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Oscar Saint-Just closed the file and leaned back in his chair.
There was no one else present, and so no eyes saw what many would have sworn was impossible: a tiny tremor, quivering through the fingers of both hands before he clasped them tightly to still it.
He gazed at nothing for endless seconds, and there was a great stillness at his core. For the first time since Rob Pierre's death, he felt hope growing somewhere deep inside, and he sucked in a deep breath, held it, and then exhaled noisily.
He'd never really expected Hassan to work. He admitted that to himself now, although he hadn't been able to earlier. Not when it had been so essential that the plan must work. The decapitation of the Alliance had been his only hope as the military situation crumbled, and so he'd made himself believe Hassan would succeed, that he only had to hang on just a little longer.
And it truly had worked in the end. Not as fully as he'd hoped it might, true, but it had worked.
He'd been bitterly disappointed when the preliminary reports indicated that Benjamin Mayhew and Elizabeth III had both escaped, and he'd ground his teeth when he discovered who'd made that possible. There were very few points upon which Oscar Saint-Just and the late, unlamented Cordelia Ransom had ever been in perfect agreement, but Honor Harrington was one of them. The only difference between Saint-Just and Ransom was that Saint-Just would simply have had her quietly shot and stuffed in an unmarked grave without ever admitting he'd even seen her.
But as the first, fragmentary reports about the domestic Manty reaction to Hassan came in, Saint-Just had begun to realize it might actually be better this way. If he'd gotten Elizabeth and Benjamin but not Cromarty, Elizabeth's son would simply have assumed the throne with the same Government in place. At best, the result would have been only to delay the inevitable, not stop it. But by killing Cromarty and leaving Elizabeth alive, Saint-Just had inadvertently created a totally different situation. When the Manty Opposition's leadership announced its decision to form a government which excluded Cromarty's Centrists and the Crown Loyalists, a dazzling opportunity had landed squarely in Oscar Saint-Just's lap, and he had no intention of letting it slip away.
He pressed a button on his intercom.
"Yes, Citizen Chairman?" his secretary replied instantly.
"Get me Citizen Secretary Kersaint and Citizen Secretary Mosley," Saint-Just directed. "Tell them I need to see them immediately."
"At once, Citizen Chairman!"
Saint-Just leaned back in his chair once more, folding his hands and gazing up at the ceiling while he waited for the PRH's new foreign minister and the woman who'd replaced Leonard Boardman at Public Information. Both of their predecessors had been in the Octagonhostages or traitors, no one really knewwhen Saint-Just ordered the button pushed, and they were undeniably inexperienced in their new positions. On the other hand, both of them were terrified of Oscar Saint-Just, and he felt confident that they'd manage to do exactly what he wanted of them.
"All right, Allyson," White Haven said, rubbing sleep from his eyes. "I'm awake."
He looked at the bedside chrono and winced. Benjamin the Great ran on standard twenty-four-hour days rather than the twenty-two-plus-hour days of Manticore, and it was just after 03:00. He'd been in bed barely three hours, and he was due to attend the final admirals' briefing before kicking off against Lovat in only five more hours.
This had better be important, he told himself, and punched buttons on his com.
The terminal blinked to life with Captain Granston-Henley's face. It was a one-ended visual linkWhite Haven had no intention of letting anyone see him draggle-edged with sleepbut he hardly even thought about that as her expression registered.
"What is it?" His voice was rather less caustic than he'd planned, and Granston-Henley gathered her wits with a visible effort.
"We just received a dispatch boat, My Lord. From the Peeps."
"From the Peeps?" White Haven repeated very carefully, and she nodded.
"Yes, Sir. She came over the hyper-wall twenty-six minutes ago. We just picked up her transmission five minutes and" she glanced at a chrono of her own "thirty seconds ago. It was in the clear, Sir."
"And it said?" he prompted as she paused as if uncertain how to proceed.
"It's a direct message from Saint-Just to Her Majesty, My Lord," Granston-Henley said. "He wants Sir, he says he wants to convene peace talks!"
Elizabeth III came to her feet in one supple motion, and her fist slammed down on the conference-room table like a hammer. More than one person in the room flinched, but Prime Minister High Ridge and Foreign Secretary Descroix seemed totally unperturbed.
