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A Call to Vengeance: Chapter Seven

       Last updated: Wednesday, February 21, 2018 20:30 EST



    Behind the closed eyelids, the young man’s eyes were moving restlessly. Probably dreaming, Elizabeth Winton-De Quieroz decided as she carefully adjusted the blanket across his collarbone.

    Almost certainly having a nightmare.

    She lifted her eyes from his troubled face to the bandage wrapped around the top of his skull. He was one of Damocles’s injured, one of the ones caught in the blast when the ship’s dorsal missile launcher exploded, sending deadly shrapnel bouncing down three passageways. Spacer Third Class Belgrand had caught what the doctors guessed was part of a monitor console in his chest and head.

    At that, he’d been lucky. Five of his fellow spacers had also been injured, two of them worse than him. Three others had been killed outright.

    Killed outright. Like everyone aboard Phoenix and Sphinx, Gemini and Gorgon and Hercules.

    Including her nephew Richard.

    Belgrand’s face blurred as tears formed in Elizabeth’s eyes. A memory flowed in behind the tears: four years ago, just after the death of her beloved husband Carmichael, sitting with Richard at the palace after her father Michael’s abdication. Richard had been only eighteen at the time, but he’d surprised her with the depth of his compassion, understanding, and wisdom. She could remember that even in the throes of her grief she’d made note of his maturity, and had envisioned the greatness he would someday bring to the throne.

    Now, that day would never come.

    She blinked back the tears. Mourning was fine in its place, but Richard was beyond her help. The other men and women in the ward weren’t, and it was time she focused her full attention where it would do some good.

    With a final look at Belgrand, she slipped quietly out of his room and walked down the corridor past the other quiet rooms and the soft conversation of doctors and nurses. Her visits to the physically wounded were mostly symbolic — the King’s sister, dispensing comfort and blankets and all that. Her real work was with the mentally and emotionally wounded, the ones who those few hours of hell had left with invisible but equally debilitating scars.

    She still had twenty minutes before her first appointment, plenty of time to look over her notes and prepare her mind. Just down the hall from the consultation room was a small lounge that was usually unoccupied at this hour, and she headed toward it, nodding silent greetings to the handful of medical staff she passed along the way.

    Her first clue that the lounge wasn’t empty was when she rounded the corner and spotted the two men loitering casually just outside the doorway. Large men. Watchful men. Armed men.

    She came within an ace of simply turning around and walking away. Her brother had been on her case for the past two months — quietly and subtly, but on her case just the same — and she wasn’t in any mood to hear one of his inspirational speeches on how she needed to get on with her life. Besides, she had important work to do.

    But she continued walking, resignation mixing with her annoyance. Realistically, if the King wanted to talk to her, there was very little she could do about it.

    It was only as she came close enough to recognize the men’s faces that she realized that those weren’t Edward’s guards. In fact…

    She picked up her pace a little. Of all the people in the Palace she actually wanted to talk to —

    Crown Princess Sophie was sitting on one of the couches, her legs curled up beneath her, her elbow propped on the back of the couch, her head resting on her hand, her eyes turned toward the window and the glittering sun-lit water of Jason Bay in the distance. Even with her face turned away, there was enough ache and depression in her body language alone to make Elizabeth wince.

    “Hello, Sophie,” she greeted her niece. “What brings you here this morning?”

    “Hello, Aunt Elizabeth,” Sophie said, not turning around. “I don’t know. I just needed to get out of the Palace for a while.”

    “Ah,” Elizabeth said, sitting down in the couch beside her. The girl still hadn’t turned around. “Too many memories?”

    “Too many broken people,” Sophie said. “Mom and dad…they’re trying not to show it. But you can see it. You can see it in everything they say and do.”

    “And everything they don’t say?”

    Sophie’s shoulders hunched briefly. “That’s the worst. You know? What they don’t say. It’s like…they’re hurting, but they can’t show it. Not even to me. Not even to each other.”

    “He’s the King,” Elizabeth reminded her. “He probably thinks he has to put up a good front.”

    “I know,” Sophie said. “That’s what scares me.”


    Sophie exhaled, a long, tired sound. “Because some day that’ll be me,” she said, almost too quietly for Elizabeth to hear. “And I don’t think I can do it.” She turned around.

    It was all Elizabeth could do to keep her own face under control. She’d expected puffy eyes, tear-stained cheeks, and all the rest of the aftereffects of a good, long, bitter cry.

    What she saw instead was a face that was hard and cold and had had every bit of emotion burned out of it. “Sophie?” she asked carefully.

