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Admiralty House

Office of the First Lord

City of Landing

Planet Manticore

Manticore Binary System

July 17, 1905 PD

“excuse me, milady.”

Lady Francine Maurier looked up from her paperwork as Nouzar Abbasi, her executive secretary, appeared in her open office doorway.

“Yes, Nouzar?”

“Lord Alexander is on the com.”

The Baroness of Morncreek was a small, slender woman, well over twenty centimeters shorter than the sandy-haired Abbasi. She was also very attractive in a dark, feline sort of way, and the quality most people associated with her most strongly was composure. Like a treecat, her balance, physical and mental, was always sure, and she resolutely refused to let anything knock her off stride.

This time, though, she raised an eyebrow . . . which was her equivalent of a shouted exclamation of surprise.

The hour was quite late—Morncreek was a night bird by preference, but she had even more reason than usual to be up late tonight—and she’d spoken to William Alexander, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, less than two hours ago. The fact that he was contacting her in the office again so soon and this close to midnight was . . . unusual, to say the least. And given the debate scheduled for the next day, both of them should already have been at home getting a good night’s rest, since they’d been chosen to present the Government’s case before the vote was called.

I know why I’m not sound asleep at home, she thought wryly, looking down at the notes upon which she’d been working. But why isn’t Willie? And why do I think I won’t like the answer when I find out?

If she hadn’t silenced her com, she’d probably already have the answer to that, of course, since Alexander could have screened straight through.

“All right,” she said after a moment. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Milady.”

Abbasi gave her a slight bow and withdrew, and she turned to her com and tapped the acceptance key.

The Honorable William Alexander, the heir to the Earldom of White Haven, appeared on the display. He had the same dark hair and blue eyes as his older brother Hamish, and Morncreek knew both of them well. She actually knew Hamish better, since he was one of the Royal Manticoran Navy’s most senior officers, but she knew William more than well enough to recognize the storm signals flying behind those blue eyes.

“Francine,” he said.

“Willie,” she acknowledged, and cocked her head. “Why do I think I’m not going to be happy to see you?”

“Because you’re a highly intelligent woman,” he said. “I doubt, however, that you can even begin to suspect just how unhappy you’ll be in the next, oh, sixty seconds.”

“Why?” she asked, dark eyes narrowing.

“Because Allen and I just met with Michael Janvier.”

Morncreek came upright in her chair, and the eyes which had narrowed widened.

“Allen,” she knew, was Allen Summervale, Duke of Cromarty and Prime Minister to Queen Elizabeth III of Manticore. William Alexander was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which made him the second-ranking member of the Cromarty Government. And Michael Janvier was the Baron of High Ridge, leader of the Conservative Association. He was also one of the most loathsome, bigoted, self-serving, intellectually and morally corrupt cretins to ever disgrace the Manticoran peerage.

And those were his good points.

“I’m already unhappy,” she said, after a moment. “I can’t think of a single thing he’d have to say to the two of you that wouldn’t make me unhappy.”

“Well, buckle up,” Alexander growled, “because this one’s going to land right squarely in your lap.”

“What are you talking about?”

“We just found out why whoever leaked Cordwainer’s recommendation leaked it,” Alexander said grimly. “High Ridge demanded a meeting with Allen tonight, and at that meeting he told us he’d ‘heard rumors’ we intend to court-martial Young.”

“Oh, crap,” Morncreek muttered.

“Exactly. And I don’t think it’s even remotely coincidental that he wanted to meet with us tonight, before tomorrow’s session.”

Morncreek’s lips tightened. The fact that Young’s father—and High Ridge—would pull out all the stops to save him if they could was as inevitable as sunrise, which was the true reason that decision had been so closely held. Legally, the charges couldn’t be formally filed until Young himself returned to the Manticore System to face them, but both the Government and the Admiralty really wanted to have the declaration voted out before word that he would be charged could get out and muddy the political waters.

The interval between the Battle of Hancock and the receipt of the Parks board of inquiry’s report was part of the problem, of course. But much as she wanted to, Morncreek couldn’t really fault Parks for that. Regulations had required that the board’s members all be currently serving commanding officers of “appropriate rank and seniority,” which in this case had meant senior-grade captains. There was provision for relaxing those requirements if operational constraints made it “impracticable” to assemble the “appropriate” officers in a timely fashion. But they applied only “in a time of war,” and the Star Kingdom still wasn’t formally at war with anyone, because there’d been no declaration. Parks might have tried to fudge his way around that technicality, but he’d been too focused on his operational needs at Seaford and the surrounding systems. Even if he’d been tempted to, his staff JAG officer would probably have pointed out how Young’s protectors could—and undoubtedly would—fasten on the least technical reason to have the board’s report excluded from the inevitable court-martial. For that matter, Parks was almost certainly sufficiently astute to recognize the sort of political dogfight this had to turn into, so he might well have wanted it to arrive only after the declaration . . . which only a terminally pessimistic clairvoyant could have believed wouldn’t have been voted out by now. And even if all of that hadn’t been true, he probably couldn’t have shaved more than two or three weeks off the delivery time, given travel distances, whatever he’d done.

