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Winterfall hadn’t seen King Michael in person very often, and most of those occasions had been formal or ceremonial, where the Star Kingdom’s monarch had been dressed in his full garb of state. Seeing him dressed in a simple business suit, seated in an ordinary chair in the palace conference room, was something of a shock.

Still, even outfitted like an ordinary Manticoran citizen, there was something in Michael’s eyes and the way he quietly dominated the room that underlined the dignity and authority lurking just beneath the surface. He had his mother’s very dark complexion but his grandfather’s chin, coupled with the broad shoulders of his father’s family, and there was something . . . solid about him. He was a man, Winterfall had often thought, who wore the kingship well. A man who, as the cliché went, could be said to have been born to the position.

Which was surely one of the great ironies of history, given that Michael hadn’t been born to anything of the sort. He’d been a full twenty-seven T-years old when the Manticore Colony, Ltd., had reorganized its corporate-management system into the Star Kingdom of Manticore, with Michael’s grandfather Roger as its first monarch and his family designated the House of Winton.

The stories from those first heady years spoke of how Roger’s daughter Elizabeth—who would be crowned herself upon her father’s death four years later—had taken to the responsibilities like a duck to water. Michael, unfortunately, hadn’t been nearly so enthusiastic. His interests and talents lay in other directions, and while he’d accepted the throne without complaint it was clear that he hadn’t particularly wanted it. Still, in the eight years since his ascension to the throne he’d proved himself an able enough monarch.

Able, but not really inspiring. Nowhere in those eight years had he done anything dramatic or memorable. Certainly he’d made no decisions or taken any actions that could legitimately be said to have changed the course of Manticoran history.

Today, Winterfall mused, the King had the chance to do exactly that.

Michael listened in silence as Breakwater laid out the plan. The Exchequer finished, and for another moment the King continued his silence. Then, he stirred and looked at the three men seated across the table from Breakwater and the rest of the Committee for Military Sanity.

“James?” the monarch invited. “Or would you prefer First Lord Cazenestro went first?”

“No, I think an overall summary would be in order here,” Defense Minister James Mantegna, Earl Dapplelake, said. “With all due respect to Chancellor Breakwater, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more ridiculous suggestion. Cutting up a battlecruiser to make a pair of sloops? That’s insane. If you want more frigates or corvettes to patrol the system, it makes more sense to build them from scratch.”

“Does it?” Breakwater countered. “How much does it cost to import a ship’s fusion plant from the Solarian League these days? How much for an impeller ring?” He pointed at the tablet in front of him. “I’ve run the numbers. They’re not cheap.”

“Then—” Dapplelake broke off, and Winterfall saw a flicker of annoyance cross his face.

Small wonder. The obvious retort to Breakwater’s numbers would be to suggest that they simply build a few new hulls and cannibalize the mothballed battlecruisers for impellers and fusion plants to put inside them.

But Dapplelake didn’t dare bring up that option. Stripping the battlecruisers for parts would destroy them as effectively as cutting them up, and the Defense Minister was firmly committed to keeping his Navy at its current strength.

“Then?” Breakwater prompted.

“Then let’s learn how to build our own fusion plants and impellers,” Dapplelake said. “In fact, let’s learn how to build our own ships.”

“To what end?” Breakwater scoffed. “A merchant fleet? Nonsense—the League and Havenite ships that come calling are more than capable of handling all the interstellar trade we need.”

“Countess Acton might disagree,” First Lord of the Admiralty Admiral Cazenestro put in mildly. “Her company already has one merchantman plying the local circuit, and she’s making noises about building two more over the next ten years.”

“I’d also take issue with your assumption that our trade should be handled by foreign carriers,” Admiral Carlton Locatelli added. “It seems to me that a properly forward-thinking people would want to seize that future for themselves. For that matter,” he said, giving Breakwater a less than warm look, “I keep hearing people talk about what a drag on the civilian economy the Navy is. If we were building our own ships—and those merchant vessels Earl Dapplelake and First Lord Cazenestro mentioned—we’d be building up our industrial base, as well. Surely that’s a factor worth weighing, wouldn’t you say, My Lord?”