    “You see?” Sophie’s throat worked, the sole indication that there was anything going on behind the rigid exterior. “I try — I really do. But this is what I get. It’s this or — ” She broke off. “How does he do it, Aunt Elizabeth? How does he pretend that everything’s all right. How does he smile?”

    “I don’t know,” Elizabeth confessed. “But you don’t have to. You’re not him, Sophie. You don’t ever have to be him.”

    “No, I just have to be the Crown Princess.” Sophie closed her eyes, and for a brief moment some of the emotion buried inside leaked out. “I don’t want this, Aunt Elizabeth. I never wanted it.”

    “I know, honey,” Elizabeth soothed. She slid a little closer to the young woman and put her arm around her shoulders. “It’s okay. It’ll be okay.”

    For a minute they just sat that way in silence, holding each other as they reflected silently on their grief. Finally, Sophie stirred. “Thank you,” she murmured.

    “You’re welcome,” Elizabeth said. “It’s what family’s for.”

    “At least, what’s left of us.” Sophie took a deep breath.

    And as Elizabeth watched, the fear and depression faded from her niece’s face, to be replaced by her father’s strength and dignity and force of will. “Okay,” the young woman said.

    “You ready to be Crown Princess again?” Elizabeth asked.

    “I suppose,” Sophie said. “You really are good at this, Aunt Elizabeth. You should be in politics.”

    “Not a chance,” Elizabeth said firmly. “I’ll take holding the hands of the wounded to refereeing Dapplelake and Breakwater any day.”

    “I don’t blame you.” Sophie wrinkled her nose. “I just hope they’re not still going at it by the time I reach the Throne.”

    “Not a chance,” Elizabeth said. “Your father’s got at least thirty years of kingship in him, probably more like forty or even fifty. No, you’ll have a whole set of brand-new problems and brand-new annoying people to deal with.”

    “Thanks a whole lot,” Sophie said with a small smile. The smile faded. “I don’t know, though. Politics can drive you crazy; but are you sure this job won’t do that, too?”

    “Meaning?” Elizabeth asked, hearing an edge of challenge in her voice.

    “I just — fine. Does the phrase pressing the bruise mean anything to you?”

    Elizabeth felt a lump form in her throat.

    “I miss him, Sophie,” she said quietly. “Miss him terribly. But my work here isn’t just a backdoor way to feel sorry for myself. A lot of the people I counsel feel guilty that they survived while their friends didn’t. I know how that feels — that peak bear could just as well have attacked me instead of Carmichael. I can talk to them on their own level, because I’ve been there.”

    “I know,” Sophie said. “I see Navy people walking around Landing and I sometimes can’t help wondering why they lived and Richard didn’t. I just…I don’t want you burying yourself here when there are bigger things you could be doing.”

    “Right now, this is as big as I want to get.”

    “Okay,” Sophie said. “I just…I worry about you sometimes.”

    “As I worry about you,” Elizabeth said. “That’s also what family’s for.” She patted the girl’s knee. “I know it may not feel like it right now, Sophie, but you’re going to be a good queen someday. I can feel it.”

    “I hope so.” Sophie made a face. “Though…I don’t know. Queen Sophie sounds so…childish, I guess.”

    “You want to swap names?” Elizabeth asked dryly. “I’ve always liked yours better than mine.”


    “Really,” Elizabeth assured her. “Sophie means wisdom. Elizabeth means my father was trying to get in good with his mother.”

    “It does not,” Sophie scoffed. “It means pledged to God. Besides, two Queen Elizabeths? Everyone will think the Royal House of Winton ran out of baby names.”

    “It could be worse,” Elizabeth said. “I know brothers who both married women named Sherrie. Forever afterward, everyone had to call them Matt’s Sherrie and Mark’s Sherrie to keep them straight in conversation. At least you’d have The Second after your name.”

    “I’ll take it under advisement,” Sophie said. “You know what that means, right?”

    “In our family? Absolutely,” Elizabeth assured her. “Your father used that one for years when I was growing up. Usually when I wanted him to do something for me that he didn’t want to do.”

    “I’ll bet you were a pesky little sister.”

    “You have no idea.” Elizabeth took a deep breath, let it out in a huffing sigh. “We do what we have to, Sophie. And that isn’t always what we want to do.”

    “Like putting yourself between Dapplelake and Breakwater?”

    Elizabeth forced a smile. “I’ll take it under advisement. Until then, you take care of yourself, okay? And take care of your parents, too. You’re the only one who can.”

    “I know.” Sophie forced a smile of her own. “I’ll do my best.”

    “You’re a Winton,” Elizabeth reminded her. “I think you’ll find that your best is a lot better than you ever thought it could be.”