"Your Majesty, this offer must be given deep and serious consideration," High Ridge said into the ringing silence.
"No," Elizabeth repeated, her voice lower but even more intense, and her brown eyes locked on the Prime Minister like a ship of the wall's main battery. "It's a trick. A desperation move."
"Whatever it is, and whatever Citizen Chairman Saint-Just's motives," Descroix said in the tone of sweet reason Elizabeth had come to loathe passionately, "the fact remains that it offers a chance to stop the fighting. And the dying, Your Majesty. Not just on the PRH's side, but on our own, as well."
"If we let Saint-Just squirm out now, when we have the power to crush him and his regime, it will be a betrayal of every man and woman who died to get us to this point," Elizabeth said flatly. "And it will also be a betrayal of our partners in the Alliance, who count on our leadership and support for their very survival! There's only one way to insure peace with the People's Republic, and that is to defeat it, destroy its military capabilities, and make certain they stay destroyed!"
"Your Majesty, violence never settled anything," Home Secretary New Kiev said. The countess looked uncomfortable under the scornful glance the Queen turned upon her, but she shook her own head stubbornly. "My opposition to this war has always been based on the belief that peaceful resolution of conflicts is vastly preferable to a resort to violence. If the previous government had realized that and given peace a chance following the Harris Assassination, we might have ended the fighting ten years ago! I realize you don't believe that was possible, but I and many of the others in this room do. Perhaps you were right at the time and we were wrong, but we'll never know either way, because the opportunity was rejected. But this time we have a definite offer from the other side, a specific proposal to end the killing, and I feel we have an imperative moral responsibility to seriously consider anything which can do that."
" 'Specific proposal'?" Elizabeth repeated, and jabbed a contemptuous index finger at the memo pad before her. "All he proposes is a cease-fire in placewhich neatly saves him from the loss of Lovat and his capital systemto provide a 'breathing space' for negotiations! And as for this sanctimonious crap about 'sharing your pain at the loss of your assassinated leaders' because the same thing happened to them!"
Her lips worked as if she wanted to spit.
"The situations certainly aren't precise parallels, but both of us have experienced major changes in government," High Ridge pointed out with oily calm. "While everyone, of course, deeply regrets the deaths of Duke Cromarty and Earl Gold Peak, it's possible that the shift in political realities and perceptions resulting from that tragedy may actually have some beneficial results. I can hardly conceive of Pierre having sent us an offer like this one, but Saint-Just is obviously a more pragmatic man. No doubt it was the change in governments which led him to believe we might seriously entertain the notion of a negotiated settlement. And if that's true, then the final peace settlement would, in a way, become a monument to Duke Cromarty and your uncle, Your Majesty."
"If you ever mention my uncle to me again, I will personally push your face through the top of this table," Elizabeth told him in a flat, deadly tone, and the baron recoiled physically from her. He started to speak quickly, then stopped as an even more deadly hiss came from the treecat on her shoulder. High Ridge licked his lips, eyes locked on Ariel as the 'cat bared bone-white fangs, then swallowed heavily.
"I . . . beg your pardon, Your Majesty," he said at last, into the stunned silence. "I meant no disrespect to your I mean, I was merely attempting to say that the changes on both sides of the battle line, however regrettable some may have been, may also have created a climate in which genuine negotiations and an end to the fighting have become possible. And as Countess New Kiev says, we have a moral responsibility to explore any avenue which can end the enormous loss of life and property this war has entailed."
Elizabeth looked at him contemptuously, but then she closed her eyes and made herself sit once more. Her temper. Her damnable temper. If she had any hope at all of stopping this insanity it was to convince at least a minority of High Ridge's colleagues to support her, and temper tantrums weren't going to do that.
"My Lord," she said finally, her voice almost back to normal, "the point is that there hasn't actually been a change on their side of the line. Didn't you listen to anything Amos Parnell said? Pierre and Saint-Just have been the moving force behind everything that's happened in the PRH since they murdered President Harris and his entire government. This man is a butcherthe butcher of the People's Republic. He doesn't care how many people die; all he cares about is winning and the power of the state. His state. Which means any 'peace proposal' he might extend is no more than a ploy, a trick to buy time while he tries desperately to recover from a hopeless military position. And if we agree to negotiate, we give him that time!"
