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Prime Minister’s Residence

City of Landing

Planet Manticore

Manticore Binary System

October 26, 1905 PD

“could we maybe find something a little more enjoyable to watch?”

William Alexander’s tone was plaintive as he glared at the smart wall at the end of the Prime Minister’s dining room. At the moment, it showed live imagery of the current demonstrations outside Admiralty House. By the standards of a counter-grav civilization, the tower which housed the Admiralty was a mere nothing, little more than a hundred stories tall. That was still enough to turn the demonstrators into ants, clustered around its foot, as far as anyone looking down at them from Admiralty House’s windows was concerned, however. Unfortunately, the scene Alexander was looking at came from camera drones hovering little more than a hundred feet up, which brought it into entirely too clear a focus for his digestion.

“Not watching it won’t keep it from happening,” Allen Summervale pointed out.

“No,” Alexander agreed sourly. “But if I’m not watching it, then I can at least pretend there’s a modicum of sanity somewhere out there.”

He scowled as he watched the demonstrators hurl screaming abuse at one another. They were hurling a few other things, as well, although the cordon of Landing City Police keeping the irate mobs separated seemed to be keeping the projectiles in question nonlethal, at least. Not that someone who caught a balloon filled with bright red paint square in the face was likely to be very happy about it, anyway.

Alexander had no doubt the police drones sharing airspace with the newsies’ cameras were keeping tabs on who’d thrown what. That was probably the reason no one was stupid enough to throw anything more dangerous than balloons and tennis balls. It was certainly the reason the badly overburdened Landing City courts would shortly receive a fresh influx of citations for disorderly behavior, vandalism, and possibly simple assault. The capitol city cops took that sort of behavior seriously.

Still, unless he missed his guess, things were building to the nightly climax, at which point the LCPD would deploy teargas to convince the “demonstrators” to go home. Many of them, he was sure, had brought along breath masks to protect themselves, but modern “teargas” was considerably more sophisticated than its crude, pre-diaspora ancestor. Anyone who exposed skin to it would find himself highly motivated to get himself home and into a shower ASAP.

Which didn’t mean the same idiots wouldn’t be back again tomorrow night.

He glared at the holo-posters floating above the demonstrators. Improbably—indeed, considering their subject, he was tempted to say “obscenely”—noble-looking, three-meter-tall portraits of Pavel Young glared valiantly at equally towering holos of Honor Harrington. Some of the idiots were actually chanting Young’s name, as if he were some heroic paladin. Despite decades of political experience, Alexander couldn’t—literally, could not—understand how anyone could buy into that interpretation of Pavel Young, although he supposed it was at least remotely possible that people who’d never had the misfortune to meet him truly could convince themselves of his victimhood. But in addition to that sort of idiocy, eye-tearing holographic banners, some of them as much as twenty meters in length, floated alongside Young’s face, denouncing the “warmongers” trying to force a formal declaration of war. And, of course, equally spectacular banners soared above their opponents. denouncing the “corrupt politicians,” “traitors,” and—his own favorite—“gutless cowards” opposing that declaration.

There must be nine or ten thousand men and women out there, he thought. No doubt the LCPD could give him an exact count, if he really wanted one. Not that he did.

“You know, I sort of thought that once the verdict was in, this would start to taper off,” he said.

“In a lot of ways, it has.” The Duke of Cromarty shrugged. “The demonstrations are smaller now, and according to the police, more and more of them are what they call ‘professional rowdies.’ Quite a few of those just love a good riot, and they don’t give much of a damn what it’s over as long as they get to play in the street and throw smoke grenades, paint bombs, and the occasional brick. All in the name of free expression, of course.” The Prime Minister looked as sour as Alexander felt. “As far as we can tell, the majority of the pro-declaration crowd are genuinely motivated, and the same thing’s true for at least half of the Opposition demonstrators. Mostly Liberals, with a scattering of Progressives for ballast. But a lot, maybe the bulk, of the rest are hired guns. High Ridge and his crowd are flying them in and some of the Association’s more deep-pocketed peers are picking up the tab for their housing and meals.”

“That’s stupid!” Alexander glared at Cromarty, mostly because there was no one else to glare at. “The court-martial’s over! What the hell does High Ridge want now?!”

“In one way it’s not over yet,” Cromarty pointed out. “He’s been convicted and sentenced, but the sentence hasn’t been carried out yet.”

“And they think they can get it changed?” Alexander’s glare deepened. “They think they can arm-twist Elizabeth into granting him some kind of pardon?”

“Hardly,” Cromarty said dryly.

“Then what’s this in aid of?”

