Read Queen of the Pirates Online

Authors: Blaze Ward

Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Exploration, #Hard Science Fiction, #Space Fleet, #Space Opera, #Military, #Artificial intelligence, #Galactic Empire, #starship, #Pirates, #Space Exploration

Queen of the Pirates (3 page)

BOOK: Queen of the Pirates
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Jessica found herself on the outside, seated next to Nils Kasum. He was wearing a pleasant cologne this evening, understated but masculine. She approved. Tadej Horvat had the entire opposite side to himself.

“Joshua,” Tadej began, “we’ll start with one of my merlots from Vaadwach Estates, a cheese plate of your choice, and two plates of antipasto”

The waiter nodded pleasantly. “Coming right up, folks.”

And then he was gone.

At the center of the booth, on the wall, a series of pictures showing a young, dark–haired man in various stages of life. At a dance with a pretty young woman. Enlisted, proudly showing off his first uniform. His
Orders To Report
. That formal dress uniform shot they take after a year or so of active service. Many years later, now with several rank rings on his wrists. That same young woman, older now, and fully pregnant. Older yet, with three young children running around.

Jessica looked closely at the
Orders Of Separation
papers, carefully framed and hung to the right. Senior Master Chief Miles Abraham Kenneck. Pretty impressive outcome for a scrawny kid. A picture of the man, twenty or so years later, hair mostly gone, jowls taking over, and a smile still a kilometer wide. Finally, his obituary. Retired Chief, private astronavigator, fisherman, raconteur, card sharp, liar, and beloved great–grandfather of seventeen.

Not a bad way to go.

Jessica caught the Premier,
Tadej
, eyeing her carefully. “Miles Kenneck served with my great–grandfather. One of his grand–daughters is my aunt.”

Jessica nodded. A diorama so prominent in a room so reserved would require a very personal touch, and a very powerful patron. Like the man seated across from her.

“He represents to me,” Tadej continued, “the strength of the Republic. The Fifty Families provide a significant portion of the Senate and upper reaches of the Fleet, but there are over five hundred worlds providing the crews for those ships, whether they come from a backwater like
Saxon
, or from right here on
Ladaux
, the very heart of
Aquitaine
.”

Jessica nodded again. Tadej’s words had the feel of a speech to them again. Well–rehearsed and important, but more than just conversation. Much more.

“Jessica,”
Nils
said, leaning a little closer, “what my esteemed sidekick is wandering around without actually saying is that you are at a point in your career most people from your background never reach. It’s time for you to decide what you want to be.”

Oh? Cards–on–the–table time? With two of the biggest power players in the Republic? Seriously?

“What are my choices?” she replied, opting for Socrates rather than commitment.

Both men smiled. Nils spoke.

“You already have a reputation among the Fighting Lords as a tactical wizard, perhaps comparable to Emmerich Wachturm, your erstwhile opponent. That alone will eventually pave the way for you to be promoted to Fleet Lord.”

Jessica eyed both men closely. “What if I want more?”

She leaned forward and tented her hands to rest her chin. It was a pose she had picked up from the man seated next to her. He recognized it with a smile.

“How much more?” Nils smiled at her.

“How far could a scholarship student from the outskirts of Penmerth go, Nils? Tadej? On the strength of her own accomplishments, and not just as the spouse of someone far better bred?”

She was careful with her tone. These men bled blue when pricked. But they had asked for it.

“Could I take your job?” she continued at Nils with an honest appraisal.

“That, Jessica Keller,” Tadej said seriously, “is why we are here, tonight.”

“To answer that question?” She turned her tone on him, sounding like a tactics instructor, perhaps the man who had taught her, who sat beside her now.

“To begin your education, young lady, that one day, you just might.” Nils smiled down at her. It was a warm smile, for all the cold implications in his words.

Jessica kept her smile neutral.

These men were serious. Very serious. Like they believed she might actually pull it off.

Her Advanced Fleet Operations final exams had been less intimidating.

Joshua returned to break up the scene, pouring wine and delivering hors d'oeuvres. Jessica used the space to gather her wits back together. As much as she could.

First Lord Jessica Keller?
Wow
.