"I considered that possibility, Your Majesty." High Ridge was still a bit green around the gills, and his forehead was damp with sweat, but he, too, made a deliberate effort to speak normally. "In fact, I discussed it with Admiral Janacek."
He nodded to the new First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Edward Janacek, and the civilian head of the Navy straightened in his chair.
"I've considered the military position in some detail, Your Majesty," he said with the patronizing air of a professional, although he'd last held a spacegoing command over thirty years before. "It's certainly possible that Saint-Just's motive is, in part, at least, to buy a military breathing space. But it won't do him any good. Our qualitative edge is too overwhelming. Nothing they have can stand up to the new systems developed from Admiral Hemphill's work." He beamed, and Elizabeth ground her teeth together. Sonja Hemphill was Janacek's cousin . . . and the First Lord acted as if all of her ideas had come from him in the first place.
"Certainly they haven't been able to stand up to Earl White Haven so far," Elizabeth conceded, enjoying Janacek's wince at the name "White Haven." The enmity between the two admirals went back decades, and it was as bitter as it was implacable. "But who's to say what they can come up with if we give them time to catch their breath and think about it?"
"Your Majesty, this is my area of expertise," Janacek told her. "Our new systems are the product of years of intensive R&D by research people incomparably better trained and equipped than anything in the People's Republic. There's no way they could possibly be duplicated by the PRH in less than four or five T-years. Surely that should be enough time for us to either conclude a reasonable peace settlement or else prove Saint-Just has no intention of negotiating seriously! And in the meantime, I assure you, the Navy will watch them like hawks for any sign of future threats."
"You see, Your Majesty?" High Ridge cut in smoothly. "The risks from our side are minor, but the potential gain, an end to a financially ruinous and bloody war against an opponent whose worlds we have no desire to conquer, is enormous. As Countess New Kiev says, it's time we gave peace a chance."
Elizabeth looked back at him silently, then let her eyes sweep the conference table. One or two people looked away; most returned her gaze with greater or lesser degrees of confidence . . . or defiance.
"And if our Allies disagree with you, My Lord?" she asked finally.
"That would be regrettable, Your Majesty," High Ridge acknowledged, but then he smiled thinly. "Still, it's the Star Kingdom which has footed by far the greatest share of the bill for this war, both economically and in terms of lives lost. We have a right to explore any avenue which might end the conflict."
"Even unilaterally and without our treaty partners' approval," Elizabeth said.
"I've examined the relevant treaties carefully, Your Majesty," High Ridge assured her. "They contain no specific bar to unilateral negotiations between any of the signatories and the People's Republic."
"Perhaps because it never occurred to the negotiators who put those treaties together that any of their allies would so completely and cold-bloodedly betray them," Elizabeth suggested conversationally, and watched High Ridge flush.
"That's one way to look at it, Your Majesty," he said. "Another way is to point out that if we succeed in negotiating peace between the Star Kingdom and the People's Republic, peace between the PRH and our allies must also follow. In which case it is not a betrayal, but rather accomplishes the true goal of those treaties: peace, secure borders, and an end to the military threat of the People's Republic."
He had an answer for everything, Elizabeth realized, and she didn't need any signs from Ariel to know that virtually every member of the Cabinet agreed with him. And, she admitted with bitter honesty, her own attitude hadn't helped. She should have kept her mouth shut, controlled her temper, and bided her time; instead, she'd come out into the open too soon. Every one of High Ridge's fellow cabinet members knew she'd become their mortal enemy, and it had produced an effect she hadn't anticipated. The threat she posed to themthe vengeance they all knew she would take as soon as the opportunity offeredhad driven them closer together. The natural differences which ought to have been driving them apart had been submerged in the need to respond to the greater danger she represented, and there was no way any of them would break lockstep with the others to support her against High Ridge, New Kiev, and Descroix. And without a single ally within the Cabinet, not even the Queen of Manticore could reject the united policy recommendations of her Prime Minister, her Foreign Secretary, her Home Secretary, and the First Lord of the Admiralty.
"Very well, My Lord," she made herself say. "We'll try it your way. And I hope, for all our sakes, that you're right and I'm wrong."
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