    “I hope you’re right.” Sophie stood up. “Good-bye, Aunt Elizabeth.”

    “Good-bye, Sophie.”

    She watched as Sophie collected her bodyguards and headed back toward the lifts that would take them back outside.

    Feeling guilty.

    Yes, the Wintons were strong. And historically, at least, they’d always risen to the challenges of their places of authority.

    But that authority came with costs. Some of those costs Sophie could already see facing her from her distant future. Some she would be shielded from until she could grow into them, or until she ascended to the Throne.

    Some were things that had probably never even occurred to her.

    Elizabeth shook her head. Sometimes those were the worst, if only because they reared their heads at the most awkward and unexpected moments.

    Maybe she should have warned the girl about that. But that was Edward’s job. Elizabeth had enough trouble handling the realities of life for her own three step-children without taking on that task for someone else’s daughter. Even if that daughter was her niece.

    Besides, that was the future. This was the present, and she had work of her own to do. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

    Pulling out her tablet, she keyed for her first client’s profile and started to read.



    “You’re not listening,” Chancellor Breakwater growled into his uni-link. “I don’t care who approved it — Cazenestro, Dapplelake, or even King Edward himself. What I want to know is who in bloody hell issued the order in the first place?”

    Seated at Breakwater’s secretary’s desk in the outer office, Gavin Vellacott, Baron Winterfall, focused on the set of regulations he’d been tasked with slogging through and tried to ignore the controlled meltdown going on beyond the open door to Breakwater’s main office.

    A meltdown he couldn’t fully understand. Breakwater’s primary focus, as always in these situations, was to spin MPARS to its best advantage. Unfortunately — from the Chancellor’s point of view — a non-MPARS person had come up with idea of inflating the two corvettes’ wedges to simulate heavy cruisers, just as a puffer frog swelled itself to twice its size to scare off predators.

    From Winterfall’s point of view, it didn’t matter where the idea had come from or who had given which order. None of it diminished in the slightest the crews’ success in bringing their impellers to such an overstressed level and in maintaining the extra load for four hours without collapsing the wedge or losing any of the nodes. Winterfall didn’t know a lot about the technical end of such things, but he knew enough to recognize that was an impressive achievement.



    But Breakwater had never been the sort to settle for partial credit. For him, glory shared was glory lost.

    “Well, find out.” With a snarl, Breakwater keyed off the uni-link. He stormed through the doorway, stopping short as he spotted Winterfall. “What are you doing here?”

    Winterfall blinked in surprise. “You asked me here, My Lord,” he said. “You wanted a report on Harwich’s meeting with Countess Acton –”

    “I meant, what are you doing at Angela’s desk?”

    “I was running a regulation search for a constituent,” Winterfall said. It was true, just not the entire truth. “I saw you were busy, and since I assume Angela has already left for the day, I thought I might as well put the idle minutes to use.” He nodded toward Breakwater’s uni-link. “If I may, My Lord, it’s already on record that Admiral Locatelli gave the order for Aries and Taurus to inflate their wedges.”

    “Are you trying to deflect me, Gavin?” Breakwater rumbled, his eyes narrowing. “Because I’m the one who taught you how to shift a conversation where you wanted it to go.”

    “I’m not trying anything, My Lord,” Winterfall protested, fighting against the reflexive defensiveness. Sparking defensiveness in an opponent was another technique Breakwater had taught him. “I’m just a bit confused. Is someone saying now that Locatelli didn’t give the order?”

    For a long moment Breakwater continued to stare at him. Then, his lip twitched. “That’s not the order I’m concerned about,” he said. “I’m trying to find out who told MPARS Sphinx Command to retask one of our navigational satellites to spew nonsense radio signals out into the void.”

    “I thought it was a programming glitch.”

    “Sphinx Command assures me that the broadcast profile changes couldn’t have happened by accident,” Breakwater said. “No, someone had to have ordered it.”

    Winterfall nodded slowly. An interesting question, given that all major orders or policy decisions that concerned MPARS should at least be reported to Breakwater.

    It was especially interesting given that the pool of possible suspects was almost vanishingly small. The only ones Winterfall could think of were Defense Minister Dapplelake, First Lord of the Admiralty Cazenestro, and System Commander Locatelli. He opened his mouth to point that out —

    “Yes, there are only three possibilities,” Breakwater growled. “And it wasn’t any of them. Or if it was, the perpetrator certainly isn’t admitting to it.”

    Perpetrator. Odd choice of words. “Well, some tech has to have done the actual reprogramming,” Winterfall pointed out. “We should be able to find him or her and backtrack up the chain.”