“Oh, I expect High Ridge hopes to hit several birds with this particular stone. First, he’s cementing his status as a loyal member of the Opposition, backing up New Kiev and her crowd and buying himself a stack of favors he can call in down the road. And don’t think for a moment he’s not thinking about that, Willie! Second, you know the Association’s always decried our ‘confrontational foreign-policy’ where Haven was concerned. They figured—or said they did, anyway—that it would lead to exactly what we have now: a war. And they had no interest in fighting one. So from that perspective, High Ridge isn’t actually lying about his party’s position this time, even if his lips are moving. Third, now that Young’s inherited his father’s title, he’s probably got his hands on the North Hollow files, which means he’s got both those hands wrapped around the Conservative Association’s throat. Believe me, High Ridge and most of his cronies would a lot rather face you, me, and Her Majesty than the consequences if Young makes some of the tidbits in those files public! And, fourth, the fact that we’re not going to shoot the son of a bitch gives them an opening to scream that we obviously didn’t have a good case against him in the first place.”

“That’s bullshit.”

“Been hanging around with Hamish again, I see.” Cromarty twitched a smile.

“Well, it is! They didn’t find him innocent of the capital charges, Allen. They only announced a hung verdict on them when they convicted him of everything else!”

“Which High Ridge is now proclaiming was a put-up job.” Cromarty’s smile disappeared and he sighed. “He won’t be able to keep it up, especially after Young—well, I guess North Hollow, now—is formally cashiered. Not for the Star Kingdom at large, although I don’t expect him and his cronies to ever admit anything of the sort. But for now he’s arguing that if North Hollow had really done the things he was accused of, we would’ve shot him. So, obviously, he didn’t do them, whatever that ‘corrupt, preordained’ verdict might say.” The Prime Minister shook his head. “I really wish Hamish had been able to bring in a guilty verdict on all specifications.”

“I’m pretty sure he does, too,” Alexander said. “We didn’t do him any favors sticking him with the presidency of the court, though.”

“We didn’t. The computers’ random, scrupulously fair selection process did that, remember? A completely blind process, with no human input, that assured everyone involved that no one had exercised any undue influence to ‘shape’ the selections.”

“And if Hamish could have gotten to the programming, the computers would for damned sure have picked someone—anyone—else!”

“I don’t doubt that,” Cromarty said, and they looked at one another in matching disgust.

As the Prime Minister had said, the selection of officers for Pavel Young’s court-martial had been scrupulously fair. BuPers’ computers had chosen them completely randomly from the pool of available senior officers. Which, in this case, had selected anything but a neutral court.

“He certainly expressed himself . . . frankly to us when he found out who was on it,” Cromarty continued. “I have to wonder what went on when they sat down to deliberate the charges, though. God, I wish I could’ve been a fly on the wall!”

“Well, don’t expect Hamish to give you the gory details. I love my brother—I really, truly do—but there are times I’d like to strangle him. And this is one of them, because there’s no way in hell he’s going to violate the court’s confidentiality to tell us who engineered the final verdict.”

“‘Engineered’?” Cromarty looked at him. “That’s such a sordid verb, Willie! One entirely too close to what High Ridge is saying happened.” Alexander looked back skeptically, and the Prime Minister shrugged. “Oh, I agree with you that that has to be what happened, and to be honest, it was probably the best outcome we could realistically hope for. But it sticks in my craw, Willie. It really does.”

“I know.” Alexander sighed. “And it sticks in Hamish’s, too, I’m pretty sure. But I think it’s obvious at least some members of the court went in determined to acquit rather than convict.”

“Jurgens and Lemaitre, you mean?”

Rear Admiral of the Green Rexford Jurgens was a card-carrying Conservative and a Janacek loyalist from way back. Commodore Antoinette Lemaitre was his political antithesis, an equally rabid Liberal, but her antipathy for Honor Harrington had scarcely been a secret after the way Harrington had smacked down her friend and colleague Reginald Houseman. In this instance, despite their own cordial dislike for one another, she and Jurgens had undoubtedly gone into the trial with a matching determination to protect “the true execution of justice” from the “politically motivated kangaroo court” upon which they had found themselves serving.

And unlike Hamish Alexander, neither of them would have hesitated for an instant to put personal bias and ideology ahead of the discharge of their duty to the Navy and to the Crown.

“Of course I do! Who else could it’ve been? I’m damned sure Theodosia Kuzak and Thor Simengaard wouldn’t have objected to shooting him, anyway!” Alexander snorted. “I don’t think either of them would have convicted if they’d thought the evidence wasn’t there, but what Young did must have stuck in their craws, too. They wouldn’t have hesitated for a moment about the death sentence if they’d believed the evidence was there . . . and the fact that the verdict on all of the other specifications was unanimous suggests they thought it was.”