“I think we’re straying a bit from the point,” Breakwater said. “The issue before us today isn’t a Manticoran merchant marine, but—”

“Excuse me, My Lord, but this is very much the point,” Locatelli interrupted, his voice firm. “Your whole proposal rests on the need for more patrol and rescue ships for the asteroid-mining regions. Very well, then. Instead of the short-term solution of wrecking a group of perfectly good ships, shouldn’t our focus be on the long-term building of the Star Kingdom’s future?”

“The future is also not the issue,” Breakwater insisted. “Making grandiose plans for tomorrow at the cost of today is folly, pure and simple. If the Star Kingdom needs to develop a merchant marine, it will do so when the time is right. In the meantime, these so-called perfectly good ships of yours are sitting in permanent orbit and draining resources that could be going to our schools, our infrastructure, the whole Gryphon expansion project—”

“Our infrastructure is doing just fine,” Dapplelake cut him off. “So is Gryphon. And I’d consider it a personal favor if you’d retire Broken Cliff’s tired old smokescreen argument about schools and education. Whatever problems our education system is having, extra money and people alone won’t solve them.”

“And since you bring up Gryphon,” Cazenestro added, “let’s not forget how much that world owes to the men and women of the RMN. Without them, the planet would be even farther from a self-sustaining population base than it is now.”

Breakwater snorted.

“If I were you, My Lord, I wouldn’t bring up the whole navy-in-a-box affair. Buying all those Solarian ships and crews was where the financial drain began, and the reason why we’re in this situation to begin with.”

“Excuse me, My Lord, but those ships and their crews are the reason we’re able to sit here discussing it instead of living in the midst of a shattered economy trying desperately to rebuild,” Locatelli said severely. “Without them, the Brotherhood would have broken us down to nothing.”

“That assumes the Brotherhood would ever have come to Manticore in the first place,” Breakwater retorted. “To the best of my knowledge, that’s never been confirmed.”

“Fine,” Locatelli said. “Ignore history, if you wish. Let’s move on to current events, starting with Gustav Anderman and his ambitions of empire.”

“Please,” Breakwater said contemptuously. “Anderman is a lunatic, and everyone knows it.”

“He may well be a lunatic,” Locatelli said. “But he’s also conquered Nimbalkar and Tomlinson. That speaks volumes about his resources and tactical skill. And if reports from the region are to be believed, he’s got his eye on several other nearby systems.”

“One: he’s a long way away,” Breakwater said, ticking off fingers. “Nearly four months even for a warship. Two: we don’t have anything he could possibly want, so don’t start with any imminent threat nonsense. And three: his so-called empire will implode ten minutes after his death as his generals and admirals start fighting over the territory. Read your history, Admiral—empires and kingdoms started by rogue mercenaries always end that way.”

Winterfall stole a look at Michael. The King was watching the verbal tennis match with an expression that seemed to be a mixture of impatience and resignation. He’d probably presided over hundreds of such battles over the years, Winterfall realized suddenly: the behind-the-scenes power struggles and scrappy negotiation sessions that the public never saw.

Maybe Michael was tired of it all. At seventy-two T-years he was still reasonably young and healthy. But political stress took its toll, especially on those who didn’t especially enjoy the game.

Or maybe the impatience and resignation were because he knew Breakwater and Dapplelake well enough to also know how this particular battle was going to end.

“—dual impeller ring design makes it easy to split the ships in half,” Breakwater was saying. Apparently, he’d managed to drag the conversation back to the original issue during the few seconds Winterfall had been lost in contemplation. “In fact, I’d go so far to say—and let me point out that Martin Ashkenazy agrees completely with me on this—that the original Victory’s designers deliberately built the ship with an eye toward cutting it into two independent sections if necessary.”

“With all due respect, that’s ridiculous,” Cazenestro said scornfully. “You’re also mixing apples and oranges. Of course a battlecruiser’s forward and aft sections are designed to operate independently. In a battle, a near-miss or ruptured sidewall could easily knock out one part of a ship, and without redundant systems the wedge would go down and the ship would be dead. But redundancy in itself is a far cry from suggesting that a ship could be simply be cut in half and both sections go sailing off on their merry way.”

“In general, you may be right,” Breakwater said, and Winterfall could hear a hint of anticipation in his voice as he prepared to play his trump card. “But the Triumph class has one small but vital difference from the rest of your fleet: unlike your other warships, they have two separate reactors, one for each impeller ring, which of course means one in each half of the ship. That reactor and its placement are at the heart of Ashkenazy’s conclusion as to the designers’ original intentions.”

