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Mission of Honor: Chapter Fourteen

       Last updated: Wednesday, June 2, 2010 07:06 EDT



    “Ms. Montaigne has arrived, Your Majesty.”

    Elizabeth Winton looked up from the HD she’d been watching and suppressed a flare of severe — and irrational — irritation. After all, Mount Royal Palace chamberlains were chosen for their positions in no small part because of their ability to radiate calm in the midst of crisis, so it was scarcely fair of her to want to throttle this one for sounding precisely that way, she thought. The reflection was very little comfort on a morning like this, however, when all she wanted was someone — anyone — upon whom to work out her frustrations. She heard Ariel’s soft sound of mingled amusement, agreement, and echoes of her own anger and (she admitted) dismay from his perch beside her desk.

    “Thank you, Martin.” Her own voice sounded just as calm and prosaic as the chamberlain’s, she noted. “Show her in, please.”

    “Of course, Your Majesty.” The chamberlain bowed and withdrew, and Elizabeth darted a glance of combined affection and exasperation at the ‘cat, then looked back down at the patently outraged talking head on the recorded Solarian newscast playing on her HD.

    I cannot believe this crap, even out of those Mesa bastards, she thought. Oh, we were already afraid the Ballroom was involved. And I guess I’m no different from anyone else about having . . . mixed feelings about that. I mean, hell, all the civilian fatalities combined aren’t a spit in the wind compared to what Manpower’s done to its slaves over the centuries. For that matter, you could nuke half the damned planet and not catch up with Manpower’s kill numbers! But nuclear weapons on a civilian target? Even low-yield civilian demo charges?

    She shuddered internally. Intellectually, she knew, the distinction between nuclear weapons and other, equally destructive attacks was not only logically flawed but downright silly. And it wasn’t as if nukes hadn’t been used against plenty of other civilian targets over the last couple of millennia. For that matter, Honor Alexander-Harrington, her own cousin Michelle, and other naval officers just like them routinely detonated multi-megaton nuclear devices in combat. But emotionally, Green Pines still represented a tremendous escalation, the crossing of a line the Ballroom, for all its ferocity, had always avoided in the past.

    Which is what’s going to make the new Mesan line so damnably effective with Sollies who already distrust or despise the Ballroom . . . or don’t like the Star Empire very much.

    For herself, she would have been more likely to buy a used air car from Michael Janvier — or Oscar Saint-Just’s ghost! — than to believe a single word that came out of the Mesa System. Still, she was forced to concede, the Mesan version of their “impartial investigation’s” conclusions hung together, if one could only ignore the source. There might be a few problems with the timing when it came to selling Green Pines as an act of bloody vengeance, but the Solarian public had become accustomed to editing unfortunate little continuity errors out of the propaganda stream. Besides, Mesa had actually found a way to make the timing work for it!

    The attack on Green Pines had occurred five days before the abortive attack on Torch by what everyone (with a working brain, at least) realized had been Mesan proxies. Torch, Erewhon, and Governor Oravil Barregos’s Maya Sector administration were still playing the details of exactly how that attack had been stopped close to their collective vest, but there wasn’t much doubt the attackers had been the mercenary StateSec remnants Manpower had recruited since the Theisman coup. Judging from Admiral Luis Roszak’s losses (and according to Elizabeth’s classified Office of Naval Intelligence reports, those losses had been far higher than Roszak or Barregos had publicly admitted) those mercenaries must have been substantially reinforced. They’d certainly turned up with several times the firepower anyone at ONI had anticipated they might possess.

    I wonder whether that assumption on our part comes under the heading of reasonable, complacent, or downright stupid? she thought. After Monica, we damned well ought to’ve realized Manpower — or Mesa, or whoever’s really orchestrating things — had more military resources than we’d ever thought before. On the other hand, I don’t suppose the analysts ought to be too severely faulted for not expecting them to provide presumably traceable ex-Solly battlecruisers to StateSec lunatics who’d been recruited in the first place as disposable — and deniable — cat’s-paws. Worse, Pat Givens’ people at ONI have a pretty solid count on how many StateSec starships actually ran for it after the coup. Admiral Caparelli based his threat assessment on the numbers we knew about, or we’d never have expected Roszak and Torch to deal with it on their own. We’re all just damned lucky they managed to pull it off, after all.

