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Chapter Forty-Six

"They refused, didn't they?" William Alexander said wearily as Elizabeth III stalked into the room. The glare she gave him was more eloquent than words, and he shrugged exhausted shoulders. "We knew they were going to, Your Majesty. The way they see it, they had no choice."

"Why not?"

Alexander turned to the speaker. According to the normal rules of protocol, Honor Harrington had no business in that room at that time. Duchess or no, she had never been a member of the Cromarty Government and had no official role in the formation of its successor. But Elizabeth had wanted her here, and so had Benjamin Mayhew, who was as aware of the critical importance of this moment as any Manticoran. His own situation on Grayson was much simpler, since his Constitution gave him the authority to simply select the individual of his choice as Chancellor and not even the Keys could tell him no. Elizabeth, unfortunately, did not enjoy a matching degree of authority. Her Prime Minister was required by law to control a majority vote in the House of Lords. It was part of the restrictions the original colonists had put in place to protect their own and their children's control of the Star Kingdom, and unlike many others of those restrictions, it survived intact. There had been past instances in which a Manticoran monarch had been compelled to accept a prime minister not of his or her choice, but they had not been happy ones. The Crown was too intimately involved in the day-to-day running of the Star Kingdom for a contest of wills between the monarch and the prime minister to be anything other than a potential disaster. As a rule, the Winton Dynasty had recognized that time was on its side and worked to minimize conflicts with prime ministers it didn't care for on the theory that the Crown could outlast any majority, but there had been cases when that had proven impossible and all-out warfare between Crown and Cabinet had brought the business of governing almost to a halt.

Which was the one thing no one could afford at this moment.

"Why don't they have a choice?" Honor asked. "If it's understood from the beginning that the arrangement is temporary, only an interim compromise to get us through the end of the war, surely they can give at least some ground!"

Elizabeth laughed, a sharp, ugly sound, and Honor looked at her.

"I'm sorry, Honor," the Queen said after a moment. "And I wasn't laughing at you. But expecting these idiots to give ground over a matter of principle is like . . . like expecting a treecat to refuse a celery stick!"

"I wouldn't put it quite that way myself," Alexander said, and paused to consider his words carefully. He lacked Honor's ability to feel the Queen's fury pulsing like some physical furnace, but he'd known her for years. He didn't need any special empathic ability to realize how frayed her temper's leash was, and the one thing he truly dreaded was the breaking of that leash.

"How would you put it, then?" the Queen demanded, and he shrugged.

"The way they see it, they have to take this opportunity, which—as far as they're concerned—is a perfectly legitimate exercise of political power, to take control away from the Centrists and Crown Loyalists. They have no choice, assuming they want to repair the damage their base of popular support has suffered."

Honor quirked an eyebrow at him, and he sighed.

"The Opposition has shot itself in the foot repeatedly. In its prewar opposition to the naval buildup and the extension of the Alliance. In its refusal to vote out a formal declaration of war after Hancock Station. In the way it treated you, Your Grace. And in the way it reacted to McQueen's offensives." He snorted a bitter laugh of his own. "I almost felt sorry for them while we were making the final preparations for Hamish's offensive, because I knew they were cutting their own throats by accelerating their criticism of our military policy just when we were getting ready to squeeze the trigger. But the point is that they've adopted an entire succession of positions which turned out to be wrong. Or which the voters regarded as wrong, at any rate; I rather doubt that people like New Kiev or High Ridge would admit they really had been wrong even now.

"What that's meant for them," he went on, "is that we Centrists have reaped the advantages of being right while they've been made to look like idiots. We hold a twenty percent majority in the Commons right now. If elections were held tomorrow, we could easily double that, and possibly do even better, and that's what has the Opposition—and even some of the nonaligned peers who supported Allen—scared to death."

"Excuse me?" Honor cocked her head, and he grinned crookedly.

