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We Few: Section Four

       Last updated: Saturday, January 1, 2005 19:12 EST



    "Mr. Chang," Rallo said, nodding as Roger came onto the bridge.

    "Captain Rallo."

    Roger looked at the repeater plot. They were in normal-space, building charge and recalibrating for the next jump. That one would be into the edge of Saint territory.

    "So, have you found someone to crosscheck me?" Rallo asked an offhand manner.

    "Yes," Roger replied, just as offhandedly.

    "Good." Rallo laughed. "If you hadn't, I would've turned this damned ship around and dropped you back on your miserable mudball planet."

    "I'm glad we see eye to eye," Roger said, smiling thinly.

    "I don't know if we do or not." Rallo gazed at him for a moment, then tossed her head at the hatch. "Let's go to my office."

    Roger followed her to her office, which was down the passage from the bridge. It had taken some damage in the assault, but most of that had been repaired. He grabbed a station chair and sat, wondering why it had taken this long for the "conversation" to occur.

    "We're fourteen light-years from the edge of what the Saints consider their space," Rallo said, sitting down and propping her feet in an open drawer. "We’re in deep space. There's exactly one astrogator on this ship: me. So let's be clear that I'm holding all the cards."

    "You're holding many cards," Roger responded calmly. "But let me be clear, as well. In the last nine months, I've become somewhat less civilized than your standard Imperial nobleman. And I have a very great interest in this mission's success. Becoming totally intransigent at this time would be, at the very least, extraordinarily painful for you. I’d taken you for an ally, not a competitor, although I'm even willing to have a competitor, as long as we can negotiate in good faith. But failure of negotiations will leave you in a position you really don't want to occupy."

    Rallo had raised an eyebrow. Now she lowered it.

    "You're serious," she said.

    "As a heart attack." Roger's newly brown eyes gave a remarkable imitation of a basilisk's. "But as I said," he continued after a moment, "we can negotiate in good faith. I hope you're an ally, but that remains to be seen. What do you want, Captain Rallo?"

    "Most of what I want, you can't give me. And I was raised in a hard school. If it comes down to force, you're not going to like the results, either."

    "Agreed. So what do you want that I can give you?"

    "What are you going to get from the Alphanes?" Rallo countered.

    "We don't know," Roger admitted. "It's possible that we'll get a jail cell and a quick trip to Imperial custody. I don't think so, but it's possible. We'll be negotiating, otherwise. Do you want money? We can negotiate you a more than fair fee for your services, assuming all goes well. If we fully succeed, and I believe we will, we'll be freeing my mother, and I'll be Heir Primus to the Throne. The next Emperor of Man. In that case, Captain, the sky is the limit. We owe you -- I owe you. Do you want your own planet?" he finished with a smile.

    "You do know how to negotiate, don't you?" Rallo smiled in turn.

    "Well, I really should be letting Poertena handle it, but you wouldn’t like that," Roger told her. "But, seriously, Captain, I do owe you. I fully intend to pay that debt, and since it's an open one, you can draw on it enormously. Right now, I have virtually nothing you could want. Even this ship is going to have to go away -- you know that?"

    "Oh, yeah. You can't get this thing anywhere near Sol. We could only hang around the fringes, where it was easy to bribe the customs officials."

    "So we can't give you the ship; we're going to need it to trade to the Alphanes."

    "But you're going on to Old Earth?"


    "Well…" Rallo pursed her lips, then shrugged. "What I want, as I said, you can't give me. Now. Maybe ever." She paused and made a wince. "How… Who are you going to use as a captain on the Old Earth trip?"

    "I don't know. The Alphanes will undoubtedly have at least one… discreet captain we can use. But he or she will be one of their people. Are you volunteering to captain the ship to Sol? And if so, why?"

    "I will want money," Rallo said, temporizing. "If you fully succeed, a lot of money."

    "Done." Roger shrugged. "A billion here, a billion there, and sooner or later, you're talking real money."

    "Not that much." Rallo blanched. "But… say… five million credits."


    "In a UOW numbered account."


    "And…" She made a face and shook her head. "If-- What are you going to do about the Cavazans?"