    She thought about her niece Ruth, and what would have happened to her if Luis Roszak’s men and women had been unwilling to pay the price demanded of them, and shuddered.

    Obviously, there’s at least one batch of Sollies who cut against the stereotype, aren’t there, Beth? She thought. On the other hand, if Pat and Hamish are right, maybe they aren’t going to be “Sollies” all that much longer. And Torch’s and Erewhon’s willingness to help cover exactly whose navy lost what stopping the attack suggests all sorts of interesting possibilities about their relationships with Barregos, too, when you think about it. I wonder if that idiot Kolokoltsov even suspects what may be cooking away in that direction?

    But whatever might or might not transpire in the Maya Sector, and despite any threat assessment errors which might have come home to roost for Admiral Roszak and his people, the fact remained that Mesa had neatly factored its own failed attack on Torch into its new propaganda offensive.

    After all, its mouthpieces had pointed out, the Kingdom of Torch had declared war on the Mesa System, and a huge chunk of the Kingdom of Torch’s military and government leadership had long-standing personal ties to the Audubon ballroom. Obviously, Torch had figured out the Mesan attack was coming well in advance, since it had formally requested Roszak’s assistance under the provisions of its treaty with the Solarian League. (It hadn’t, but no one outside the immediate vicinity knew that . . . or was likely to believe it.) So the Mesan argument that Torch had orchestrated the Green Pines attack through the direct Ballroom links it had officially severed as an act of government-sponsored terrorism in retaliation for a legitimate attack by conventional military forces on a belligerent star nation had a dangerous, dangerous plausibility. Especially for anyone who was already inclined to distrust an outlaw regime midwifed in blood and massacre by that same “terrorist” organization.

    Which also explains why the Ballroom finally crossed the line into using “weapons of mass destruction” against civilian targets, at least according to the Gospel according to Mesa, Elizabeth thought grimly. Torch’s formal declaration of war represents a whole new level in the genetic slaves’ battle with Manpower and Mesa. Effectively, it’s a major escalation in kind, so why shouldn’t they have escalated the weapons they’re willing to use, as well? Especially if they truly believed (wrongly, of course!) Manpower intended to genocide their own home world? Never mind the fact that they’re supposed to have killed thousands of their fellow genetic slaves and Mesan seccies at the same time. And never mind the fact that if they could get to Green Pines, they could almost certainly have gotten to dozens of far more militarily and industrially significant targets, instead. Every right-thinking, process-oriented, comfortably insulated, moralistic cretin of a Solly knows they’re terrorists, they think in terroristic terms, and they’d far rather kill civilians in a blind, frenzied orgy of vengeance than actually accomplish anything. God forbid anyone should think of them as human beings trying to survive with some tattered fragment of dignity and freedom!

    She realized she was grinding her teeth and stopped herself. And, she reminded herself again, the fabrication Mesa had woven really did have a damning plausibility. For that matter, Elizabeth couldn’t shake her own strong suspicion that –

    Her thoughts hiccupped as her office door opened once more.

    “Ms. Montaigne, Your Majesty,” the chamberlain announced.

    “Thank you, Martin,” Elizabeth said once more and rose behind her desk as Catherine Montaigne crossed the carpet towards her.

    Montaigne had changed even less than Elizabeth — physically, at least — over the decades since their close adolescent friendship foundered on the rocks of Montaigne’s strident principles. Even now, despite the way their relationship had cooled over those same decades, Elizabeth Winton the woman continued to regard Montaigne as a friend, even though Montaigne’s involvement with a legally proscribed terrorist organization continued to prevent Elizabeth Winton the Queen from officially acknowledging that friendship. It couldn’t have been any other way, given all the thorny difficulties Montaigne’s effective endorsement of the aforesaid legally prescribed terrorist organization created where the Manticoran political calculus was concerned. Especially since the ex-Countess of the Tor had become the leader of what remained of the Manticoran Liberal Party.



