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Queen's Gambit


Jane Lindskold

Coming out of a perfect double spiral flip high over the blue sands of the Indigo Salt Flats, Roger glanced over to see what Angelique thought of his performance. Gracefully poised on her own grav ski, dark hair whipping behind her in the wind, his wife and queen raised her hand in salute before executing the maneuver herself.

Her time was a trifle slower, but her control even better. Roger chuckled to himself. The judges—if there had been any—would have given the round to her.

"Ready for a quad, Angel?" he asked her over their com link.

"Why not?" she replied, her laughter rich. "I can't recall when the conditions have been so perfect."

"You go first," he answered.

"So you can study my technique?" She laughed again. "As Your Majesty commands."

Her quadruple spiral flip ended with a little flirt that could almost have been counted as another half turn.

King Roger III of Manticore hand signaled his appreciation for her technique, then checked his readouts. If he was to win this round in their private competition, he needed every advantage to be taken from the slight wind and the thermal updrafts.

When he judged conditions to be as close to ideal as possible, he glided up into the first spiral. Perfect!

The second went as smoothly, the third without a hitch. He was moving into the fourth, concentrating on gaining the velocity to imitate Angelique's flourish at the end, when he felt the ski jump under his feet.

He was far too experienced in the vagaries of the grav ski to believe that he had imagined the sensation. Temptation to ride the jolts out arose—although he had never competed publicly, he knew that he was among the best grav skiers in the Star Kingdom. But he also knew too well that his kingdom would be thrust into turmoil if anything happened to him.

Almost as swiftly as temptation rose and was rejected, his left hand was reaching for the tab that would release him from the grav ski and onto the stand-by grav pack. Another jolt, this one a buck that must be visible from the ground, shook his hand from the tab.

Over the com Angelique said, "I'm closing to help, Roger."

"I'm holding, love," he responded, continuing to fumble for the release.

Then impossibly, the grav ski failed completely. The velocity he had brought into his last spiral now turned against him, ripping his hands away from the release tab.

Below him the salt sands glittered bright, hard, and utterly unforgiving. He died with the sound of his wife's scream in his ears and the sensation of a distant heart breaking from grief.


Elizabeth III, Queen of Manticore, stood with her fiancé, Justin Zyrr, in the small ante-chamber into which they had retreated after viewing the holo-video of Roger III's death.

After the first play through thirteen year-old Prince Michael had bolted from the room, sobbing wildly. His relationship with his father had been affectionate enough, but recently acrimony over Roger's insistence that the boy enter the Navy had colored their meetings. Now those disagreements would never be resolved.

Normally, Justin would have worried about the boy, but he had no attention to spare from the tall, slim young woman who stood like a statue carved of mahogany, her features eloquently displaying her grief. Physically, they were not much alike.

She was dark of skin, hair, and eyes. Blond and blue-eyed, he was day to her night—a fact that the news services had happily seized upon and turned into iconography. At twenty-eight, he was the elder by a decade, taller, broad of shoulder and chest, but with a long, lean build. His posture was vaguely military, a remnant of his single term in the Army.

Gradually, Elizabeth's expression changed, resolution sculpting the grief into something firm and purposeful.

"I just don't believe it was an accident," she said, her first words since they had entered the room.

Justin gathered her into his arms, felt some relief as she relaxed within his embrace. It would have been almost too much if she had rejected the small comfort he could give her.

"Accidents do happen . . ." he began.

"I know they do," Elizabeth interrupted, "even to members of the House of Winton. Edward the First died in a boating accident. His sister succeeded him. Her name was Elizabeth, just like mine."

Her laughter held a ragged, almost hysterical note.

"Maybe it's bad luck to have an heir named Elizabeth," she continued. "Make a note of that, would you, my dear?"

Her treecat, Ariel, who had been sitting on a tabletop observing the conversation, gave a reproving "bleek." The Queen glanced at the 'cat, then pulled back within the circle of Justin's arms to look up at him.

Her eyes, dark brown behind velvety black lashes, were wet with the tears she would not shed in public—not when her bravery was needed to reassure both her little brother and her many subjects.

