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Chapter Fifty-Six

"You can't be serious!" Baron Grantville blurted, looking incredulously at his sister-in-law.

"Yes, I certainly can be, Willie," Honor replied, with just a hint of a chill in her tone. "I'm not exactly in the habit of making jokes about things like this, you know."

The Prime Minister colored, and shook his head apologetically.

"Sorry. It's just that to be bringing this up at this late date, and with no evidence to support the theory. . . ."

He let his voice trail off, and Honor reached up and stroked Nimitz's ears while she looked at Grantville levelly. She could hardly pretend his attitude was a surprise, but she'd given her word. Besides, she'd cherished profound doubts of her own about this war from the outset. Not that she'd really expected to magically change his mind about it.

Perhaps that was the real reason she'd asked to meet with him privately, she thought. Even a profoundly unhappy Spencer Hawke had been excluded from the meeting. He and Sergeant Clifford McGraw stood flanking the other side of the conference room door, and she'd sensed Grantville's surprise—and apprehension—when she left them there.

On the other hand, he hadn't been as surprised as he might have been. Despite the example of the High Ridge Government, a total idiot didn't normally become Prime Minister of Manticore, and Honor was officially back on Manticore for a final meeting at Admiralty House before launching Operation Sanskrit. A request by a fleet commander for a direct, unscheduled personal meeting with the Prime Minister under those circumstances was, to say the very least, unusual.

"Willie," she said after a moment, "you and I have disagreed about the fundamental nature of the current Havenite régime from the beginning. That means we've both got mental baggage at this point, and I don't want to lock horns with you on this issue. First, because you're the Prime Minister, not me. Second, because I'm a serving officer, and Queen's officers take the orders of their civilian superiors. And third, frankly, because the fact that Hamish and I are married now puts me in an uncomfortable position when I'm arguing not simply with the Prime Minister, but with my brother-in-law.

"Despite that, I truly believe you need to reconsider the position of Her Majesty's Government on this particular issue. Anton Zilwicki's in a far better position than anyone here in the Star Kingdom to know whether or not there was direct Havenite involvement in the attempt to kill his daughter. He still has contacts in the area which we've lost, he's intimately familiar with the situation on Torch itself, and he has a direct relationship with a fairly senior Havenite spy. You know this man's reputation, what he's already accomplished. And you know he's going to be highly suspicious of anyone who explains to him that they didn't have anything to do with the attempt to murder his daughter, so would he kindly not shoot them on sight. Or do I have to remind you what happened on Old Earth when his older daughter was kidnapped?"

Grantville made a face. Not of disagreement, so much as of painful memory. The Manpower Scandal had splattered on the previous Prime Minister, for whom Grantville had never had anything but contempt, but the fallout had still been extreme . . . and Anton Zilwicki could not have cared less. The entire government could have fallen, and he still wouldn't have cared—just as he hadn't cared if he himself ended up in prison for his actions. The father who'd orchestrated that particular exercise in mayhem was unlikely to take the events on Torch lightly.

"No, you don't have to remind me," he said. "For that matter, you don't have to remind me what happened to the mercenaries who tried to kill Catherine Montaigne when they tangled with Zilwicki. I'll happily concede the man's competence and the fact that he's dangerous. I'll even concede that he has the ear of the Queen—or, at least, of her niece—where certain questions are concerned.

"But what you're asking me to believe now is that some hypothetical third party is responsible for what happened on Torch. And, probably, for murdering Jim Webster. For that matter, probably for trying to kill you, since the technique was so similar in all three cases. And whenever you ask me to believe that, I come back again and again to the question of who had the most motive? And, for that matter, who has an established national track record of employing assassination as a routine technique?"

"I realize that," Honor said patiently. "But anyone with the proper resources can stage an assassination, and everyone has to know the Star Kingdom's had painful experience with previous Havenite régimes' use of assassination. So just what would you have done differently if you were a 'hypothetical third party' and wanted us to automatically assume the Havenites were attempting to sabotage their own peace conference?"

"Nothing," Grantville conceded after a moment. He leaned back in his chair, regarding Honor intently. "On the other hand, Honor, I've known you a long time. There's more to this than just Zilwicki's unsupported word, isn't there?"

Honor returned his gaze, and he chuckled harshly.