    And those difficulties just got one hell of a lot “thornier,” Elizabeth thought sourly. Not just where domestic politics are concerned, either.

    “Cathy,” the queen said, extending her hand across the desk.

    “Your Majesty,” Montaigne replied as she shook the proffered hand, and Elizabeth snorted mentally. No one had ever accused Catherine Montaigne of a chutzpah deficiency, but she was clearly on her best behavior this morning. Despite the other woman’s lifetime of experience in the public eye, Elizabeth could see wariness and worry in her eyes, and the formality of her greeting suggested Montaigne was aware of just how thin the ice underfoot had become.

    Well, of course she is. She may be a lunatic, and it’s for damned sure God forgot to install anything remotely resembling reverse gear when He assembled her, but she’s also one of the smartest people in the Old Star Kingdom. Even if she does take a perverse pleasure in pretending otherwise.

    “I’m sorry my invitation didn’t come under more pleasant circumstances,” Elizabeth said out loud, pointing at a waiting armchair when Montaigne released her hand, and the ex-countess’ lips twitched ever so slightly.

    “So am I,” she said.

    “Unfortunately,” Elizabeth continued, sitting back down in her own chair, “I didn’t have much choice. As I’m sure you’d already deduced.”

    “Oh, you might say that.” Montaigne’s expression was sour. “I’ve been under siege by newsies of every possible description since this broke.”

    “Of course you have. And it’s going to get one hell of a lot worse before it gets better . . . assuming it ever does get better,” Elizabeth said. She waited until Montaigne settled into the armchair then shook her head.

    “Cathy, what the hell were you people thinking?”

    The queen didn’t need a treecat’s empathic sense to recognize Montaigne’s sudden flash of anger. Part of Elizabeth sympathized with the other woman; most of her didn’t give much of a damn, though. Whatever else, Montaigne had voluntarily associated herself with some of the bloodiest terrorists (or “freedom fighters,” depending upon one’s perspective) in the history of mankind. Choosing to do something like that was bound to result in the occasional minor social unpleasantness, Elizabeth thought trenchantly.

    The good news was that Montaigne had always understood that. And it was evident she’d anticipated that question — or one very much like it — from the moment she received Elizabeth’s “invitation.”

    “I assume you’re talking about Green Pines,” she said.

    “No, I’m talking about Jack’s decision to assault the beanstalk,” Elizabeth said caustically. “Of course I’m talking about Green Pines!”

    “I’m afraid,” Montaigne replied with a degree of calm remarkable even in a politician of her experience, “that at this moment you know just as much about what actually happened in Green Pines as I do.”

    “Oh, cut the crap, Cathy!” Elizabeth snorted disgustedly. “According to Mesa, not only was the Ballroom up to its ass in this entire thing, but so was one Anton Zilwicki. You do remember him, don’t you?”

    “Yes, I do.” Montaigne’s calm slipped for a moment, and the three words came out flat, hard, and challenging. Then she shook herself. “Yes, I do,” she repeated in a more normal tone, “but all I can tell you is that to the best of my knowledge he wasn’t involved in this at all.”

    Elizabeth looked at her incredulously, and Montaigne shrugged.

    “It’s the truth, Beth.”

    “And I suppose you’re going to tell me the Ballroom wasn’t involved ‘to the best of your knowledge,’ either?”

    “I don’t know. That’s the truth,” Montaigne insisted more forcefully as Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “I’m not telling you they weren’t; I’m only saying I don’t know one way or the other.”

    “Well, would you like to propose another villain for the piece?” Elizabeth demanded. “Somebody else who hates Mesa enough to set off multiple nuclear explosions in one of its capital’s suburbs?”