    "The Saints?" Roger leaned back in his chair with a tight smile. "Captain, right now we're wondering if we can make it to Alphane territory in one piece! After that, we have the little problem of springing someone from a fortified palace and somehow keeping the Navy from killing us. I'm in no position to discuss anything about the Saints, except how we're going to sneak by them."

    "But in the long run," Rallo said, half-desperately. "If you become Emperor."

    "I'm not going to start a unilateral war against the Cavazan Empire, if that's what you mean," Roger replied after a moment. "I have… many reasons I don't care for them, but they pale beside the damage such a war would cause." Roger frowned. "What do you have against the Saints? You were one."

    "That's what I have against them," Rallo said bitterly. "And so, I will ask this of you. If you see the opportunity, the one thing that I'll ask -- screw the money! -- the one thing that I ask is for you to take them down. All the way. Conquer the whole damned thing and kill the leaders."

    "Not all of them," Roger said. "That's not how it's done." He gazed at her for several seconds, his expression almost wondering, and she half-glared unwaveringly back at him.

    "So that's the deal, is it?" he asked finally. "For captaining the ship, for turning off the self-destruct, you want me to invade the Cavazan Empire?"

    "If the time comes," Rallo said. "If the time is right. Please. Don't hesitate. Don't… do it by half measures. Take the whole thing. It's the right thing to do. That place is a cesspool, a pit. Nobody should have to live under the Saints. Please."

    Roger leaned back and steepled his fingers for a moment, then nodded.

    "If we succeed, if I become Emperor, if war comes with the Saints -- and I won't go looking for it, mind you -- then I will do everything in my power to ensure that it's a war to the knife. That not one member of the Saint leadership is left in power over so much as a single planet. That their entire empire is either transferred to a more rational form of government, or else absorbed by the Empire of Man or other less irrational polities. Something close to that anyway. As close as I can get it. Does that satisfy you, Captain?"

    "Entirely." Rallo's voice was hoarse, and her eyes glittered with unshed tears. "And I'll do whatever you need done to ensure that day comes. I swear."

    "Good," Roger said, and smiled. "I'm glad I didn't have to break out the thumbscrews."



    "Hey, 'Shara,'" Sergeant Major Kosutic said, sticking her head into Despreaux's stateroom. "Come on. We need to talk."

    Kosutic was a blonde now, too, if not nearly as spectacularly so as Despreaux. She was also her regular height, with equally short hair, and a more modest bosom. She was stockier than she had been -- she looked like a female weightlifter, which was more or less how she’d looked before, actually -- but her stride was a little more… feminine, now. Something about the wider hips, Despreaux suspected. The transformation hadn't changed her pelvic bones, but it had added muscle to either side.

    "What does Julian think of the new look?" Despreaux asked.

    "You mean 'Tom?'" the sergeant major said in tones of minor disapproval. "Probably about what Roger thinks of yours. But 'Tom' didn't get the big bazoombas. I've detected just a hint of jealousy about that."

    "What is it with men and blonde hair and boobs?" Despreaux demanded angrily.



    "Satan, girl, you really want to know?" Kosutic laughed. "Seriously, the theories are divergent and bizarre enough to keep conspiracy theorists babbling happily away to themselves for decades. 'Mommy' fixation was an early one -- that men want to go back to breast-feeding. It didn't last long, but it was popular in its time. My personal favorite has to do with the difference between chimps and humans."

    "What do chimps have to do with anything?"

    "Well, the DNA of chimps and humans is really close. Effectively, humans are just an offshoot of chimpanzee. Even after all the minor mutations that have crept in since going off-planet, humans still have less variability than chimps, and on a DNA chart we just fall in as a rather minor modification."

    "I didn't know that," Despreaux said. "Why do you?"

    "Face it, the Church of Armagh has to make it up as we go along." Kosutic shrugged. "Understanding the real why of people makes it much easier. Take boobs."

    "Please!" Despreaux said.

