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"So as soon as the last missile pods go aboard Nicator and Nestor, we'll be ready to resume operations," Captain Granston-Henley told the assembled flag officers of Eighth Fleet. "Admiral White Haven" she nodded to where Hamish Alexander sat at the head of the conference table "has decided to proceed on the basis of Sheridan One. As you all know, this ops plan calls for"
She broke off in midsentence as Commander McTierney, White Haven's com officer, suddenly jerked upright in her chair. The movement was so sudden, so unexpected, it drew all eyes, but McTierney didn't notice. She only cupped one hand over the earbug she kept tuned at all times to the Flag communications center, and her startled audience could actually see the color draining from her face.
She closed her eyes for a moment, then punched a stud on her panel.
"Repeat thatin full!" she barked, and the admirals and commodores watched her shoulders slump as she listened to the earbug once more. Then she shook her head, and when she looked up at White Haven, the earl was dumbfounded to see tears in her eyes.
"What is it, Cindy?" he asked quickly, and she licked her lips.
"It's a flash priority from the Admiralty via Trevor's Star, My Lord. The courier boat just arrived and squealed it to FlagCom. It says . . . Sir, it says the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary are dead!"
"What?" Despite himself, Hamish Alexander came halfway out of his chair, and McTierney nodded miserably.
"They sent the message off before they had full information, Sir. But according to what they did know, it looks like it was Masadan Faithful. Somehow they got their hands on a couple of modern weaponssome sort of stealth missile or drone; BuWeaps is still trying to figure out whichand smuggled them into attack range of Grayson One and Queen Adrienne." The Grayson officers in the compartment, already as shocked as their Allied counterparts, stiffened in unison, but McTierney went on speaking to the earl. "They were contact nukes, Sir. Somehow they managed to home on their targets, but Duchess Harrington intercepted the one headed for Grayson One with the wedge of her runabout." No one noticed the sudden, very personal fear which flickered in Hamish Alexander's eyes. "She stopped that one, but the other got through. There were . . . no survivors." McTierney swallowed hard and drew a deep breath.
"Chancellor Prestwick and Councilor Hodges were aboard Queen Adrienne with the Prime Minister and Earl Gold Peak, Sir," she said very quietly. "But the Queen and Protector Benjamin were both aboard Grayson One. If Duchess Harrington hadn't"
She broke off, and White Haven nodded grimly.
"And Duchess Harrington?" he asked, trying to make his voice come out normally, knowing he'd failed, and hoping no one else would notice in their shock.
"She took it on the belly of her wedge, Sir. She survived." A rustle and stir ran through the frozen compartment as more than one officer stifled a cheer. "Her runabout took some severe damage, but the Admiralty says she's fine."
"Thank the Tester for that," Judah Yanakov breathed, and White Haven gave another, choppy nod. Elation at Honor's survival surged up in him, warring with the icy shock of the totally unexpected news, and he closed his eyes while he made himself step back and consider it with a semblance of calm.
A muted mutter of conversation sprang up all about him, but no one spoke directly to him, and he wondered if he was glad. They're waiting, he thought. Waiting for me, as Eighth Fleet's commander, to tell them what it all means . . . and where we go from here. But, my Godwhat does it mean?
His brain began to work with something like its accustomed speed as the initial shock receded. Of all the officers in the compartment, he was undoubtedly the best informed on the strengths and weaknesses of the Cromarty Government, since his brother was Chancellor of the Exchequer. By longstanding tradition, the person who held that post was not only the second ranking member of the Cabinet but the individual who took over as Prime Minister if something happened to the incumbent.
But that was under normal circumstances, and these were anything but normal. And if what Willie had told him about the balance in the House of Lords was as accurate as his brother's analyses usually were, then
Hamish Alexander looked squarely into the abyss of the future, and what he saw there frightened him.
"Your Majesty, Countess New Kiev, Lady Descroix, and Baron High Ridge are here."
Elizabeth III nodded to the footman who had showed the senior leaders of the Opposition into her study as if their visit to Mount Royal Palace were completely routine. But it wasn't, and the brown eyes which met her visitors were harder than steel. There were dark circles under those eyes, etched by personal grief for a beloved uncle and cousin and a Prime Minister who had become, in many ways, a second father. But there was more than grief in those circles. There was the knowledge of the chaos Allen Summervale's death had wreaked on domestic Manticoran politics . . . and the reason her "guests" were here.