    “Personally, I think the idea would appeal to most people who’ve ever had to deal with the sick bastards,” Montaigne returned levelly, her eyes as unflinching as her voice. “In answer to what you’re actually asking, however, I have to admit the Ballroom — or possibly some seccy Ballroom wannabe — has to be the most likely culprit. Beyond that, I genuinely can’t tell you anything about who actually did it. I can say, though, that the last time I was on Torch — and, for that matter, the last time Anton and I spoke — no one on Torch, and sure as hell not Anton, was even contemplating anything like this.”

    “And you’re confident your good friend and general all-around philanthropist Jeremy X. would’ve told you if he’d been planning this kind of operation?”

    “Actually, yes,” Montaigne shrugged. “I won’t pretend my having plausible deniability about Ballroom ops hasn’t come in handy from time to time. For that matter, I won’t pretend I haven’t outright lied about whether or not the Ballroom was behind something . . . or whether or not I had prior knowledge of the ‘atrocity’ du jour. But now that he and Web Du Havel — and your own niece, for that matter — have finally given the galaxy’s genetic slaves a genuine home world of their own? You think he’d be crazy enough to plan something like this — something that had to play into Mesa’s hands this way? Don’t be stupid, Beth! If he’d had even a clue something like this might happen, he’d have stopped it if he’d had to personally shoot the people planning it! And if he couldn’t stop it, he’d sure as hell have discussed it with me if only because he’d recognize what kind of damage control was going to be necessary.”

    The ex-countess looked disgusted by her monarch’s obtuseness, and Elizabeth gritted her teeth. Then she made herself sit back.

    “Look,” she said, “I know the Ballroom’s never been as monolithic as the public thinks. Or, for that matter, as monolithic as people like Jeremy — and you — like to pretend. I know it’s riddled with splinter factions and no one ever knows when a charismatic leader’s going to take some chunk of the official organization with him on his own little crusade. But the bottom line is that someone nuked Green Pines, and the way it was done is sure as hell consistent with the Ballroom’s modus operandi. Aside from the nuclear element, at least!”

    “Assuming the reports out of Mesa are accurate, then, yes, I’d have to agree with that,” Montaigne acknowledged in that same unflinching tone. “But you’re right about the Ballroom’s occasional internal divisions. For that matter, I’d have to admit some of the action leaders who’d accepted Jeremy’s leadership before Torch became independent are royally pissed off with him now for ‘betraying the armed struggle’ when he ‘went legit.’ At least some of them think he’s sold out in return for open political power; most of them just think he’s wrong.” She shrugged. “Either way, though, they’re hardly likely to run potential operations by him for approval.”

    “Or material support?”

    “Torch has made its position on actively supporting strikes like this crystal clear, Elizabeth. You’ve heard what they’ve said as well as I have, and I promise you, they mean it. Like I say, Jeremy’s not stupid enough not to see all the downsides of something like this.”

    Elizabeth tipped back her chair, regarding her “guest” with narrow eyes and scant cheerfulness. There was a certain brittleness to the office’s silence, then the queen raised an eyebrow and pointed an index finger at Montaigne.

    “You’ve been talking in generalities, Cathy,” she said shrewdly. “Why aren’t you being more specific about how you know Captain Zilwicki wasn’t involved in this?”

    “Because –” Montaigne began firmly, then paused. To Elizabeth’s astonishment, the other woman’s face crumpled suddenly, and Montaigne drew a deep, ragged breath.

    “Because,” she resumed, “they’ve specifically linked Anton with this, and I don’t think they just picked his name at random. Oh, I know how vulnerable our relationship makes me — and, by extension, the Liberal Party and the entire Star Empire — where something like this is concerned. But making that link in their propaganda is more sophisticated than Mesa’s ever bothered to be before. I’m not saying it doesn’t make sense from their perspective, because both of us know it does. I’m just afraid that . . . it didn’t occur to them out of the clear blue sky.”

    She had her voice under iron control, but Elizabeth had known her for far too long to be fooled. There was more than simple pain in her eyes; there was something very like terror, and the Queen of Manticore felt the personal concern of friendship go to war with the cold-blooded detachment her position as a head of state demanded of her.