    "Agreed." Kosutic smiled. "Chimps don't have them. Humans are, in fact, the only terrestrial animal with truly pronounced mammary glands. Look at a cow -- those impressive udders are almost all functional, milk producing plumbing. Tits? Ha! Their… visual cue aspect, shall we say, has nothing to do with milk production per say. That means there’s some other reason for them in our evolutionary history, and one theory is that they developed purely to keep the male around. Human females don't show signs of their fertility, and human children take a long time, relatively speaking, to reach maturity. Having a male around all the time helped early human and pre-human females with raising the children. The males probably brought in some food, but their primary purpose was defending territory so that there was food to be brought in. In addition, human females are also one of the few species to orgasm --"

    "If we're lucky," Despreaux observed.

    "You want to hear this, or not?"

    "Sorry. Go ahead."

    "So, that was a reason for the female to not be too upset when the male was always having a good time with her. And it was another reason for men to stick around. Tits were a visual sign that said: 'Screw me and stick around and defend this territory.' Can't be proven, of course, but it fits with all the reactions males have to them."

    "Yeah," Despreaux said sourly. "All the reactions. They're still a pain in the… back."

    "Sure, and they're effectively as useful as a veriform appendix these days," the sergeant major said. "On the other hand, they're still great for making guys stupid. And that is what we're going to talk about."

    "Oh?" Despreaux's tone became decidedly wary. They'd reached the sergeant major's stateroom, and she was surprised to see Eleonora waiting for them. The chief of staff had been modded as well and was now a rather skinny redhead.

    "Oh," Kosutic confirmed. She closed the hatch and waved Despreaux onto the folded-down bed next to Eleonora, who looked at her with an expression which mingled thoughtfulness and determination with something Despreaux wasn’t at all sure she wanted to see.

    "Nimashet, I'm going to be blunt," the chief of staff said after a moment. "You have to marry Roger."

    "No." The sergeant stood back up quickly, eyes flashing. "If this is what you wanted to talk about, you can --"

    "Sit down, Sergeant," Kosutic said sharply.

    "You'd better not use my rank when talking about something like this, Sergeant Major!" Despreaux snapped back angrily.

    "I will when it affects the security of the Empire," Kosutic replied icily. "Sit. Down. Now."

    Despreaux sat, glaring at the senior NCO.

    "I'm going to lay this out very carefully," Eleonora told her. "And you're going to listen. Then we'll discuss it. But hear me out, first."

    Despreaux shifted her glower to the chief of staff. But she also crossed her arms -- carefully, given certain recent changes -- and sat back stiffly on the bed.

    "Some of this only holds -- or matters -- if we succeed," Eleonora said. "And some of it is immediately pertinent to our hope of possibly pulling off the mission in the first place. The first point is for everything -- current mission and long-term consideration, alike. And that point is that Roger literally has the weight of the Empire on his shoulders right now. And he loves you. And I think you love him. And he's eaten up by the thought of losing you, which raises all sorts of scary possibilities.”

    Desperaux’s surprise must have shown, because the chief of staff grimaced and waved one hand in the air.

    “If he fails,” she said, “if we go with the government-in-exile program and he becomes just some guy who was almost Emperor, you’d marry him, wouldn't you?"

    Despreaux looked at her stony-eyed for two or three heartbeats, then sighed.

    "Yes," she admitted. "Shit. I’d do it in a second if he was 'just some guy.' And I'm setting him up to fail so I can do just that, aren't I?"

    "You're setting him up to fail," Eleanora agreed with a nod. "Not to mention contributing to the mental anguish he’s in right now. Not that I think for a moment that you’ve been doing either of those things intentionally, of course. You’re not manipulative enough for your own good, sometimes, and you certainly don’t think that way. But the effect is the same, whether it’s intentional or not. Right now, he has to be wondering, in the deeps of the night, if being Emperor -- which he knows he's going to loath -- is really worth losing you. I presented the alternate exile plan because I thought it was a good plan, one that should be looked at as an alternative. It was Julian and the Sergeant Major who pointed out, afterwards, the consequences of the plan. Do you want Prince Jackson on the throne? Or a six-way war, more likely?"

    "No," Despreaux said in a low voice. "God, what that would do to Karalis!"