"You've gotten much better at high-stakes politics, but you still have to work on maintaining your expression of total candor while you conceal your hole cards."

"There is more to it," she admitted. "I didn't bring it up because I was pretty sure it wouldn't do your blood pressure any good if I did. Are you sure you want to hear about what I've been up to?"

"As my sister-in-law, or as a Queen's officer?" he asked bit warily.

"Either—both," she said with a crooked smile.

"If it's that bad, you'd better go ahead and tell me," he said, bracing himself visibly.

"Anton Zilwicki didn't come to visit me by himself," she said. "He brought a Mr. Cachat with him."

"Cachat," Grantville repeated. It was apparent the name was ringing bells, but that he hadn't quite put his mental hand on the memory.

"Victor Cachat," Honor said helpfully. "As in the same Victor Cachat who engineered the entire Torch gambit in the first place."

"A Peep spy?" If Grantville's expression had been incredulous before, it was dumbfounded now. "You had a Peep spy aboard your flagship?"

"Not just any old spy." Honor couldn't help it. Despite the anger beginning to bubble under the shock in Grantville's mind-glow, she felt a certain manic glee in the admission. "As a matter of fact, he's now the Havenite chief of station for their entire Erewhon-based intelligence net."

The Prime Minister stared at her. Then he shook himself.

"This isn't funny," he said coldly. "It's entirely possible someone could make a case for treason out of what you've just admitted to me."

"How?" she challenged.

"You had a known senior secret agent of a star nation with whom we're at war aboard your flagship in a restricted military area, and from what you're saying, I feel quite confident he's not still there in a cell. Is he?"

"No, he isn't," she said, meeting his cold anger with a hard eye.

"And just what information did you allow him to take away from this completely unauthorized meeting, Admiral?"

"None he didn't bring with him."

"And you're prepared to prove that before a court-martial, if necessary?"

"No, Prime Minister, I'm not," she said in a voice of matching ice. "If my word isn't sufficient for you, then file charges and be damned to you."

Grantville's nostrils flared, but then he closed his eyes. His right hand clenched into a fist where it lay on the table before him, and Honor tasted the enormous effort he made to pull his icy fury back under control.

Interesting, she thought. So Willie has the Alexander temper, too. 

"Your word is good enough for me," he said finally, opening his eyes once more, "but it may not be good enough for everyone if word of this . . . meeting ever gets out. My God, Honor! What were you thinking of?"

"I was thinking of the fact that a man who'd never met me was willing to come aboard my ship, knowing exactly what could happen to him. That he came with a suicide device in his pocket, which he was fully prepared to use. That, in fact, he expected to use it, and he came anyway. And that he told me the truth, Willie. You know I know that everything I just told you is true."

His eyes narrowed, because he did know.

"You say he expected to use his suicide device," the Prime Minister said after a moment, and she nodded. "Then I presume you also know—or think you do—why he was willing to come anyway?"

"Because he's a patriot," Honor said simply. "He's probably one of the most dangerous men I've ever met, and not just because of how competent he is, either. But the bottom line is that he takes his beliefs and responsibilities seriously. He knows the attempt to kill Berry and Ruth didn't go through his operatives, nor did he pick up on any effort by someone in Nouveau Paris to do an end run around him. And now that I've met the man, I don't doubt for a moment that he has his entire area of responsibility so tightly wired he would have known if something like that had happened. So since he knows he didn't do it, and he's virtually certain no one else in the Havenite government did it, he has to assume whoever did do it did it for reasons inimical to the Republic of Haven's foreign-policy and security. So he put his life on the line, in the full expectation that he was going to lose it, to tell us. Not because he loves us, but because he's trying to protect his own star nation. Because he believes his President is trying to stop a war and someone else is trying to sabotage her effort."

"And you . . . know," Grantville waved one hand, "all of this is true?"

"I know he wasn't lying to me, and that everything he told me was the complete truth in so far as he knows the truth. Of course it's possible he's wrong. Even the best intelligence people screw up. But what he told me was the best information he had."

"I see."

Grantville rocked his chair slightly back and forth, his brain working hard while he gazed at her.

"Have you discussed this with Hamish?" he asked after a moment.