“Yes, you’ve made Mr. Ashkenazy’s position abundantly clear,” Dapplelake said. “As well as your own.” His eyes swept across the other four men and women on Breakwater’s side of the table. “But I can’t help noticing that your so-called Committee for Military Sanity seems to be more of a Committee of the Incessantly Voiceless. Don’t any of them have anything to add?”

And then, to Winterfall’s dismay, the minister’s roving gaze came to a halt on him.

“Lord Winterfall,” he said with a sort of ironic civility. “What’s your opinion on all this?” He gave a little snort. “Or were you brought aboard merely to be an extra warm body and not actually think?”

Winterfall froze. Breakwater’s strategy—in fact, his explicit order—had been for the Chancellor to carry the ball on this one. He was to present the plan to the King and RMN leaders while the rest of the group maintained a solid but silent wall of endorsement. For his own part, Winterfall had been more than happy to let Breakwater handle their side of the conversation while he himself observed from the sidelines.

But now he’d been asked a direct question by a senior member of the government. He had no choice but to answer.

And that answer, he knew, had better be good.

“I do have an opinion, My Lord,” he said, inclining his head politely to Dapplelake. Peripherally, he saw that Breakwater and the others had turned to face him, but the angle wasn’t good enough for him to make out any of their expressions. Probably just as well. “I fully expect that, no matter what any of us say here today, the Royal Manticoran Navy is going to lose one or more of its mothballed battlecruisers. The only real questions are how many, and when.”

Dapplelake was staring at him as if he’d suddenly changed color. Apparently, whatever response the defense minister had been expecting to his abrupt question, that hadn’t been it.

“Excuse me?” he asked, his tone ominous.

“I said—”

“What do you mean, when?” Locatelli put in. Of the three men on that side of the table, he seemed the least taken aback at one of Breakwater’s human props suddenly developing a voice.

“I mean this project will go through,” Winterfall said, a surge of adrenaline rushing through him. He’d seldom been in any sort of spotlight, and never one this intense. To his surprise, he found it strangely exhilarating. “The necessary votes are there already, and more will be forthcoming if Parliament perceives that you’re stonewalling on the issue.”

“Yes, well, the King will have a great deal of the final say on this,” Dapplelake huffed, giving Michael a quick nod of respect. “And he knows that there are too many potential dangers out there for us to completely—”

“You sound as if you have a suggestion, My Lord,” Michael spoke up calmly. “Perhaps you’d be willing to share it with us?”

Winterfall braced himself, feeling another jolt of adrenaline as the spotlight cranked up to its highest possible level. The King himself had asked him a question. . . .

“Yes, Your Majesty, I do,” he said with all the respect he could muster. “The most efficient way to carry out the Committee’s plan would be to dismantle all nine battlecruisers at the same time. By that I mean a team would cut one of them in half, then move on to the next while a different crew—”

“Your Majesty—” Dapplelake began urgently.

Michael silenced him with a gesture. “Continue,” he said.

Winterfall worked a quick dab of moisture into his mouth. “As I said, Your Majesty, that kind of assembly-line procedure would make the most sense economically. It would tie up the orbiting dock and the work crews for the minimum amount of time while putting the rescue sloops into service at the maximum rate.”

“Is that your suggestion, then?” Michael asked.

“Not exactly, Your Majesty,” Winterfall said, a small part of his mind noting that the King seemed to already be ahead of him, with his questions and comments merely there to shepherd Winterfall along. “Any new technology or procedure should be approached with caution, especially something as radical and untested as this. My suggestion would be that we do the conversion on only one of the battlecruisers, carrying it completely through the process before touching any of the others.”

“That seems reasonable,” Breakwater put in, sounding eminently satisfied with Winterfall’s answer.

Winterfall braced himself. The Chancellor’s gratified tone was about to change.

“I also recommend, Your Majesty,” he continued, “that the finished sloops be in service for a minimum of five T-years before any action is taken on the other battlecruisers.”

Even two seats away, Winterfall had no trouble hearing Breakwater’s sudden intake of breath. But Michael’s own gaze didn’t even twitch. “Five years,” the King repeated. “You think we’d need that many?”

“Perhaps three?” Winterfall backpedaled hastily. Was that a microscopic smile touching the corners of the King’s lips? “Yes—three, Your Majesty. That should be a sufficient trial run.”