    "Exactly," Kosutic said. "And to half a hundred other worlds. If Adoula takes the Throne, all the out-worlds are going to be nothing but sources of material and manpower -- cannon fodder -- he and his cronies will bleed dry. If they don't get nuked in passing during the wars."

    "So he has the weight of the Empire on his shoulders," Eleonora repeated, "and he's losing you. And there's a bolt-hole that he can go to that gets both of those problems off his back. It happens that that bolt-hole would mean very bad things for the Empire, but men aren't rational about women."

    "That's another thing I can lay out in black and white," Kosutic said. "Lots of studies about it. Long-term rational planning drops off the chart when men are thinking about women. It's how they're wired. Of course, we’re not all that rational about them sometimes, either,"

    "Now, let's talk about what happens if we succeed," Eleonora went on gently and calmly. "Roger is going to end up Emperor -- probably sooner than he expects. I don't know how bad the residual effects of whatever drugs they're using on his mother are going to be, but I do know they're not going to be good. And after what's going on right now gets out, the public's confidence in her fitness to rule is bound to drop. If the drugs' effects are noticeable, it will drop even more. Nimashet, Roger could well find himself on the Throne within a year or less, if we pull this thing off."

    "Oh, God," Despreaux said quietly. Her arms were no longer crossed, and her fingers twisted about one another in her lap. "God, he'll really hate that."

    "Yes, he will. But there's much worse," Eleonora said. "People are neither fully products of their genetics, nor of their experiences, but… traumatic experiences can… adjust their personalities in various ways. And especially when they're still fairly young and unformed. Fairly young. Roger is fairly young, and, quite frankly, he was also fairly unformed when we landed on Marduk. I don't think anyone would be stupid enough to call him 'unformed' now, but the mold in which he's been shaped was our march halfway around Marduk. Effectively, Roger MacClintock’s done virtually all of his ‘growing up’ in the course of eight months of constant, brutal combat ops without relief. Think about that.

    "More than once, he's ended serious political negotiations by simply shooting the people he was negotiating with. Of course they were negotiating in bad faith when he did it. He never had a choice. But it's become… something of a habit. So has destroying any obstacle that got in his path. Again, because he didn't have a choice. Because they were obstacles he couldn't deal with any other way, and because so much depended on their being dealt with effectively… and permanently. But what that means is that he has… very few experiential reasons to not use every available scrap of firepower to remove any problems that arise. And if we succeed, this young man is going to be Emperor.

    "There will probably be a civil war, no matter what we do. In fact, I'll virtually guarantee that there'll be one. The pressures were right for one -- building nicely to one, anyway -- when we left Old Earth, and things obviously haven't gotten any better. What with the problems at home, I'd be surprised if a rather large war doesn't break out -- soon -- and if it does, a man who has vast experience in killing people to accomplish what he considers are necessary goals is going to be sitting on the Throne of Man. I want you to think about that for a moment, too."

    "Not good," Despreaux said, licking her lips.

    "Not good at all," Eleonora agreed. "His advisers," she added, touching her own chest, "can mitigate his tendency to violence, to a degree. But only if he's amenable. The bottom line is that the Emperor can usually get what he wants, one way or another. If he doesn't like our advice, for example, he could simply fire us."

    "Roger… wouldn’t do that," Despreaux said positively. "No one who was on the March is ever going to be anyone he would fire. Or not listen to. He might not take the advice, though."

    "And the armed forces swear an oath to the Constitution and the Emperor. He's their commander-in-chief. He can do quite a bit of fighting even without any declaration of war, and if we manage to succeed in this… this --"

    "This forlorn hope," Kosutic supplied.

    "Yes." The chief of staff smiled thinly, recognizing the ancient military term for a small body of troops sent out with even smaller hope of success. "If we succeed in this forlorn hope, there's automatically going to be a state of emergency. If a civil war breaks out, the Constitution equally automatically restricts citizens' rights and increases the power of the sitting head of state. We could end up with… Roger, in his present mental incarnation, holding as much power as any other person in the history of the human race."

    "You sound like he's some bloody-handed murderer!" Despreaux shook her head. "He's not. He's a good man. You make him sound like one of the Dagger Lords!"