    “Tell me, Cathy,” she said, and her own voice was softer.

    “Beth,” Montaigne looked her squarely in the eye, “I swear to you on my own immortal soul that Anton Zilwicki would never — never — sign off on nuking a public park full of kids — anybody’s kids, for God’s sake! — in the middle of a town. He’d die, first. Ask anyone who knows him. But having said that . . . he was on Mesa. And I’m afraid the Mesans know he was. That that’s the reason they decided to pin this on him, by name, and not just on Torch and the Ballroom in general. And –”



    Her voice broke off, and Elizabeth’s felt her own eyes widen.

    “You think they caught him,” she said gently.

    “Yes. No!” Montaigne shook her head, her expression showing an uncertainty and misery she would never have allowed herself to display in public.

    “I don’t know,” she admitted after a moment. “I haven’t spoken to him in almost six T-months — not since June. He and . . . someone else were headed for Mesa. I know they got there, because we got a report from them through a secure conduit in late August. But we haven’t heard a word from them since.”

    “He was on Mesa?” Elizabeth stared at her, stunned by the notion that Zilwicki had voluntarily walked into that snake pit. “What in God’s name was he thinking?”

    Montaigne drew a deep breath, visibly forcing herself back under control. Then she sat for several seconds, considering the queen with an edge of calculation.

    “All right, Elizabeth — truth time,” she said finally. “Six months ago, you weren’t exactly . . . rational about the possibility that anyone besides Haven could have been behind Admiral Webster’s assassination or the attack on Torch. I’m sorry, but it’s true, and you know it. Don’t you?”

    Brown eyes locked with blue, tension hovering between them for a dozen heart beats. Then Elizabeth nodded grudgingly.

    “As a matter of fact, I’m still not convinced — not by a long chalk — that Haven wasn’t involved,” she acknowledged. “At the same time, I’ve been forced to admit there are other possibilities. For that matter, I’ve even been forced to concede my own anti-Haven prejudices probably help account for at least some of my suspicion where Pritchart is concerned.”

    “Thank you.” Montaigne’s eyes softened. “I know you, Beth, so I know how hard it was for you to admit that. But at the time, Torch and the Ballroom had pretty compelling evidence that whatever might have been the case with Admiral Webster, Haven wasn’t involved in the attack on Berry and Torch. Which suggested someone else had to be, and that led in turn to their taking a very hard look at Mesa.

    “You just admitted your ‘anti-Haven prejudices’ might predispose you to assume Pritchart was behind it. Well, fair’s fair, and I’ll admit that our prejudices naturally predispose us to feel the same way about Manpower. But there was more to it, and a lot of that ‘more’ came from Anton and Ruth, not the Ballroom.”

    “What kind of ‘more’?” Elizabeth asked, frowning intently.

    “Well, the first thing was that we knew — and I mean knew, Beth, with absolute, goldplated certainty — Haven hadn’t been involved in the Torch operation. And the more Ruth and Anton modeled Manpower’s behavior in Monica, the less its actions looked like those of any plausible transstellar — even of a renegade, outlaw transstellar. They were more like something a star nation would have been doing.”

    Elizabeth nodded slowly, her eyes narrow. She recalled Michelle Henke’s suggestion to the same effect after she’d broken Josef Byng’s New Tuscany operation. It had seemed preposterous, but both ONI and SIS had come, at least tentatively, to the conclusion Michelle was onto something. As of yet, no one had any idea exactly what she was onto, unfortunately.

    “Assuming it was Manpower — or Mesa, assuming there’s even as much difference between the two as we thought there was — the attacks seemed to fit in neatly with Manpower’s obvious ambitions in Talbott. In fact, they seemed to imply that everyone was still just scratching the surface of what those ambitions might really be. And, frankly, Torch’s position as an at least semi-official ally of the Star Empire, the Republic, Erewhon, and the Solarian League — or the Maya Sector, at least—had Anton and . . . Jeremy wondering just how many birds Manpower was trying to hit with a single stone.”