Remember that, she told herself. Remember that what matters are the consequences, and whatever you do, don't lose your temper!
She gritted her mental teeth, holding firmly to her resolve, and made herself smile as the political leaders were ushered in. She'd deliberately chosen an informal setting for this meeting, although she knew no one present could be fooled about how crucial it was, and she studied her "guests" carefully, making herself look at each of them as if they had never met.
Or trying to, anyway.
Michael Janvier, Baron High Ridge, was a tall, spindly man, with cold little eyes and a smile which always made Elizabeth think of a vulture or some other carrion eater. She knew much of her dislike for the man stemmed from her disgust at his isolationist, reactionary, power-seeking politics, and she usually tried to make herself be fairminded where he was concerned. Not today. Today she felt Ariel trembling on her shoulder, whiplashed between the grief he'd endured from his person's sense of loss and the exultation brimming within the cadaverous leader of the Conservative Association, and she wanted nothing more than to strangle him with her bare hands.
The women with him were another proposition entirelyphysically, at least. Lady Elaine Descroix, who, with her cousin, the Earl of Gray Hill, headed the Progressive Party, was a small woman, barely a meter and a half tall, with dark hair and eyes and a sweet, smiling face. On first meeting her and her cousin, people tended to assume Gray Hill was the dominant partner, but astute political observers knew who truly called the shots for the Progressives. Many of those observers also felt Descroix was even more amoral than High Ridge, and she'd become increasingly desperate as the war dragged out and the Progressives' position in the House of Commons continued its steady erosion. That had never been a problem for High Ridge, of course, since the Conservative Association had no representation in the Commons.
Maria Turner, Countess New Kiev, was almost as tall as High Ridge, but she was a trim and shapely woman, with long, chestnut hair in a carefully sculpted, windswept style. Her blue eyes burned just as brightly as High Ridge's, and Elizabeth hardly needed Honor Harrington's empathic ability to taste her excitement, but at least New Kiev didn't radiate the aura of indecent anticipation High Ridge and Descroix projected so strongly.
That didn't make things any better, though, for what New Kiev lacked in personal ambition, she more than made up in ideological fervor. Elizabeth could conceive of very few people with whom New Kiev had less in common than High Ridge, but the last decade had thrown the two firmly together. Much as they disliked one another, and divergent as their ultimate goals might be, they both hated Allen Summervale's Centrists even more, and all three of her visitors were painfully aware of the disasters into which their parties had wandered since the outbreak of war. Elizabeth knew the three of them had already agreed on how they would carve up the government if they ever came to power, which spheres each party's policies would be allowed to dominate. It wouldn't last, of course. They were too fundamentally opposed on too many issues for any alliance to hold together for more than a T-year or two, but that didn't matter at this moment.
"Your Majesty." High Ridge murmured the greeting and took the hand she offered him. "On behalf of the Conservative Association," he said, oozing unction, "allow me to express our profound grief at the loss youand the entire Star Kingdomhave suffered."
"Thank you, My Lord." Elizabeth tried to sound as if she meant it and held out her hand to Descroix.
"A terrible thing, Your Majesty," Descroix said. "Just terrible."
She patted the hand she held and gave the Queen one of her patented sweet smiles, this one nicely tinged with an edge of sadness and determination to be brave, and Elizabeth nodded back, then extended her hand to New Kiev in turn.
"Your Majesty." New Kiev's soprano was cooler and graver than her allies' voices, and her eyes darkened with genuine sorrow for just a moment. "The Liberal Party also wishes me to express our grief, and especially for Earl Gold Peak. He and I disagreed over many policy points, but he was an honest and an honorable man, and I considered him a friend. I'll miss him badly."
"Thank you," Elizabeth said, and managed a small smile. But she also added, "The Star Kingdom will miss both my uncle and Duke Cromarty."
"I'm sure we will, Your Majesty," New Kiev agreed, but her mouth tightened and the sadness in her eyes gave way to a flicker of anger at Cromarty's name.
"I'm sure you know why I asked you to see me," Elizabeth went on after a moment, waving her visitors to chairs.
"I think so, Your Majesty," High Ridge said. Descroix nodded firmly, but Elizabeth had expected that, and it was New Kiev she watched. But the countess only glanced at the baron, then nodded in turn, and Elizabeth's heart sank. If they'd decided to let High Ridge do the talking, her frail hope of making them see reason had just become even frailer. "I would assume," the baron continued, "that you wished to discuss the formation of a new government."