    "He's not that," Kosutic said. "But what he is is damned near a reincarnation of Miranda MacClintock. She happened to be a political philosopher with a strongly developed sense of responsibility and duty, which, I agree, Roger also has. But if you remember your history, she also took down the Dagger Lords by being a bloody-minded bitch at least as ruthless as they were."

    "What he is, effectively," Eleonora continued in that same gentle voice, "is a neo-barbarian tyrant. A 'good' tyrant, perhaps, and as charismatic as hell -- maybe even on the order of an Alexander the Great -- but still a tyrant. And if he can't break out of the mold, putting him on the Throne will be as bad for the Empire as disintegration."

    "What's your point?" Despreaux demanded harshly.

    "You," Kosutic said. "When you joined the Regiment, when I was interviewing you on in-process, I damned near blackballed you."

    "You never told me that." Despreaux frowned at the sergeant major. "Why?"

    "You'd passed all the psychological tests," Kosutic replied with a shrug. "You'd passed RIP, although not with flying colors. We knew you were loyal. We knew you were a good guard. But there was something missing, something I couldn't quite put a finger on. I called it 'hardness,’ at the time, but that's not it. You're damned hard."

    "No," Despreaux said. "I'm not. You were right."

    "Maybe. But hardness was still the wrong word." Kosutic frowned. "You’ve always done your job. Even when you lost the edge and couldn't fight anymore, you contributed and sweated right along with the rest of us. You're just not…"

    "Vicious," Despreaux said. "I'm not a killer."

    "No." Kosutic nodded in acknowledgment. "And I sensed that. That was what made me want to blackball you. But in the end, I didn't."

    "Maybe you should have."

    "Bullshit. You did your job -- more than your job. You made it, and you're the key to what we need. So quit whining, soldier."

    "Yes, Sergeant Major." Despreaux managed a fleeting smile, though it was plain her heart wasn’t in it. "On the other hand, if you had blackballed me, I would have avoided our little pleasure stroll."

    "And you could never be Empress," Eleonora said.

    Despreaux's new indigo eyes snapped back to the chief of staff, dark with dread, and Eleonora put a hand on her knee.

    "Listen to me, Nimashet. What you are is something the opposite of vicious. I'd call it 'nurturing,' but that's not really right, either. You're as tough-minded and obstinate -- most ways -- as anyone, even Roger. Or can you think of anyone else in our happy little band who could argue him to a standstill once he gets the bit truly between his teeth?"

    Eleonora looked into her eyes until Despreaux's innate honesty forced her to shake her head, then continued.

    "But whatever it is we ought to be calling you, the point is that with you by Roger's side, he's calmer. Less prone to simply lash out and much more prone to think things through. And that's important -- important to the Empire."

    "I don't want to be Empress," Despreaux said desperately.

    "Satan, girl," Kosutic laughed. "I understand, but listen to what you just said!"

    "I’m a country girl," Despreaux protested. "A sod-buster from Karalis! I’m no good, never have been, at the sort of petty, backbiting infighting that goes on at Court." She shook her head. "I don't have the right mindset for it."

    "So? How many people do, to start with?" Kosutic demanded.

    "A hell of a lot more of them at Court than there are of me!" Despreaux shot back, then shook her head again, almost convulsively. "I don’t know how to be a noblewoman, much less a fucking Empress, and if I try, I’ll fuck it up. Don’t you understand?" She looked back and forth between them, her eyes darker than ever. "If I try to do the job, I’ll blow it. I’ll be out of my league. I’ll do the wrong thing, say the wrong thing at the wrong time, give Roger the wrong piece of advice -- something! And when I do, the entire Empire will get screwed because of me!"

    "You think Roger isn’t thinking exactly the same thing?" Kosutic challenged more gently. "Satan, Nimashet! He has to wake up every single morning with the piss scared out of him just thinking about the job in front of him."

    “But at least he grew up knowing it was coming. He’s got the background, the training for it. I don’t!”