“Which only leaves Sonja,” Cromarty mused, and Alexander nodded.

The professional clashes between Hamish Alexander and Admiral of the Red Lady Sonja Hemphill, the acknowledged leader of the material-based strategists of the jeune ecole, were the stuff of legend. They’d known one another almost since childhood, and their . . . differences of opinion were epic. More than that, Hemphill was both heir to the Barony of Low Delhi and one of Sir Edward Janacek’s cousins, and, like Jurgens, the Conservative Association had always been her ancestral home. At the same time, for all of her zealotry where strategy and weapons policies were concerned, Hemphill had also always been a realist about the Havenite threat. And unlike Jurgens, she possessed something approaching a moral spine. She couldn’t have been happy with the Opposition’s unyielding refusal to vote out a declaration of war.

“So you think she’s the one who came up with the final verdict, too?” the Prime Minister asked after a moment.

“It wasn’t Theodosia, it wasn’t Simengaard, and it sure as hell wasn’t my beloved older brother.” Alexander shrugged. “Like you said, that only leaves Sonja.”

“I’m actually a little surprised she was willing to break ranks on this one,” Cromarty said.

“Sonja’s never lacked for guts. I’m not all that surprised she’d tell High Ridge and North Hollow to pound sand if she thought that was the right thing to do, but how I wish she could have brought herself to break the deadlock and vote to shoot him the way he deserved.” Alexander’s voice was harsh, and his eyes were back on the smart wall’s images of the demonstrators. “I thought she had enough integrity to do that, too.”

“I agree entirely,” Cromarty said. “On the other hand, she may actually have done us a favor. We’re still getting the bastard out of uniform, in a way that makes it damned sure he’ll never put it on again. And the guilty verdicts—and the sentence—handed down should come as close to kneecapping the new Earl North Hollow politically as we’re likely to get. But we didn’t turn him into a ‘martyr’ for the Opposition, either.”

Alexander made a rude, incredulous sound and jerked his head at the smart wall, and Cromarty snorted.

“I meant ‘martyr’ as in ‘a dead son of a bitch,’” he said. “Nothing we might do could have kept the Opposition from screaming about how ‘unjustly’ we’ve ‘victimized’ him. That’s a given, Willie. But I honestly don’t know what his father would’ve done if we’d gone ahead and shot him, and anyone with those files could do a lot of damage.”

“Files Young now has, I might point out,” Alexander said. “And, unless memory fails me, his father dropped dead in the courtroom, which would have made it a little difficult for him to take vengeance on us after we shot his son!”

“No, but no one knew he was going to do that until he actually did. And Pavel’s got brothers, remember? They’re no prizes, either, and they’re going to take this not just as their brother’s conviction, but as a slur on the family name. A blot on the North Hollow escutcheon.”

Please!” Alexander grimaced. “There are so many ‘blots’ on the North Hollow escutcheon that I’m astonished anyone can even see it!”

“But they aren’t going to admit that. Even assuming they agreed with you and me, they’d never acknowledge it. And they studied at their father’s knee just as much as he did. This way at least they don’t have a dead brother to avenge, though. And to be totally honest, I think Stefan is probably even dumber than Pavel. God only knows what he’d do if he ever became earl!”

“Could it really be worse than what we’ve already got?”

“I don’t know, and I don’t want to find out,” Cromarty said frankly. “And to be honest, I have no idea where Young—North Hollow—is going to go next. But I’m pretty sure this is about the closest to a ‘soft landing’ we could’ve engineered. Don’t get me wrong! In a lot of ways, I absolutely hate it, and the Queen is even more pissed off about it than you and I are. But the important thing is to keep our eyes on the prize and get the damned declaration voted out as soon as we can. If not shooting North Hollow gets us there even a week sooner, then much as you and I may hate it, it’s probably a bargain.”

“I know. I know!” Alexander sighed, glaring at the smart wall. “I just can’t help feeling like we blew it, though, Allen. We left the unmitigated bastard alive. Vengeance for vengeance’s sake is pretty stupid, but there is such a thing as justice, and this wasn’t it. Not for all the people he helped the Peeps kill in Hancock, and especially not for Lady Harrington.”

Cromarty nodded, his own eyes on the smart wall.

“It’s an imperfect universe, Willie,” the Prime Minister of Manticore said sadly. “And some days, I hate it even more than usual.”

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