She took a leap of faith.

“So,” she began around a bite of cheese, “I presume my naval skills have been found acceptable. What is the next thing I should master, gentlemen?”

Tadej blinked in surprise. Nils laughed outright.

“I told you so, Tad,” Nils said, toasting his friend with a wine glass.

“Yes,” Tadej replied with a wry smile. “Yes, you did. I will pay up tomorrow, you scamp.”

Seriously, they had bet? On her? Was she predictable, or were they?

“Jessica,” Tadej said with utter gravity, the levity gone from his voice, but still holding all the warmth, “what you need next is diplomacy.”

“Diplomacy?” she said, one eyebrow creeping up in spite of her best efforts.

“Not command, Command Centurion Keller,” Tadej replied. “You do that well. No, I mean going out as the senior officer and talking to diplomats and politicians. Fencing verbally with them. Spying on them. Out–maneuvering them at the dinner table.”

“I see.” She did see. It was one of the things she detested most. Fleets were predictable. Battles as well, within limits.

People, not so much.

Still, if she wanted this future, she would have to master this task.

Simple as that.

“So what is the secret key to diplomacy, Tadej?” she asked, putting him on the spot to see how far he was prepared to go tonight.

“Diplomacy is the art of the unsaid, as much as the said, Jessica,” he replied, suddenly very, very serious. Her reminded her of Father. “Politics is the art of perception, the shaping of minds with your words. Leading someone verbally to a place without ever taking them there, merely on the strength of your words alone. Never threatening. Never cowering. Hinting at ambiguities and repercussions, while letting their imaginations and nightmares fill in the blanks in whatever manner best serves your purposes.”

“Lie?” she asked simply.

“Never,” he said, “unless you cannot possibly ever be caught. And even then, sparingly. Paint instead in subtle grays, where men like Fleet Lord Loncar work in simple black and white. Use ambiguity offensively. And always make sure your opponent has a way to escape you, so he doesn’t decide he has to die fighting. Always treat your worst enemy with the highest respect, because the wyrm will eventually turn and he will box you in someday.”

Tadej paused to take a drink of wine and fix her with his steely gaze.

“Death is exceedingly rare in diplomacy and politics, young lady, so you will meet the same players again and again. Understand that today’s opponent may be tomorrow’s friend, and vice versa.”

Nils poured the glasses full as a way to engage her.

“And while you are not known for using your feminine wiles, Jessica,” Nils said with all the seriousness Father had used on the first boy she had ever brought home to meet, “many of the places you are likely to visit are not as enlightened about the equality of the sexes as
Aquitaine
. They will underestimate you because you are a women, especially Imperials. Do not overlook that advantage. They will see you as weak, unprepared, possibly harmless. Men like that see what you want them to see, regardless of what others might tell them.”

Nils smiled impishly. “And men are visual creatures, at the end of the day. We will see the shell and miss the soul.”

“Enough for now,” Tadej said with a lighter smile. “We will eat, and then digest all of this over a good brandy. Jessica, we are sending you to
Lincolnshire
because they are friendly, and will provide a good way for you get your feet wet without having to act like a spy. Plus, they have a problem that requires a military solution, so you should be in your element.”

Jessica smiled back. An easy mission to the backwaters of the fringe. How bad could it be?

Chapter III

Date of the Republic August 20, 393 Ladaux

Bogdan Loncar emerged from his private vehicle as the doorman opened the heavy portal into his club. It felt good to be back in the saddle, back on
Ladaux
. Shortly, he would return to command. As he had long said to anyone who would listen, he was too big, too important to keep on the sidelines for long. Even that pipsqueak Kasum had finally had to bow to the opinion of the Senate.

He took a deep breath of the capital’s air. Not as good as
Anameleck Prime
, and nowhere near as good as the air on a flag bridge, but it would do. For now.

This was what triumph smelled like.

Inside, he found that the carpets had been replaced, sometime in the last six months. The rich maroon on the floor had been replaced by a deep forest green reminiscent of the fleet uniform he had pulled out of the closet today, for the first time in ages. It was just another sign that his time for glory had come.