    Now whose name, I wonder, did she’d just substitute Jeremy’s for? Elizabeth thought. She considered pressing the point, but not very hard.

    “Under the circumstances, they decided someone needed to take a good, hard look at Manpower from inside the belly of the beast, as it were. They didn’t have a specific action plan, beyond getting inside Mesa’s reach. They wanted to be close enough to be hands-on, able to follow up leads directly instead of being weeks or even months of communications time from the investigation. I think they were probably thinking in terms of setting up a permanent surveillance op, if they could figure out a way to pull it off, but, mostly, they were looking for proof of Manpower’s involvement in Webster’s assassination and the attack on Berry.”

    She paused, with the look of a woman deciding against mentioning something else, and despite her focused intensity, Elizabeth smiled ever so slightly.

    Unwontedly tactful of you, Cathy. Don’t want to come right out and say ‘And they wanted that proof to be good enough it could convince even you to think logically about other candidates, Elizabeth,’ now do you?

    “At any rate,” Montaigne went on more briskly, “the one thing they weren’t going to do was link up with any ‘official’ Ballroom cells on Mesa. We have reason to believe, especially in light of a few recent discoveries, that any Ballroom cell on the planet is likely to be compromised. So there’s zero possibility Anton or . . . any of his people were involved in any Ballroom operation against Green Pines. They were there expressly to keep a low profile; the information they were after — especially if it confirmed their suspicions — was far more important than any attack could have been; and they were avoiding contact with any known Ballroom operative.”

    Elizabeth’s eyes had narrowed again. Now she leaned back and cocked her head to one side.

    “Would it make this any simpler for you, Cathy,” she asked almost whimsically, “if you just went ahead and said ‘Anton and Agent Cachat’ instead of being so diplomatic?”

    It was Montaigne’s eyes’ turn to narrow, and the queen chuckled, albeit a bit sourly.

    “I assure you, I’ve read the reports on just exactly how Torch came into being with a certain closeness. And I’ve had direct reports from Ruth, too, you know. She’s done her best to be . . . tactful, let’s say, but it’s been obvious Agent Cachat’s still something of a fixture on Torch. And, for that matter, that he and Captain Zilwicki have formed some sort of at least semi-permanent partnership.”

    “It would make it simpler, as a matter of fact,” Montaigne said slowly. “And since this seems to be cards-on-the-table time, I suppose I should go ahead and admit that the reason I hadn’t already brought Victor up is that I wasn’t certain it wouldn’t prejudice you against anything I had to say.”

    “I’m a good and expert hater, Cathy,” Elizabeth said dryly. “Reports to the contrary notwithstanding, however, I’m not really clinically insane. I won’t pretend I’m happy to hear about shared skulduggery, hobnobbing, and mutual admiration societies between someone who used to be one of my own spies and someone who’s still currently spying for a star nation I happen to be at war with. But if politics makes strange bedfellows, I suppose it’s only reasonable wars should do the same. In fact, one of my closer associates made that point to me — a bit forcefully — not so long ago.”

    “Really?” Montaigne’s eyebrows arched, and Elizabeth could almost see the wheels and the gears going around in her brain. But then the ex-countess gave herself a visible shake.

    “Anyway,” she said, “Victor was the reason we knew Haven hadn’t ordered Torch attack. Or, at least, that no official Havenite intelligence organ was behind it, since he would have been the one tasked to carry it out if Pritchart had sanctioned it. And you’re right about the kind of partnership he and Anton have evolved. As a matter of fact, the way their abilities complement one another makes both of them even more effective. Victor has an absolute gift for improvisation, whereas Anton has a matching gift for methodical analysis and forethought. If anyone was going to be able to pry the truth out of that fucking cesspool, it was going to be them.”

    Her nostrils flared. Then she paused again, lips tightening.

    “But you haven’t heard from them in almost five months,” Elizabeth said gently.