    “One would think so, wouldn’t one?” Breakwater said acidly. “Only so far that approach isn’t working, either. Whoever that tech was also seems disinclined to claim his share of the glory.”

    “Glory?” Winterfall echoed, frowning. “There’s glory involved?”

    “Of course not,” Breakwater bit out. “But someone obviously did it on purpose, and I assume that person had a reason for it. Only I can’t get anyone tell me what the hell it was.”

    “Interesting,” Winterfall murmured. In the three weeks since the Battle of Manticore he and Breakwater had run into several other instances of information silence. Usually it was just a matter of data that was backlogged or had been routed to the wrong person. But at least once it had appeared to be information that the Admiralty simply didn’t want to share with its lesser MPARS cousin. “Do you want me to talk to my sources?”

    “You mean your brother?” Breakwater snorted. “Don’t hold your breath. As far as I can tell, he’s become a pariah among the upper echelons. You saw how they brushed aside any recognition of his contributions during the battle. I don’t know why Locatelli doesn’t like him, but the tension there is quite visible. No, I doubt the Admiralty even listens to him anymore. They certainly aren’t talking to him.”

    “You’re probably right,” Winterfall said, keeping his voice neutral.

    Because he’d done some investigation of his own, and had come to a rather different conclusion. The Navy might not speak to Lieutenant Travis Uriah Long, but they certainly talked about him.

    Not the whole Navy, certainly, and never on the record. But those who’d been his superiors over the past few years were quietly but solidly complimentary regarding his service.

    In some places it went even farther. Despite the fact that Travis hadn’t received any important commendations for his actions against Tamerlane, Casey’s commander had made it clear — and on the record — that the credit for the cruiser’s survival during her part of the battle rested largely with Travis.

    Competent military officers didn’t ignore talent when they saw it. Senior officers like Locatelli didn’t engage in feuds with officers that much their junior. In the end, Winterfall had been forced to the only remaining conclusion.

    Travis’s accomplishments were being downplayed because the Admiralty didn’t want any glory to reflect off him onto Winterfall. And, by extension, onto Breakwater.

    It was petty, in Winterfall’s opinion. More so even than Breakwater’s Travis/Locatelli feud theory.

    It was also infuriatingly counterproductive. The Navy and MPARS were on the same side, after all, with both forces dedicated to the defense of the Star Kingdom. They just had different views on how best to do that.

    But it got worse. Even as the Navy proclaimed victory and Locatelli basked in the warmth of public acclaim, the Admiralty was finding itself faced with a terrible and inescapable fact.

    Namely, that Breakwater was right.

    The record spoke for itself. All three of the invading ships that had been destroyed — two of them full-fledged battlecruisers — had been taken out by a light cruiser, a destroyer, and an MPARS corvette. David and Goliath matchups, all of them; and in each case the smaller ship had won out. Locatelli’s battlecruisers, for all their size and glory and prestige, had accomplished precisely nothing.

    The Star Kingdom didn’t need a few big warships, like Dapplelake and Cazenestro wanted. What it needed was a larger number of smaller ships, ready to swarm and overwhelm any war party that dared to breach the hyper limit.

    Which was exactly what Breakwater had been suggesting for the past fourteen T-years.

    And the Admiralty knew it. Reason enough for them to try to freeze Breakwater out of important information. Motive enough to try to hold back the inevitable tide of history that was turning in MPARS’ favor.

    But how reprogramming a random nav sat figured into the grand conspiracy Winterfall couldn’t imagine.

    “I’ll look into it anyway,” he told Breakwater. “About Harwich’s meeting…?”

    “Later,” Breakwater said, turning back toward his office door. Already a million kilometers away, Winterfall could see. “You said you were doing a regulation search. Did you figure it out?”

    “Yes, My Lord.”

    “Then screen your constituent,” Breakwater said. “From your own office. Be back here in one hour.”

    “Yes, My Lord.”

    Winterfall didn’t actually have to go all the way back to his office for this one. But Breakwater had ordered him there, and lately the Chancellor seemed extra touchy about having his instructions followed to the letter. And so, to his office he went.

    And from the privacy of his desk, he screened his mother.

    She didn’t answer until the seventh ring. About average for her, in Winterfall’s recent experience. Probably dealing with her dogs, as usual, but not in the midst of some crisis that kept her from answering at all. The connection opened — “Hello, Gavin,” Melisande Vellacott Long’s voice came from Winterfall’s uni-link. “I didn’t expect you to screen at dinner time.”