    "Training?" Eleonora flicked one hand in a dismissive gesture. "To be Emperor?" She snorted. "Until Jin told us what's been happening on Old Earth, it never even crossed his mind once that he might ever be Emperor, Nimashet! And, frankly, his mother's distrust of him meant that everyone, myself included, was always very careful to never, ever suggest the possibility to him. To be honest, it's only recently occurred to me how much that may have contributed to his refusal -- or failure -- to recognize the fact that he truly did stand close to the succession."

    She shook her head again, her eyes sad as she thought of how dreadfully her one-time charge's life had changed, then looked back at Despreaux.

    "Admittedly, he grew up in Court circles, and he may have more training for that that than you do, but trust me, he didn’t begin to have enough of it before our little jaunt. I know; I was the one who was supposed to be giving him that training, and I wasn’t having a lot of success.

    “But he’s been much more strongly… motivated in that regard recently, and you can be, too. You’ve seen how much he’s grown in the last half-year, probably better than anyone else besides me and Armand Pahner. But nobody's born with that 'mindset;' they learn it, just like Roger has, and you've already pretty conclusively demonstrated your ability to master combat techniques. This is just one more set of combat skills. And, remember, if we succeed, you're going to be Empress. It's going to take either a very stupid individual, or a very dangerous one, to cross you."

    "Our kids would be raised in a cage!"

    "All children are," Eleanor countered. "It's why no sane adult would ever really want to be a child again. But your kids' cage would be the best protected one in the galaxy."

    "Tell that to John's kids!" Despreaux exploded. "When I think about --"

    "When you think about the kids who just up and disappear every year," Kosutic said. "Or end up a body in a ditch. Or raped by their uncle, or their dad's best friend. Think about that, instead. That's one thing you'll never have to worry about, not with three thousand hard bastards watching anyone that comes near them like rottweilers. Every parent worries about her child; that comes with the job. But your kids are going to have three thousand of the most dangerous babysitters -- and you know that's what we are -- in the known galaxy.

    "Sure, they got to John and his kids. But they did it by killing the entire Empress' Own, Nimashet. Every mother-loving one of them. In case you hadn't noticed, there are exactly twelve of us left in the entire frigging Galaxy, because the only way they could get to the kids, or John, or the Empress was over us -- over our dead bodies, stacked in front of the goddamned door! And there's been one -- count 'em, one -- successful attack on the Imperial Family in five hundred fucking years! Don't tell me your kids wouldn't be 'safe!'"

    The sergeant major glared at her, and, after a moment, Despreaux's gaze fell.

    "I don't want to be Empress," she repeated, quietly but stubbornly. "I swore to him that I wouldn't marry him if he was going to be Emperor. What would I be if I took that back?"

    "A woman." Kosutic grinned. "Didn't you know we're allowed to change our minds at random? It comes with the tits."

    "Thanks very much," Despreaux said bitingly, and folded her arms again. Her shoulders hunched. "I don't want to be Empress."

    "Maybe not," Eleonora said. "But you do want to marry Roger. You want to have his children. You want to keep a bloody-minded tyrant off the Throne, and he'll be far less bloody-minded if he wants to keep your approval in mind. The only thing you don't want is to be Empress."

    "That's a pretty big 'only,'" Despreaux pointed out.

    "What you want is really beside the point," Kosutic said. "The only thing that matters is what's good for the Empire. I don't care if you consider every day at the rest of your life a living sacrifice to the Empire. You swore the oath; you took the pay."

    "And this was never part of the job specs!" Despreaux shot back angrily.

    "Then consider it very unusual duties, if you have to!" Kosutic said, just as angrily.

    "Calm down -- both of you!" Eleonora said sharply. She looked back and forth between them, then focused on Despreaux. "Nimashet, just think about it. You don't have to say yes now. But for God's sake, think about what refusing to marry Roger will mean. To all of us. To the Empire. To your home planet. Hell, to every polity in the galaxy."

    "A person's conscience is her own," Despreaux said stubbornly.

