by my office tomorrow morning at 0900."

"I’ll do that."

Adrienne still stood smiling down on the two businessmen, listening to the exchange. "Well! I seem to have insured my seeing even less of Frobisher," she observed, pursing rosily bowed lips. Tossing a tantalizing curl back from where it threatened to obscure a long-lashed eye, she heaved an audible, mock sigh. "What a pity, at least from my point of view. My friends seem to be falling off in droves. Whatever has happened to Pryor, Legrand? He hasn’t dropped in for two weeks now."

Frowning, the ship-owner scanned the ingenuously quizzical face, obviously skeptical of the claim to ignorance implied in the question. "You haven’t heard?" he drawled.

"Heard what?"

"You might as well write Pryor off your list of guests. He missed a payment on a loan, so the note-holder seized his ship. He’ll be lucky if he emerges from the bind he’s in with the clothes on his back."

"What a shame!" The lovely woman’s whole person reflected utter shock.

Harvey again weighed in with a trenchant observation. "That depends on one’s point of view, Adrienne. Some will take infinite satisfaction in Pryor’s rotten luck, given that his contract’s now up for grabs. I sincerely doubt that I’ll be laying any wagers as to who lands the contract Pryor held this past Earthyear." Having actively sought Marcus’s eyes, the broker met the Minister’s baleful stare with perfect equanimity. Turning, he winked at Lacey.

Shaking her head in commiseration with Pryor’s misfortune, Adrienne retired to her galley to heat an exquisitely crafted ceramic pot full of coffee. Surrounded by the fragrant aroma, she began circulating among her guests, serving the brew in recyclable cups. Moving slowly, passing an occasional comment, she reached Lacey last, her approach causing him to disregard entirely the spirited conversation engrossing Darley, Bolton, and the broker.

"Coffee, Lacey?"

"Please." Regarding his hostess out of speculative eyes, the man accommodated by that subtle manipulation of key guests asked softly, "Why did you take the trouble to do me that inestimable favor?"

Adrienne’s wickedly provocative smile set Lacey’s loins stirring. "I enjoy giving satisfaction, spacer-captain," she drawled, her rich, contralto voice a feline purr. Having cast her net, she moved away with graceful ease before the beneficiary of her delicate maneuvering could reply.

The newcomer to her salon found himself wondering how far down the courtesan’s back that magnificent hair would fall if a man were to draw out the pins. The heady scent of her perfume lingered, its potency even greater than the fragrance of the most delicious coffee ever to pass her bemused guest’s lips.