Bogdan suffered the elite, personal service that his club was famous for, being escorted to the second floor grotto where his compatriots and he would dine. Tonight was to be a celebration.

The staff deposited him and a glass of the best brandy at his favorite chair, close enough to the fire for warmth, but not so close as to be overwhelmingly bright.

Retired Fleet Lord Bogusław Tesar came in first, hanging on the arm of a lovely young lady in a costume that must have been sprayed on.

“Bogusław,” Loncar greeted the man loudly, warmly, “well met.”

Tesar joined him, moving a touch stiffly as old age and inactivity began to take their toll. “Congratulations, Loncar, my boy,” Bogusław said. “Heard the wonderful news. Feel good to be back?”

“It is only my due, Tesar,” Loncar purred. “And only the first step in my glorious plan.”

“Plan?” Tesar inquired, sipping from a freshly delivered highball glass filled with caramel–colored liquor and ice.

Tesar’s young lady
associate
kissed him lightly on the cheek and withdrew without a word.

Loncar leaned forward and dropped his voice down to a low rumble as Tesar sat. “Aye, Tesar. A tour of duty and glorious conquest out on that frontier, cleaning up the mess that snotty little brat Keller left behind. And then, when I get back in a year, it will be time for the Senate to force Kasum out for someone who understands what this Republic was founded on.”

“I see,” the old Fleet Lord said, leaning forward as well. “And who would you propose as a new First Lord?”

The younger man smiled gloriously. “If called, I would find it in my duty to save the Republic from those meddling fools and their lower–deck peons. We are the Fifty Families, Bogusław Tesar. We own the Republic. It’s high time we got back in charge and started running it better.”

“All well and good, Loncar,” the old Fleet Lord said, “but how do we manage it?”

Loncar pointed at the door by way of answer. A well–dressed, plump woman stood in the door, glancing around until she spotted them. She looked out of place without her Senatorial robes, but Andjela Tomčič still stood out in the room, younger than most of the men, often by a generation, and without the erect carriage that came from a lifetime of Fleet Service.

On her arm, an unobtrusive man in his late thirties. He wore a dark suit and moved with care, as if intent on not leaving an impression. Only the shaved skull marked him in any way that a bystander might remember later.

He worked hard at that, especially for these players. Brant was one of the key operators behind the scenes that kept the Senate working well. Some things could only be done in the shadows.

She strode to their table, bringing the man along with her.

Loncar smiled an alligator smile up at her, toasting her with his glass. “Andjela,” he said, “good to see you again.”

The younger man stood at her side, perhaps half a step back. Quiet. Observing.

“Brant, let’s get you something to drink, and then we can retire to a private room where we can chat.”

Brant studied each of them in turn. “Fleet Lord Loncar,” he nodded, “it is good to see you again. Fleet Lord Tesar, we have not been formally introduced, but I’ve heard a great deal about you. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

Both men rose to kiss the woman on the cheek and shake hands with the man. The staff escorted them to a small chamber to one side and settled them around a small table.

Loncar raised his glass to the assembly. “My friends, I give you our duty to the Republic.”

“The Republic,” they chimed back.

Chapter IV

Date of the Republic September 23, 393 Edge of the Ramsey System

Jessica watched the big three–dimensional projection slowly rotate in front of her, left to right like a spinning top. It dominated the center of the conference table in her Flag Bridge, surrounded, as always, by the ghostly images of her command staff, each comfortable on their own bridges as they appeared and settled in.

A deck above and a little forward from where she sat, Denis Jež commanded
Auberon
. Technically, he was just the first officer of the big Strike Carrier, while she was the command centurion, but she had a squadron to control. Plus, he was good at what he did, and would have already been given command somewhere else, if anyone had noticed his skill before she came along. She wasn’t about to give him up.

One of the only two other people physically present at the table was her Flag Centurion, Enej Zivkovic, the young man responsible for passing her orders to the other vessels.The ghosts visible at her table were Command Centurion Alber’ d’Maine aboard the Heavy Destroyer
Rajput
, and Command Centurion Tomas Kigali of the Fleet Escort, the former Revenue Cutter,
CR–264
.

BOOK: Queen of the Pirates
5.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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