"Think about it, Your Grace. The Centrists and the Crown Loyalists, the two parties which have always been most supportive of the Crown, have fought the entire war despite the endless obstructionism of the Opposition, all of whom predicted that any war with Haven could end only in disaster. Now, having persevered in the face of that obstructionism, we're on the brink of achieving complete military victory . . . and just as we caught the blame for 'lack of preparedness' when McQueen uncorked her offensives, we're about to get the credit for winning the 'impossible' war.

"The Opposition has been terrified ever since Hamish kicked off Buttercup that Allen would call a general election as soon as the PRH surrendered. They figured, correctly, that their representation in the Commons would be devastated at the polls. And they also figured that with a crushing majority in the Commons, plus the full-blooded support of the Crown, plus the prestige of having been proved a great war leader, Allen would be in a position to rout all opposition in the Lords, as well. The Liberals were afraid their demands for social reform would get plowed under, and the Progressives and Conservatives were afraid Elizabeth and Allen would manage what every Winton since Elizabeth I has hoped to accomplish: finally break the House of Lord's monopoly on the initiation of finance bills and the right of consent for Crown appointments. So even though, ultimately, they can't stand one another, the Opposition parties see no choice but to cooperate and make damned sure no Centrists or Crown Loyalists are anywhere near the peace settlement when the Peeps actually surrender. That way they get credit for winning the war . . . and we don't. Not only that, but it lets them decide when to call the next general election, and you can be certain that they'll spend a year or two repairing fences by waving domestic policy carrots under the electorate's nose before they do."

"I see." Honor's tone was leached of all expression, and Elizabeth gave her a bleak smile.

"Welcome to the reality of partisan politics, Manticoran style," the Queen said. "I'm sure from some of the things he said before I left for home that Benjamin had a shrewd notion of where our domestic politics were headed, and I don't blame him for being worried. I wouldn't trust the Opposition to organize a drinking party in a distillery, but there doesn't seem to be any way to prevent them from forming the next government. Which means these cretins will be formulating policy for the Star Kingdom, which means, effectively, for the entire Alliance, unless I publically oppose them and bring on a constitutional crisis which could be even more dangerous than letting this fumble-fingered troop of self-serving, egotistical, power-hungry incompetents run the show!"

Honor winced at the barely suppressed rage in Elizabeth's tone, but there was something else under it—a raw, driving fury, fueled by some inner agony, which had to stem from more than seeing her will thwarted or even disgust with the Opposition's partisanship.

"Excuse me, Your Majesty," she heard herself say very gently, "but there's more to it than just that. For you at least." Elizabeth's eyebrows shot up, but then her gaze flicked to where Nimitz crouched on the perch next to Ariel.

"Yes. Yes, you would know that, wouldn't you?" she murmured, and Honor nodded. She could hardly believe she'd said a word, for she had no business prying into her Queen's private affairs, but something about Elizabeth's pain left her no choice. She couldn't taste that much hurt and not try to do something about it.

"There is more," Elizabeth said, looking away from the two humans. She stood and reached out to Ariel, gathering the treecat in her arms, and buried her face in his fur. He purred to her loudly, caressing her cheek with one true-hand, and she drew a deep breath before she turned back to Honor and Alexander.

"Very few people know this," she told them, "and as your Queen, I must have your oaths that no one will hear of it from you—except, perhaps, Benjamin himself, in your case, Honor." Her guests looked at one another, then nodded and turned back to her, and she squared her shoulders.

"You both know my father was killed in a grav-skiing accident. What you don't know is that the 'accident' was nothing of the sort. He was assassinated." Honor sucked in air, feeling as if someone had just punched her in the belly. "He was, in fact, murdered by certain Manticoran politicians opposed to his military policies . . . and effectively in the pay of the People's Republic of Haven," Elizabeth went on bleakly. "They hoped to put a teenaged Heir—me—on the throne and to control my choice of regent in order to . . .  redirect Manticoran policy away from preparing to resist Peep aggression. That was the long-term goal. As for the short-term one—" she smiled mirthlessly "—you will no doubt recall that it was very shortly after my father's death that the Peeps moved in on Trevor's Star. I have no doubt they counted on the confusion engendered by Dad's death to paralyze any potential attempt on our part to prevent them from securing control of one terminus of the Junction."