"That's precisely what I want to discuss." Elizabeth regarded him for a moment, then decided to take the bull by the horns. "In particular, I want to discuss the situation in the House of Lords as it relates to the formation of a new government."
"I see." High Ridge leaned back and crossed his legs, propping his elbows on the arms of his chair to steeple his fingers under his chin so he could nod in properly grave fashion. But he also didn't rush out to meet the Queen halfway, and Elizabeth's eyes hardened a bit more as they rested on his face.
Your temper, she reminded herself. Watch your damned temper! You don't have Allen to make sure you hang onto it anymore.
"As I'm sure you're all aware," she went on after a moment, "the Centrists and Crown Loyalists did not enjoy an absolute majority in the Lords. The Government possessed a working majority, but that was the result of the support of two dozen of the nonaligned peers."
"Yes, it was," High Ridge agreed when she paused, and cocked his head as if to ask what her point might be.
Elizabeth bit down on a sudden spike of anger. She'd always known High Ridge, for all his prating about the nobility of his birth, was a petty man. She'd even known he was an insensitive man, one to whom no one else was quite real or particularly mattered. But she hadn't realized he was also a stupid one . . . yet only a stupid man indeed would have deliberately antagonized the Queen of Manticore.
"Let's get directly to the point, My Lord," she told him, her voice flat. "With Allen Summervale's death, his government has lost its majority in the Lords. You know it, and I know it. The nonaligned peers' support was held together in large part by his personal relationships with them. Lord Alexander, the Prime Minister's logical successor, does not command those same alliances, and without them, he can't form a government as required under the Constitution."
"True, Your Majesty," High Ridge murmured, and Elizabeth felt a subsonic snarl ripple through the long, slender body on her shoulder as Ariel tasted his emotions.
"This is not the moment for the Star Kingdom to be paralyzed by a power struggle, My Lord," she said bluntly. "I invited you, Lady Descroix, and Countess New Kiev here, as the acknowledged leaders of the Opposition, to request your support. As your Queen, I ask you to recognize the grave challengesand opportunitiesarising from the recent turn in the course of the war. I would like you to agree to form a coalition government, with Lord Alexander as Prime Minister, for the duration of the conflict."
"Your Majesty," High Ridge began, just a bit too quickly for it to be a spontaneous reaction to her request, "I'm very sorry, but"
"It won't be for long," Elizabeth overrode him, but her eyes were on New Kiev. "The Admiralty and my civilian analysts all agree that at the present operational tempo, and in light of the decisive technological advantage our forces currently enjoy, the war will be over within another six months, nine at the outside. All I ask is that you support the present government and its policies long enough for this Kingdom and its people to grasp the victory within its reach."
"Your Majesty," High Ridge said firmly, like a tutor reclaiming the floor from a willful student, "I'm very sorry, but that won't be possible. There have been far too many fundamental disagreements, of both policy and principle, between the Opposition and the Cromarty Government, and Lord Alexander has been too strongly associated with those disagreements. If I were to propose such an arrangement to the party caucus, half of my colleagues would flatly refuse to accept it."
"My Lord," Elizabeth showed her teeth in something only the most charitable could have called a smile, "I have great faith in your persuasiveness. I feel confident that if you truly put your mind to it, you could . . . convince the Association to support you."
High Ridge flinched ever so slightly as her pointed tone penetrated even his armor. The Conservative Association's party discipline was legendary, and everyone knew it would vote exactly as he told it to, but he seemed not to have expected the Queen to call him on his evasion, however indirectly. Yet his hesitation, if that was what it had been, was brief, and he raised his hands in a small, regretful gesture.
"I'm sorry, Your Majesty, but it would be impossible, as a matter of principle, for the Conservative Association to support a coalition cabinet under Lord Alexander."
"I see." Elizabeth's voice was chilled steel. She gazed at him for a long, silent moment, then shifted her icy eyes to Lady Descroix. "And the Progressives, Milady?"
"Oh, dear." Descroix sighed, then shook her head regretfully. "I truly wish we could oblige you, Your Majesty, but I'm afraid it's impossible. Simply impossible."