    “Hello to you, too, Mother,” Winterfall said. “Your dinner, or the dogs’?”

    “The dogs’, of course,” she said, as if wondering why he even had to ask. “I never eat this early. Did you find that regulation I asked you for?”

    “I did,” he confirmed. “You were remembering it correctly.”

    “So I can run an in vitro breeding service here as well as my regular one? Wonderful. Where was it buried?”

    “It wasn’t exactly buried,” Winterfall said. “It was part of a Landing land-use overview. And it didn’t specifically mention dogs, pets, or in vitro, which is why your search couldn’t find it.”

    “Well, good,” Melisande said. “Now I can finally get that little bureaucrat off my back. Send me the link, will you?”

    “Already done,” Winterfall said. “By the way, I keep meaning to ask. Have you talked to Travis lately?”

    “No. Why would I have?”

    “I just thought you might,” Winterfall said, floundering a little. The casualness of her dismissal — “There was something of a scare this afternoon. I thought you might have seen the news and checked to see if Travis was all right.”

    “I don’t watch the news this late in the day,” Melisande said primly. “If there was a problem with Travis I’m sure you would have screened.”

    Winterfall frowned. “Mother…when exactly was the last time you and Travis talked?”

    “I don’t know,” she said in the same disinterested tone. “I have to go — Miggles is having trouble with his flews again.”

    “Wait,” Winterfall said. “Three weeks ago — after the battle — didn’t you even screen him then?”

    “He didn’t screen me,” Melisande said. “Why should I screen him?”

    “Because he could have died?”

    “If he had, you’d have screened,” Melisande said again. “And I really do have to go. Thank you for the link. We’ll talk later.” Without waiting for a reply, she keyed off.

    Winterfall stared at his uni-link. If he had, you’d have screened? What in the hell kind of comment was that?

    The comment of a woman who didn’t really care about her younger son.

    Slowly, Winterfall lowered his arm to his desk, an eerie feeling trickling through him. Years ago, during one of their infrequent get-togethers, Travis had tried to tell his older half-brother about the growing rift between him and their mother. At the time Winterfall had been too busy to give it much thought, and what little thought he did give it was quickly dismissed as the over-exaggerations of a frustrated teenager.

    Clearly, the situation had gotten worse.

    Maybe even pathologically worse. Briefly, he wondered if he should talk to her about getting some kind of therapy, or at least see if she would visit a counselor. Being aloof toward Travis was one thing; not caring whether he lived or died was an order of magnitude worse.

    Winterfall winced. Not that he could claim any high ground. Time and again over the years he’d passed up a chance to meet with or even screen his brother. Three weeks ago, with the realization that the Star Kingdom was being invaded and that Travis was facing imminent death, he’d seen the terrible folly of his neglect, and had vowed not to let such opportunities ever slip away again.

    Now, three weeks later, he had yet to carve out time to even have lunch together.

    He swore under his breath. Well, that was going to change. That was going to change right now. He lifted the uni-link again —

    It pinged before he could key it.

    He clenched his teeth. Breakwater. “Yes, My Lord?”

    “Did you see the King’s latest announcement?” the Chancellor demanded.

    “No, My Lord,” Winterfall said, frowning as he keyed his computer. Palace announcements…there it was. “You mean the outdoor memorial service and requiem for the fallen next month?”

    “Keep reading,” Breakwater said stiffly. “The part about the Monarch’s Thanks earlier that afternoon.”

    Winterfall skimmed the announcement. The senior officers from each of the ships that had taken part in the battle would embark from the Palace aboard the Royal Yacht Samantha and be taken to the Wintons’ private retreat on Triton Island for a luncheon, returning to Landing in time for the memorial service. “Seems like a nice gesture,” he said, wondering what Breakwater was seeing that he wasn’t.

    “Look closer,” Breakwater growled. “The senior Naval officers are being invited. There’s no mention of Aries and Taurus.”

    Winterfall gave the notice another look. The Chancellor was right: the two MPARS ships weren’t specifically mentioned.

    On the other hand, they weren’t specifically excluded, either. Breakwater was probably reading more into the announcement than was actually there.

    “I’m sure that’s just an oversight, My Lord,” Winterfall told him, choosing the most diplomatic approach to the problem. “If you’d like, I can call the Palace and have that clarified.”

    “You do that,” Breakwater said. “And you make it clear that MPARS played a huge role in the battle and we will not be left out of the public consciousness. Whether Dapplelake likes it or not.”

    “Yes, My Lord.”

    “And when you’re finished, come back here,” the Chancellor continued. “I want to hear what Harwich and Acton had to say to each other.”

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