    “No,” Montaigne admitted softly. “We haven’t heard from them, we haven’t heard from the people responsible for transporting them in and out, and we haven’t heard from the Biological Survey Corps, either.”

    “Whoa!” Elizabeth straightened suddenly in her chair. “Beowulf was involved in this, too?” She half-glared at Montaigne. “Tell me, was there anybody in the entire galaxy who wasn’t sneaking around behind my back to keep me from getting my dander up?”

    “Well,” Montaigne admitted, smiling crookedly despite her own obvious deep concern, “actually, beyond a certain amount of Erewhonese assistance, that’s just about everybody. I think.”



    “Oh, you think, do you?”

    “I can’t be absolutely certain, of course. I mean, what with Torch and all the others, it was something of a . . . multinational effort.”

    “I see.” Elizabeth sat back once more, then shook her head. “You don’t think having so many cooks stirring the soup could have anything to do with whatever obviously went wrong, do you?”

    “I think it’s possible,” Montaigne acknowledged. “On the other hand, the way Anton and Victor normally operate, it’s unlikely anybody but them really knew enough to seriously compromise the operation. Still,” she drooped visibly again, “you’re right — something did obviously go wrong. I can’t believe Mesa just decided to include Anton in their version of what happened, and that means something blew, somewhere. What we don’t know is exactly what blew and how serious the consequences were. But –”

    “But this long without any word suggests the consequences could have been pretty damned serious,” Elizabeth finished softly for her.

    “Exactly.” Montaigne drew a deep breath. “On the other hand, Mesa hasn’t produced his body, or mentioned Victor or Haven, or taken the opportunity to take a swipe at Beowulf for its involvement. That suggests it didn’t blow completely. I know” — despite her best efforts, her voice wavered — “there can be advantages to simply ‘disappearing’ someone and letting her side sweat the potential consequences in ignorance. And given how we seem to have been underestimating, or at least misreading, Mesa’s role in this, and its possible sophistication, it’s possible they recognized that accusing Haven and Beowulf of involvement, as well, would be too much of a good thing. Too much for even Solly public opinion to swallow. But I keep coming back to the fact that if they could actually prove Anton was on Mesa, it would have been the absolute clincher for this fairy tale about his being involved in the attack. So if they didn’t offer that proof –”

    “It seems unlikely they had it in the first place,” Elizabeth said.

    “Exactly,” Montaigne said again, then chuckled.


    “I was just thinking,” the ex-countess said. “You always did have that habit of finishing thoughts for me when we were kids.”

    “Mostly because someone as scatterbrained as you needed someone to tidy up around the edges,” Elizabeth retorted.

    “Maybe.” Montaigne’s humor faded. “Anyway, that’s where we are. Anton was on Mesa about the time the nukes went off. I can’t prove he wasn’t involved, but if Mesa could prove he was, the bastards would have done it by now. So either he’s on his way home, and his transportation arrangements have hit a bump, or else . . . .”

    Her voice trailed off, and this time Elizabeth felt no temptation at all to complete her thought for her.

    “I understand,” the queen said, instead.

    She tipped her chair back, rocking it slightly while she thought hard for the better part of a minute. Then she let it come back upright.

    “I understand,” she repeated. “Unfortunately, nothing you’ve just told me really helps, does it? As you say, we can’t prove Captain Zilwicki — and, by implication, Torch and the Star Empire — weren’t involved. In fact, going public with the fact that he was on Mesa at all would be the worst thing we could possibly do at this point. But I’m afraid that’s going to make things rough on you, Cathy.”

    “I know.” Montaigne grimaced. “You’re going to have to take the position that the Star Empire wasn’t involved, and along the way, you’re going to have to point out that even assuming Anton was involved, he’s no longer an ONI agent. Ever since he took up with that notorious incendiary and public shill for terrorism Montaigne, he’s been establishing his own links to the abolitionist movement and, yes, probably to those Ballroom terrorists. Under those circumstances, clearly neither you, personally, nor the Star Empire is in any position to comment one way or the other on what he may have been responsible for since going rogue that way.”

