Avasarala frowned. The Mikhaylov was part of a small convoy monitoring the traffic between the deep stations orbiting at the far edge of the Belt.
“Going deep where?”
“I asked around,” Gloria said. “Ganymede.”
“Your friend has loose lips,” Avasarala said.
“I never tell him anything true,” Gloria said. “I thought you should know.”
“I owe you,” Avasarala said. Gloria nodded once, the movement sharp as a crow’s, and dropped the connection. Avasarala sat in silence for a long moment, fingers pressed to her lips, mind following the chains of implication like a brook flowing over stones. Nguyen was sending more ships to Ganymede, and he was doing it quietly.
The why quietly part was simple. If he’d done it openly, she would have stopped him. Nguyen was young and he was ambitious, but he wasn’t stupid. He was drawing conclusions of his own, and somehow he’d gotten to the idea that sending more forces into the open sore that was Ganymede Station would make things better.
“Oh, Nani!” Kiki called. From the lilt of her voice, Avasarala knew there was mischief afoot. She hefted herself up from the desk and headed for the door.
“In here, Kiki,” she said, stepping out into the kitchen.
The water balloon hit her in the shoulder without bursting, bobbled down to the floor, and popped at her feet, turning the stone tiles around her dark. Avasarala looked up, rage-faced. Kiki stood in the doorway leading to the yard, caught between fear and delight.
“Did you just make a mess in my house?” Avasarala asked.
Pale-faced, the girl nodded.
“Do you know what happens to bad children who make a mess in their nani’s house?”
“Do they get tickled?”
“They get tickled!” Avasarala said, and bolted for her. Of course Kiki got away. She was a child of eight. The only time the girl’s joints ached, it was from growing too fast. And of course, eventually she let her nani catch her and tickle her until she screamed. By the time Ashanti and her husband came to gather up their children for the flight back to Novgorod, Avasarala had grass stains on her sari and her hair was standing off her scalp in all directions, like the cartoon image of her lightning-struck self.
She hugged the children twice before they left, sneaking bits of chocolate to them each time, then kissed her daughter, nodded to her son-in-law, and waved to them all from her doorway. The security team followed their car. No one so closely related to her was safe from kidnapping. It was just another fact of life.
Her shower was long, using a lavish volume of water almost too hot for comfort. She’d always liked her baths to approach scalding, ever since she was a girl. If her skin didn’t tingle and throb a little when she toweled off, she’d done it wrong.
Arjun was on the bed, reading seriously from his hand terminal. She walked to her closet, threw the wet towel into the hamper, and shrugged into a cotton-weave robe.
“He thinks they did it,” she said.
“Who did what?” Arjun asked.
“Nguyen. He’s thinking that the Martians are behind the thing. That there’s going to be a second attack on Ganymede. He knows the Martians aren’t moving their fleet there, and he’s still reinforcing. He doesn’t care if it f**ks the peace talks, because he thinks they’re crap anyway. Nothing to lose. Are you listening to me?”
“Yes, I am. Nguyen thinks it was Mars. He’s building a fleet to respond. You see?”
“Do you know what I’m talking about?”
“As a rule? No. But Maxwell Asinnian-Koh just posted a paper about post-lyricism that’s going to get him no end of hate mail.”
“You live in your own world, dear one.”
“I do,” Arjun agreed, running his thumb across the hand terminal’s screen. He looked up. “You don’t mind, do you?”
“I love you for it. Stay here. Read about post-lyricism.”
“What are you going to do?”
“The same thing as always. Try to keep civilization from blowing up while the children are in it.”
When she’d been young, her mother had tried to teach her knitting. The skill hadn’t taken, but there were other lessons that had. Once, the skein of yarn had gotten knotted badly, and Avasarala’s frustrated yanking had only made things progressively worse. Her mother had taken the tight-bound clump from her, but instead of fixing it herself and handing it back, her mother sat cross-legged on the floor beside her and spoke aloud about how to solve the knot. She’d been gentle, deliberate, and patient, looking for places where she could work more slack into the system until, seemingly all at once, the yarn spilled free.
There were ten ships in the list, ranging from an ancient transport past due for the scrap heap to a pair of frigates captained by people whose names she’d heard. It wasn’t a huge force, but it was enough to be provocative. Gently, deliberately, patiently, Avasarala started plucking it apart.
The transport was first, because it was easiest. She’d been cultivating the boys in maintenance and safety for years. It took four hours for someone with the schematics and logs to find a bolt that hadn’t been replaced on schedule, and less than half an hour after that to issue the mandatory recall. The Wu Tsao— better armed of the frigates—was captained by Golla Ishigawa-Marx. His service record was solid, workmanlike reading. He was competent, unimaginative, and loyal. Three conversations had him promoted to the head of the construction oversight committee, where he probably wouldn’t do any harm. The full command crew of the Wu Tsao was requested to come back to Earth to be present when they pinned a ribbon on him. The second frigate was harder, but she found a way. And by then the convoy was small enough that the medical and support ship was a higher rating than the remaining convoy justified.
The knot unspooled in her fingers. The three ships she couldn’t pry loose were old and underpowered. If it came to a fight, they wouldn’t be significant. And because of that, the Martians would only take offense if they were looking for an excuse.
She didn’t think they would. And if she was wrong, that would be interesting too.
“Won’t Admiral Nguyen see through all this?” Errinwright asked. He was in a hotel room somewhere on the other side of the planet. It was night behind him, and his dress shirt was unbuttoned at the top.
“Let him,” Avasarala said. “What’s he going to do? Go crying to his mama that I took his toys away? If he can’t play with the big kids, he shouldn’t be a f**king admiral.”