“Ridiculous,” the Chancellor bit out. “Three to five years? Come now—any problems or design flaws would surely become evident within a year at the most. Any delay beyond that would do nothing but scatter the work teams and make it harder to bring them back together.”

“Or those years will give the planners and techs time to come up with better alternatives,” Dapplelake said. He still didn’t look happy, Winterfall noted, but he looked less unhappy than he had during Breakwater’s earlier presentation. “Understand, Your Majesty, that I and the RMN are still completely opposed to this whole venture.” He flashed an appraising look at Breakwater, as if he could tell just by observation how many votes the Committee had tucked under its belt. Maybe he could. “But if it has to be done,” he concluded reluctantly, “this does seem the most reasonable way to go about it.”

“I concur,” the King said. “First Lord Cazenestro, you’re to draw up a schedule and a framework for this operation at your earliest convenience.” He cocked an eyebrow. “Such convenience to be within the next three months,” he added, a bit more sternly. “When you’ve finished, I’ll examine it and, if necessary, we’ll convene again to make whatever alterations are necessary. I trust that will be satisfactory?”

Cazenestro seemed to collapse a bit on himself. “Most satisfactory, Your Majesty. I’ll get started immediately.”

“Thank you.” The King looked around the table, holding each person briefly with his eyes. “And thank you all for your time.” He lifted a hand in dismissal.

And with that, the meeting was over.

The five Committee members had been passed through the gate and were heading for their cars when Breakwater finally broke the silence.

“Interesting meeting,” he commented.

Interesting isn’t exactly the word I would have used,” Chillon growled, glaring past Breakwater at Winterfall. “What the hell was that all about?”

“I was asked a question,” Winterfall reminded him stiffly, determined not to wilt under the earl’s scowl. No less a person than King Michael himself had stated his approval of Winterfall’s ideas. “What was I supposed to do, tell him I was just there as window dressing?”

“You were supposed to defer to Chancellor Breakwater,” Chillon shot back.

“Leave the boy alone, Ross,” Tweenriver advised coolly. “I doubt you’d have done any better when you were his age.”

“Age has nothing to do with it,” Chillon snapped. “The point is that this young pup’s flapping gums have now undercut our entire proposal.”

“Not at all,” Breakwater told him. “What this young pup has done is given us victory.”

“So victory now comes in three-year installments?” Castle Rock asked sourly.

“Victory comes wherever and however one can find it,” Breakwater said. “Or didn’t you notice that Baron Winterfall was able to slide a bald-faced bluff straight through Dapplelake’s wall? We don’t have nearly the votes to force this through. Not yet. Possibly not ever.”

“But three years?” Castle Rock protested.

“Only between the first and second conversions,” Breakwater assured her. “Once the first pair of sloops have proven themselves, the others can be created with the assembly-line efficiency Lord Winterfall suggested.” He favored Winterfall with a smile. “That was an amazing performance, young man, especially given the whole ambush nature of Dapplelake’s question. You may have more of a future in this profession than I thought.”

“I’m not sure I’d go that far, My Lord,” Winterfall said modestly even as his cheeks warmed with the compliment. “It was mainly the same speech I’ve been giving to the younger MPs you asked me to talk to.”

“Including the five-year hesitation step?” Castle Rock muttered.

“People don’t like change,” Winterfall said. “I thought building in a delay would help soothe any fears that we were rushing into this.” He drew himself up. “Besides, it makes sense.”

“More to the point, it got us what we wanted,” Breakwater said, his tone saying that the subject was closed. “Let’s get back to work. We’ll want our own timetable ready in case Dapplelake tries to pull a delaying action on us.” He looked at Winterfall. “Perhaps, My Lord, you’d have time to assist me on that.”

“Yes, My Lord,” Winterfall said, inclining his head. “I would be honored.”

Only later—much later—would it occur to Winterfall to wonder if perhaps the whole thing had been a setup. If perhaps Dapplelake and the King had heard about his conversations with the younger Lords and had maneuvered him into offering a compromise suggestion onto the official record. After all, a low-level baron with no appreciable political or economic power had nothing to lose should the proposal go down in flames.

But such thoughts were fleeting, and Winterfall didn’t spend much time with them. Breakwater himself had said it: he had a future in Star Kingdom politics.

Whatever that future was, Winterfall was determined to make the most of it.

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