    “I’m afraid that’s exactly what we’re going to have to do,” Elizabeth acknowledged. “And when some frigging newsy pounces on his personal relationship with you, the very best I’m going to be able to do is ‘no comment’ and a recommendation they discuss that with you, not me.”

    “And they’re going to come after the firebrand rabble-rouser with everything they’ve got,” Montaigne sighed. “Well, it won’t be the first time. And, with just a little luck, they’ll give me the opportunity to get in a few solid counterpunches of my own. The idiots usually do.”

    “But it’s going to make problems for your Liberals, too,” Elizabeth pointed out. “If — when — this turns as ugly as I think it’s going to do, Willie and I are both going to find ourselves forced to hold you at arms length . . . at best. And that doesn’t even consider the fact that at least someone inside the party’s going to see this as an opportunity to boot you out of the leader’s position.”

    “If that happens, it happens.” Montaigne’s tone was philosophical; the flinty light in her eyes suggested that anyone who wanted a fight was going to get one. In fact, Elizabeth thought, the other woman was probably looking forward to it as a distraction from her personal fears.

    “I’m sorry,” the queen said quietly. Their eyes met once more, and this time Elizabeth’s sad smile was that of an old friend, not a monarch.

    “I’ve always been ambivalent about the Ballroom,” she continued. “For personal reasons, in part. I understand all about ‘asymmetrical warfare,’ but assassinations and terrorist attacks cut just a little too close to home for me. I’m not hypocritical enough to condemn the Ballroom for fighting back in the only way it’s ever been able to, but I’m afraid that’s not the same thing as saying I approve of it. But whether I approve or not, I’ve always admired the sheer guts it takes to get down into the blood and the mud with something like Manpower. And despite our own political differences, Cathy, I’ve always actually admired you for being willing to openly acknowledge your support for the people willing to fight back the only way they can, whatever the rest of the galaxy may think about it.”

    “That . . . means quite a bit to me, Beth.” Montaigne’s voice was as quiet as Elizabeth’s had been. “Mind you, I know it’s not going to change anything about our political stances, but it does mean a lot.”

    “Good.” Elizabeth’s smile grew broader. “And now, if I could ask you for a personal favor in my persona as Queen of Manticore?”

    “What sort of favor?”

    Montaigne’s tone and expression were both wary, and Elizabeth chuckled.

    “Don’t worry! I wasn’t setting you up for a sucker punch by telling you what a wonderful, fearless person you are, Cathy.” She shook her head. “No. What I was thinking about is that this news is going to hit the Haven System in about a week and a half, and I shudder to think about the impact it’s going to have on Duchess Harrington’s negotiations with the Pritchart Administration. I’m sure it’s going to have repercussions with all of our allies, of course, and thank God we at least consulted with them — unlike a certain ex-prime minister — before we opened negotiations this time around, but I’m more concerned about Haven’s reaction. So what I would deeply appreciate your doing would be writing up what you’ve just told me, or as much of it as you feel you could share with Duchess Harrington, at least, for me to send her as deep background.”

    “You want me to tell the Duchess Anton was actually on Mesa?”

    There was something a bit odd about Montaigne’s tone, Elizabeth thought, but the queen simply shrugged and nodded.

    “Among other things. It would help a lot if she had that kind of information in the back of her brain. And I believe the two of you know one another, don’t you?”

    “Fairly well, actually,” Montaigne acknowledged. “Since I came home to Manticore, that is.”

    “Well, in that case, I probably don’t have to tell you she has an ironclad sense of honor,” Elizabeth said. “In fact, sometimes I think her parents must have had precognition or something when they picked her first name! At any rate, I assure you she’d never even consider divulging anything you may tell her without your specific permission.”

    “If you’re confident of her discretion,” Montaigne said in that same peculiar tone, “that’s good enough for me.” She smiled. “I’ll go ahead and write it up for you, and I’m sure she won’t say a word about it to anyone.”

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