There had been little enough time for tears in the scant hours since King Roger's death. Directly following the verification that the King's accident had been fatal, she had been summoned from her Introductory Manticoran History class at the University and taken to a small student lounge. There, amid much-used furniture and vending machines, she had learned of her father's death, taken the Monarch's Oath, and accepted the loyalty oaths of the Speakers of both Houses of Parliament.

From the student lounge she had been whisked into a press conference where—pushing away the prepared statement—she had spoken of the King eloquently and from her heart.

Roger III had been a popular monarch; his sudden death hit his people hard. As the first monarch to receive the prolong treatments, his people's unspoken expectation had been that he would rule for decades to come, his wisdom guiding the Star Kingdom of Manticore into the increasingly complex politics of its fifth century.

"Ariel seems to think I'm being too rough on you," Elizabeth said, softly, through her tears. "I'm sorry, Justin."

"Apology accepted," he said. "You've been through too much recently. I don't expect you not to snap."

"But I do," she said firmly. "I am the Queen. I'm afraid I'm not permitted to snap. Not even at my fiancé—perhaps especially not at my fiancé. You shouldn't be the whipping boy for the rest of the Star Kingdom."

Justin laughed. "I'd like to say something gracious like: 'Yet if your Majesty needs me as her whipping boy, I would be pleased to serve her in that fashion.' Honesty forces me to admit that I wouldn't like that role very much."

"But will you serve me?" Elizabeth asked seriously.

"Either you personally or as my Queen," he replied promptly.

He might not be as empathic as a treecat, but he could sense that Elizabeth's mood had shifted. When she pulled from his arms, it was not in rejection, but because she needed to pace. Sitting in a chair near Ariel's table, he watched her slim form cross and recross the room, waiting while she composed her thoughts.

"Justin, I don't believe my father's death was an accident." She paused, held up a hand for silence. "Most of us prefer to think otherwise, but assassination hasn't been a stranger to the House of Winton. Remember, there was an attempt on Queen Adrienne's life while she was still Heir, and William the First was actually assassinated by a psychotic."

"But by a psychotic," Justin protested. "Your father died in a grav skiing accident. We both saw the tapes. Grav units can go bad. Not often, but it does happen."

Elizabeth began pacing again. "Maybe so, but aside from the fact that my father's security guards always carefully inspected any vehicle he used, I have another reason to believe his 'accident' was anything but an accident."

"What reason?"

"I gave him a brand new ski for his birthday. When I went into his suite to chat with him before he and Mother left for this jaunt, he made a point of mentioning that he was taking my gift with him. I even saw that his valet had laid the gear out to be packed."


"Now, I only saw the accident on holo-video," Elizabeth said slowly, "but I'm almost certain the ski he was wearing in that accident was not the one I gave him."

"He could have changed his mind," Justin protested. "His security staff might not have passed the ski for use. Or you might not have seen clearly when you were watching the holo. The speeds involved were rather fast."

Justin forbore from adding that her eyes had been misty as she watched the replay of her father's last moments.

"I know all that," Elizabeth answered regally, "but I still have my doubts. That's why I asked you if you'd serve me. I need you to investigate my father's last hours. If he wore a different ski, I want to know why. If he didn't, I want to know if the one he wore was properly inspected. I want to know everything."

There was no trace of tears in the dark eyes now. She was every inch a queen. Even if Justin hadn't loved her, he would have been commanded by her royal aura. When he nodded his assent, she took both his hands in hers.

"Thank you, Justin. I can't do this myself. I'm going to have too many eyes on me, too many issues to face. I can't even trust my own security staff. If the ski was somehow tampered with, one of them may have had a hand in it. You, I can trust."


Elizabeth smiled at him, glanced over to where Ariel was purring rather smugly. "I know."

"Shall I leave now?" he said, pretending to take offense at her reliance on the treecat's opinion.

"Stay a bit." Elizabeth sighed. "I expect that soon enough someone is going to come along wanting to discuss the politics of the succession."