"My God, Elizabeth!" Alexander was so shaken he forgot the titles he was usually so careful to use in his official relationship with the Queen. "If you knew that, why didn't you tell someone?!"

"I couldn't," Elizabeth said, her voice bleaker than ever, harrowed and brittle with old pain. "We weren't ready for open war, and any charge that the Legislaturalists had orchestrated Dad's murder might have led to just that. Even if it hadn't, the proof that Havenite agents had actually penetrated the highest levels of our own government and assassinated the King could only have led to massive witch-hunts which would have crippled us domestically when we had to be strong and united to support the military buildup. And that sort of bitter, denunciatory mutual suspicion would only have made it even easier for future Havenite agents to denounce the 'traitors' more loudly than anyone else in order to get themselves into positions of power here at home."

She closed her eyes briefly, her expression haggard and haunted, and her nostrils flared.

"I wanted them dead. God, how I wanted them dead! But Allen and Aunt Caitrin—especially Aunt Caitrin—convinced me that I couldn't have them arrested and tried. I even wanted to challenge them to duels and kill them with my own hands if I couldn't have them tried." She smiled crookedly at the sudden understanding on Honor's face, and nodded. "Which is why I sympathized so deeply with you over that bastard North Hollow, Honor," she admitted. "But the same things which made it impossible to try them made a duel even more impossible, and so I had to let them go. I had to let the men and women who'd murdered my father out of cold, self-serving ambition live."

She turned away and stared blindly out a window onto the wondrous light show of Mount Royal Palace's night-struck landscaping, and Honor shook her head. The Peeps had assassinated King Roger in order to put a weak, easily manipulated "teenager" on the throne? If it had been possible, she would almost have felt sorry for the people who'd gotten Elizabeth III instead.

"And now this," Elizabeth said at last, so softly it was difficult to hear her. "We may never prove it, but I'm convinced—I know—the Peeps were behind what happened at Yeltsin's Star. The Faithful may have been the actual triggermen, but it was the Peeps who got them the weapons . . . and probably the ones who suggested to the Faithful that they ought to 'convince' Mueller to smuggle the targeting beacons on board by giving them to me and Allen."

And Mueller's paid for it, too, Honor thought grimly.

The steadholder had been impeached, tried, and condemned to death in barely one week, and sentence had been carried out immediately. There had been no question who'd handed the memory stones to Elizabeth and Cromarty, and his fate had been sealed from the moment the beacon inside Elizabeth's stone had been discovered.

She was pulled away from the brief distraction when Elizabeth turned back from the window.

"And some analysts wonder why I hate the People's Republic so bitterly," she said flatly. "The answer's simple enough, isn't it? The Legislaturalists and Internal Security murdered my father thirty-four years ago. Now the Committee of Public Safety and State Security have murdered my Prime Minister, my uncle, my cousin, and their entire staffs, plus all their security people and the entire crew of my yacht. People I've known for years. Friends. They attempted to murder me, my aunt, and Benjamin Mayhew, as well, and failed only because of you, Honor. Nothing changes where the Peeps are concerned. And these people—these imbeciles—have been prating about 'restraint' and 'measured responses' and 'peaceable resolution of conflicts' to me for ten T-years while Allen and I fought the war despite them, and now they even want to deny him any legacy for all he accomplished?!" She bared her teeth and shook her head, and her voice held the flat, terrible tang of iron when she spoke again. "I may not be able to stop them from forming a partisan government and excluding you from it, Willie. Not now. But I promise you this: the day will come when these people will remember the warning I just gave them."


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