    "Heaven's bells, if it is," Kosutic said caustically. "We spend most of our lives doing things because we know they're the right things to do in other people's eyes. Especially the eyes of people we care about. It's what makes us human. If he loses you, he'll do anything he pleases. He knows most of us won't give a damn. If he told us to round up every left-handed redhead and put them in ovens, I would, because he's Roger. If he told Julian to go nuke a planet, Julian would. Because he's Roger. And even if we wouldn't, he’d find someone else who would -- for power, or because he has the legal authority to order them to, or because they want to do the deed. The only person who could have kept him under control was Pahner, and Pahner's dead, girl. The only one left that he's going to look to for… conscience is you.

    "I'm not saying he's a bad man, Nimashet -- we're all agreed on that. I'm just telling you that he's in one Heaven of a spot, with nothing anywhere he can look but more boots coming down on the people the Emperor is responsible for protecting. Just like he was responsible for us on Marduk. And do you think for one moment that he wouldn't have killed every other living thing on that planet to keep us alive?"

    She half-glared into Despreaux's eyes, daring her to look away, and finally, after a small, tense eternity, the younger woman shook her head slowly.

    "Eleonora's spelled it out," Kosutic continued in a softer voice. "He's learned a set of responses that work. And he's learned about responsibility, learned the hard way. He'll do anything to discharge that responsibility, and once he starts down the slope of expediency, each additional step will get easier and easier to take. Unless someone gets in the way. Someone who prevents him from taking those steps, because his responsibility to her -- to be the person she demands he be -- is as powerful a motivator as his responsibility to all the rest of the universe combined. And that person is you. You're it, girlie. You leave, and there's nothing between him and the universe but the mind of a wolf."

    Despreaux bowed her head into her hands and shook it from side to side.

    "I really don't want to be Empress," she said. "And what about dynastic marriages?" she added from behind her hands.

    "On a scale of one to ten, with your stabilizing effect on him at ten, the importance of holding out for a dynastic marriage rates about a minus sixty," Eleonora said dryly. "Externally, it's a moot point. Most of the other human polities don't have our system, or else they're so minor that they're not going to get married to the Emperor, anyway. Internally, pretty much the same. There are a few members of the Court who might think otherwise, but most of them are going to be shuffled out along with Adoula. I have a list, and they never will be missed." "But that does bring up another point you might want to consider," Kosutic said.

    Despreaux raised her head to look at the sergeant major once more, eyes wary, and the Armaghan smiled crookedly.

    "Let's grant that with the shit storm coming down on the galaxy, or at least the Empire, there might even be some advantages to having a wolf on the Throne. Somebody the historians will tag 'the Terrible.' At least we know damned well that he'll do whatever needs doing, and I think we're all pretty much agreed he'll do it for the right reasons, however terrible it is. But someday, one of his children is going to inherit the Throne. Just who's going to raise that kid, Sergeant? One of those backbiting, infighting Court bitches you don't want to tangle with? What's the kid's judgment going to be like, growing up with Daddy smashing anything that gets in his way and a Mommy who's only interested in power and its perks?"

    "A point," Eleonora seconded, "albeit a more long-ranged one." It was her turn to gaze into Despreaux's eyes for a moment, then she shrugged. "Still, it's one you want to add to the list when you start thinking about it."

    "All right." Despreaux raised a hand to forestall anything more from Kosutic. "I’ll think about it. I'll think about it," she repeated. “Just that."

    "Fine," Eleonora said. "I'll add just one more thing."

    "What now?" Despreaux asked tiredly.

    "Do you love Roger?"

    The soft question hovered in Kosutic's stateroom, and Despreaux looked down at the hands which had somehow clasped themselves back together in her lap.

    "Yes," she replied, after a long moment. "Yes, I do."

    "Then think about this. The pressure of being Emperor is enormous. It's driven more than one person mad, and if you leave, you'll be leaving a man you love to face that pressure, all alone. As his wife, you can help. Yes, he'll have counselors, but at the end of the day it will be you who'll keep that strain from becoming unbearable."

    "And what about the pressure on the Empress?" Despreaux asked. "His prosthetic conscience?"

    "Roger's sacrifice is his entire life." Kosutic told her softly. "And yours? Yours is watching the man you love make that sacrifice… and marching every meter of the way right alongside him. That's your true sacrifice, Nimashet Despreaux. Just as surely as you would have been sacrificed on that altar in Krath, if Roger hadn't prevented it."

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