Justin pulled Elizabeth into his lap. Ariel, deciding that this was a good thing, piled into Elizabeth's lap and began purring noisily, kneading with his true-hands.

"Politics?" Justin said. "What politics? You're Queen. Michael will be your heir. Right?"

"Only to a point." Elizabeth rubbed her hands over her eyes. "By Manticoran law, I must have a regent until I'm twenty-one T-years. Since I'm past my sixteenth birthday, they can't foist just anyone on me. I nominate my regent; Parliament confirms or rejects my choice. We do this until we're both happy. I suspect it could be an ugly time."

She sat in thoughtful silence for a moment, then, twisting in his lap to face him, she twinkled.

"Then there will be the question of our marriage."

Justin felt a sudden, cold fear that somehow Elizabeth would be taken from him. They had been engaged with King Roger and Queen Angelique's full approval since soon after Elizabeth's seventeenth birthday. Could Parliament force Elizabeth to break the engagement, choose another spouse?

"Question?" he squeaked.

This time Ariel's reproving bleek was for both of them—Justin for doubting Elizabeth, and Elizabeth for her choice of a joke. The treecat rose and patted Justin on the side of his face, his other true-hand resting on Elizabeth's shoulder.

"I shouldn't tease," Elizabeth admitted ruefully. "Justin, no one can make me break my engagement with you. I don't even expect it to be questioned. However, the line of succession has just grown shorter by one. Originally, we planned to marry after I turned twenty-one, right?"

"Right," he answered, his voice back to normal.

"Now I expect there will be some pressure for us to marry sooner."

"I don't have a problem with that."

"Nor I, particularly," she said, "but there will be those who do. Some will think a proper mourning period should be observed. Others will worry that the distractions of a wedding, a husband, pressure to produce an heir, will distract me from my duties as Queen."

"So they'll want you to wait."

"Exactly. After all, there are the cadet branches of the House. My Aunt Caitrin and her children can carry on if something happens both to me and to Michael before I have children of my own. . . ."

Her voice trailed off. Small and forlorn, she leaned her head back against his shoulder, tears trailing down her face.

"Justin, I don't want to think about it!"

"Then don't," Justin suggested, "for right now. Don't think about anything at all."

When he hugged her, he wasn't at all certain that the purring was coming only from the treecat.


A tentative rap at the door to the antechamber interrupted their cuddling. Elizabeth rose from Justin's lap, brushed a hand over her hair, and spoke in a calm, level voice:


The door opened and a member of the uniformed Palace Guard Service entered and saluted.

"Your Majesty, Crown Prince Michael wonders if you would grant him a moment of your time."

Justin raised an eyebrow. Already things were changing. Yesterday . . . this morning even, the guard would have simply smiled, given minimal warning, and let Michael charge in. Today . . . now . . . until new protocols were established, Elizabeth must be treated with all the deference and protection due to her august rank.

Not seeming to notice the change in procedure, Elizabeth nodded. "Thank you, Taki. Ask him to come in."

Crown Prince Michael, Heir to the House of Winton, was widely acknowledged as a handsome boy. Despite the beginning growth spurts that were adding inches to his height, he seemed to be escaping the weedy stage of adolescence. Even at thirteen, he resembled his athletic father.

At this moment, however, not even his own mother would have called him handsome. His eyes were red and his brown skin grubby with tear streaks. He looked at his sister.

"Do I have to bow or something now?"

"Did you to Dad?" she asked calmly.

"Only on court occasions."

"Well then, what do you think?" Elizabeth said reasonably. "Don't be pig-headed, Mikey."

The Prince winced at the nickname, which recently he had decided he'd out-grown. Since "Mike" was already taken by one of their cousins, he'd started insisting on "Michael."

Elizabeth knew her brother perfectly well and grinned. "You don't need to remind me what to call you, Michael."

Justin rose from his chair.

"I think you two need some time alone." He kissed Elizabeth lightly on one cheek and patted Michael on the shoulder. "I'll be in my quarters if you need me. Otherwise, I'll see you at dinner."