Elizabeth only nodded and switched her eyes to New Kiev. The countess winced, but her chin rose and she met the Queen's eyes squarely.
"Your Majesty, I'm afraid the Liberal Party would find it equally impossible to support Lord Alexander as Prime Minister."
Elizabeth leaned back in her chair, and the temperature in the comfortable room seemed to drop perceptibly. New Kiev fidgeted ever so slightly, but High Ridge sat motionless, as if completely calm, under his Queen's basilisk gaze, and Lady Descroix only wrung her hands in her lap and concentrated on looking small and helpless.
"I have asked you, as is my right as your monarch, to accede to my wishes in the interests of the Star Kingdom's security," Elizabeth said coldly. "I have not asked you to abandon your principles. I have not asked you to embrace or pretend to embrace any ideology offensive to you or to your party members. My only concern is the continuity of leadership necessary to win the current war and establish a lasting peace. I ask you to rise above the pettiness of party politicsof all parties' politics, not just your ownand prove worthy of this moment in history."
She paused, waiting, but they merely looked back at her. New Kiev's face was taut, her eyes troubled, but there was no retreat in it, and High Ridge looked no more than blandly attentive, while Descroix looked worried but bravely determined. Elizabeth felt her temper fighting the chain she'd fastened upon it and reminded herself yet again that it was her duty to get these people to agree to a compromise.
"Very well," she said. "Let's lay all the cards on the table, shall we? I fully realize that the Conservative Association, the Progressive Party, and the Liberal Party between them possess sufficient votes in the Lords, in the absence of the nonaligned peers, to form a government. I also realize that the three of you control sufficient votes to prevent Lord Alexander from forming a government, despite the fact that the Centrists and Crown Loyalists hold a majority of over twenty percent in the House of Commons. And I know your reasonsyour true reasonsfor refusing to form a coalition government."
She paused, daring any one of them to deny her implication that all their talk of "principles" was a tissue of lies, but none of them seemed prepared to take up that particular challenge, and her lip curled ever so slightly.
"I am fully conversant," she went on with cold precision, "with the reality of partisan politics here in the Star Kingdom. I had hoped that you would prove capable of rising above that reality, if only briefly, at this critical moment, because at this instant, I cannot compel you to do so, and you know it. A protracted struggle between the Crown and a majority Opposition in the Lords could have disastrous consequences upon the war, and unlike you, I do not have the option of neglecting my responsibilities to this Star Kingdom and its people in order to play petty, ambitious, shortsighted, and stupid political games."
Her contempt was withering, and New Kiev flushed darkly, but the countess showed no sign of deserting her allies.
"I submit to you," Elizabeth continued, "that however firmly united you may be at this moment, your fundamental policies and principles are too basically opposed for that unity to last. You can, if you choose, use it at this moment to ignore my wishes, but you do so at your peril, for it will come to an end . . . and the Crown will still be here."
There was a moment of dead silence, and even High Ridge sounded slightly shaken when he broke it.
"Is that a threat, Your Majesty?" he asked almost incredulously.
"It is a reminder, My Lord. A reminder that the House of Winton knows its friends . . . and also those who are not its friends. We Wintons have long memories, Baron. If you truly wish to have me as an enemy, it can certainly be arranged, but I urge you to think very carefully first."
"Your Majesty, you can't simply threaten and browbeat peers of the realm!" High Ridge's voice was hot as his mask slipped for the first time. "We, too, have a legitimate role and function in the government of the Star Kingdom, and our collective judgment carries at least as much weight as that of a single individual, whoever she may be. You are our Queen. As your subjects, we are duty bound to listen to you and to weigh your views, but you are not a dictator, and we are not slaves! We will act as we deem best, in accordance with our interpretation of the domestic and foreign situation, and any breach between us and the Crown will not be of our making!"
"This interview is over," Elizabeth said, and stood, shaking with fury, too angry even to notice the incredulity in her guests eyes as she violated all the solemn protocol of the occasion. "I can't keep you from forming a government. Send me your list of ministers. I want it by noon tomorrow. I will act upon it immediately. But" her eyes stabbed each of them in turn "remember this day. You're right, My Lord. I'm not a dictator, and I refuse to act like one simply because of your own stupidity and arrogance. But I need not be a 'dictator' to deal with the likes of you, either, and the time will come when youwhen all of youwill rue this day!"
And with that, she turned and stormed out of the salon.
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