"No." Honor looked away. "I wanted to. But, as I said, the fact that I'm married to him puts me in a peculiar position. I . . . chose not to involve him."

"You chose not to involve him because you didn't want anything to splash on him if this little meeting blew up in your face as spectacularly as it could have. That's what you mean, isn't it?"

"Maybe. To some extent. But also because it's almost impossible for our personal relationship not to have an impact on any conversation or debate we have. To be perfectly honest," she looked back at Grantville, "I didn't want to take the chance he might agree with me simply because it was me saying it."

"But you were willing to take the chance with me?" Grantville asked, with a flicker of returning humor.

"I had no choice where you were concerned," she said with another crooked smile. "It was talk to you, or go direct to Elizabeth. And, frankly, I'm not at all sure how she would have reacted."

"Poorly." Grantville's voice was bleak. "I don't believe I've ever seen her this furious. Whether it was the Peeps or someone who simply wanted us to believe it was, she's out for blood. And the hell of it, Honor, is that even if every single thing Cachat told you was the truth—so far as he knows, as you yourself said—I agree with her."

"Even if Haven had nothing to do with any of the assassinations and assassination attempts?" she asked quietly.

"If I could be certain they hadn't, I might feel differently. But I can't be. All I can know for certain is that one man who ought to know is convinced they didn't. But he's got to have a huge vested interest, whether he realizes it or not, in believing the best about his own government. I'll accept that he has no evidence this was a Peep operation. But if I recall my briefings on what happened in Erewhon and Congo accurately, his superiors might have had a very good reason to keep him out of the loop on something like this, considering who would probably have been among the victims. Am I wrong?"

"No," she admitted.

"So what am I supposed to do, Honor? We're in the middle of a war, we've already announced we're resuming operations, the Peeps have probably already resumed operations on the basis of our note, and the fact that Cachat didn't have anything to do with the attempt to kill Berry and Ruth doesn't prove someone else from Haven didn't."

He shook his head slowly, his expression sad.

"I'd like to believe you're right. I want to believe you are. But I can't make my decisions, formulate the Star Kingdom's policy, based on what I'd like to believe. I believe you military people are familiar with the need to formulate plans based on the worst-case scenario. I'm in the same position. I can't dislocate our entire strategy on the basis of what Zilwicki and Cachat believe to be true. If they had one single scrap of hard evidence, that might not be so. But they don't, and it is."

Honor tasted his honesty . . . and also the impossibility of changing his mind.

"I'm sorry to hear that," she said. "I think they're right, at least about whether or not what's happened represents the official policy of the Pritchart Administration."

"I realize that," Grantville said, and looked into her eyes. "And because I know you genuinely feel that way, I have to ask you. Are you still prepared to carry out your orders, Admiral Alexander-Harrington?"

She looked back, hovering on the brink of the unthinkable. If she said no, if she refused to carry out the operation and resigned her commission in protest, it would almost certainly blow the entire question wide open. The consequences for her personally, and for her husband and wife, would be . . . severe, at least in the short term. Her relationship with Elizabeth might well be permanently and irreparably damaged. Her career, in Manticoran service, at least, would probably be over. Yet all of that would be acceptable—a small price, actually—if it ended the war.

But it wouldn't. Grantville had put his finger squarely on the one insurmountable weakness: the lack of proof. All she had was the testimony of two men, in private conversation. At best, anything she said about what they'd told her would be hearsay, and there was simply no way she could expect anyone outside her immediate circle to understand—or believe—why she knew they'd told her the truth.

So the war would continue, whatever she did, and her own actions would have removed her from any opportunity of influencing its conduct or its outcome. That would be a violation of her responsibility to the men and women of Eighth Fleet, to her Star Kingdom. Wars weren't always fought for the right reasons, but they were fought anyway, and the consequences to the people fighting them and to their star nations were the same, whatever the reasons. And she was a Queen's officer. She'd taken an oath to stand between the Star Kingdom and its enemies, why ever they were enemies. If the Star Kingdom she loved was going back into a battle in which so many others who'd taken that oath would die, she couldn't simply abandon them and stand aside. No, she had no choice but to stand beside them and face the same tempest.

"Yes," she said quietly, her voice sad but without hesitation or reservation. "I'm prepared to execute my orders, Willie."


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