Morncreek understood all of that. Unfortunately . . . 

“He tried to strong-arm you into quashing the court-martial,” she said. It was a statement, not a question, and Alexander nodded curtly.

“Of course he tried to shut it down,” Alexander said now. “He called it ‘only one more step in the Admiralty’s unwarranted persecution of Lord Young.’ One that ‘no one with a decent respect for justice could allow to pass unchallenged.’”

For a handful of seconds, Morncreek could only stare at him, temporarily unable to believe that even High Ridge could have said something like that with a straight face. Then she shook herself.

“My God, Willie! ‘Unwarranted persecution’? The man should’ve been cashiered after Basilisk! Hell, he should never have been on a command deck in the first place! And we’ll be looking at something a lot like a damned mutiny if we don’t prosecute him after what he did in Hancock!”

“I know. I know!” Alexander looked like a man who wanted to chew iron and spit nails. “You do remember who my brother is? Who my father was? Trust me, I know!”

“I know you do. It’s just—just that I can’t believe even High Ridge could defend a piece of garbage like Pavel Young. I mean, I know the man’s a diseased moral pygmy, himself, but this—! Even he has to recognize arrant cowardice when he sees it!”

“Oh, I’m sure he does,” Alexander said affably. “After all, he looks in the mirror every morning, doesn’t he?”

Morncreek winced slightly. Not that Alexander didn’t have a point. High Ridge was absolutely fearless as he negotiated the corridors of power, but that was only because he literally couldn’t conceive of a situation in which birth and position wouldn’t protect him from the consequences of his own actions. And as she came back on balance mentally, she realized that was exactly how he could try to protect Young. As far as he was concerned, it was simply the system working the way it was supposed to.

“Did you or Allen confirm that the decision’s been made?” she asked.

“Of course not. It didn’t matter, though.” Alexander shrugged angrily. “He knows. In fact, from the way he was talking I’m inclined to think someone slipped him an actual copy of Cordwainer’s memo.”

Morncreek frowned unhappily, but she also nodded.

“You’re probably right. I wish you weren’t, but there are enough Janacek loyalists still tucked away for somebody to have done exactly that.” She rubbed an eyebrow for a moment. “So I assume you told him you could neither confirm nor deny?”

“Allen did, yes. And High Ridge took it—correctly—as confirmation. Which was when he dropped his little bombshell and demanded that Allen quash the court. And when Allen pointed out to him that the decision of whether or not to court-martial Young was a matter for the Navy and the Judge Advocate’s Office, in which the civilian government had no voice, High Ridge suggested that while a mere prime minister might not be able to intervene, the Queen certainly could.”

“You’re serious? He actually said that?”

“In so many words.”

“He’s a lunatic! Her Majesty would eviscerate him if he suggested that to her!”

“Which is why he wanted Allen to do it for him. And when Allen declined, he dropped the other shoe.”

“I hesitate to ask this, because I don’t really want to find out how much worse it gets, but which other shoe?”

“That was why he wanted to meet with us before the vote tomorrow. It was to tell us that the Conservative Association ‘will have no choice but to go into opposition as a matter of principle.’”

Morncreek stared at him, her brain unable—or, more probably, unwilling—to process the information. Silence hung for a long, still moment before she shook herself.

“He can’t do this, Willie. Not even he can do this just to save a piece of garbage like Young!”

“He can. He has. And if I had to guess, it’s at least partly because North Hollow really does have something in his files to hold over High Ridge’s head. And it must be something big and nasty, too, because I don’t think even Michael Janvier would risk crossing Allen—and Her Majesty—over something like this without someone putting the equivalent of a pulser to his head. But however we got here, that’s where we are. And if the Association goes into opposition and joins the Liberals, Allen loses his majority in the Lords. Which means—”

“Which means,” Morncreek interrupted, “that unless we cave and drop the charges against Young, which we can’t possibly do, Allen doesn’t have the votes to move the declaration.”

“Actually, it could be even worse if he went ahead and called the vote and High Ridge managed to hold the Association for the Opposition. It’s not certain that he could hold all of the Conservative peers, but it’s damned likely. And he could almost certainly hold enough of them, especially with North Hollow’s files looming in the background, which is why Allen can’t risk it. Because if he forces the issue and High Ridge does hold enough of the Association, we could end up with a formal vote against a declaration of war, which would mean you’d have to call your people completely off. We couldn’t justify continuing even limited operations in the expectation of a declaration if there’d been a formal vote to deny one.”

“This has all the necessary ingredients for a total disaster, Willie,” Morncreek said flatly.

“Oh, don’t I know it?” Alexander shook his head in disgust. “And starting tomorrow, you and I and Allen will have to figure out how the hell we prevent one. Better get a good night’s sleep, Francine. We’re all going to need our rest.”

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