The soon-to-be Prince Consort left without further pause. Michael watched the tall, blond man go.

"He's nice," he said, almost grudgingly. "Are you still going to marry him?"

Elizabeth looked surprised. "Of course. No one could stop me. Why do you ask?"

Michael walked to the table, patted Ariel, and flung himself onto the chair Justin had just vacated. Wrapping his arms around the back, his chin pillowed on the headrest, he looked vastly uncomfortable. Only years of watching him choose similarly contorted poses reassured his sister that he was not purposefully tormenting himself.

"I guess," he said, finally answering her question, "I wondered because Dad liked him so much. I thought he might have pushed him at you."

"Like he was pushing you into the Navy?" Elizabeth asked, easily following her brother's train of thought.


"No, marrying Justin was all my idea. From the time I first met him, I realized he was special. Fortunately, Mom and Dad agreed. All they asked was that I finish college and reach my majority before we married."

Michael swiveled the seat of the chair and looked up at her.

"Are you going to have to go back to the University now that you're Queen?"

Elizabeth squarely met brown eyes so like her father's that her heart caught in her chest and her own eyes were hot with sudden tears.

"Don't you really mean 'Am I going to have to go back to military school now that I'm Crown Prince?' "


Elizabeth shrugged. "That's up to Mom, isn't it? I'm certain I'll be consulted, as will the new Regent's Council, but I'd guess that Mom's word will win out. Crown Prince or not, you're still her son and the Navy is a very acceptable profession for a prince. If you want to do something else, you should start by talking with her."

Michael didn't so much get up from his seat, as erupt, leaving the chair rocking on its heavy base. Fists clenched, eyes suddenly streaming tears, he faced an adversary neither of them could see.

"I . . . I don't know what I want!"

He bent his head, too proud in his young manhood to ask for the hug he so obviously wanted. Elizabeth embraced him.

"Oh, Mikey, Mikey. . . ."

This time the Prince didn't correct her, just gripped his arms around her waist and bawled into the shelter of her body.

"Beth . . . Beth . . . We . . ." He sniffed, brought the words out more clearly. "We fought before he went away. Dad wasn't happy with my quarter report—said that I wouldn't get into the Academy with those grades, Prince or not. I told him I didn't care. . . ."

Sobbing engulfed him. Elizabeth squeezed her little brother, wishing she could radiate comfort to him as Ariel did to her. The treecat caught her distress at the boy's unhappiness.

Elizabeth might be Ariel's human, but he was fond of her brother. Jumping from the table, the 'cat set his true-hands against Michael's leg and purred loudly.

Eventually, Michael's tears stopped. Releasing him, Elizabeth wiped away tears of her own.

"I . . . I'm going to miss Dad, Beth," the boy managed. "How can you be so brave? Aren't you scared about being Queen?"

"Yes," she admitted, "but I have you and Ariel and Justin and Mom and lots of other people to help me. I only wish I didn't need to be Queen quite yet. I wish Dad . . ."

A sob rose hot and thick in her throat. She felt Ariel's soothing mental caress, although the 'cat's true-hands still rested against Michael's leg. With the 'cat's support, she managed to choke back the sob.

"I wish things were different. I wish that we could follow the plan we designed—college first, then some on-the-job training. Now I don't have a choice."

"And I still do." Michael looked at her, the beginnings of a mature resolve forming beneath the tear streaks. "Thanks, Beth. You've been a lot of help."

"Good." She reached out and squeezed his shoulder. "There's still time before dinner. Let's go upstairs. The next week is going to be filled with the coronation, the viewing and the funeral, along with all sorts of public receptions. This may be our last chance for a bit of peace."

"After you, Your Majesty," Michael said, with a deep bow and a flourish of his hand.

The Queen giggled and, scooping up Ariel, preceded the Crown Prince from the room.


In the Crown Chancery of Mount Royal Palace a very exclusive council met. They numbered five: Queen Mother Angelique, the Duke of Cromarty, Duchess Caitrin Winton-Henke, Dame Eliska Paderweski, and Lord Jacob Wundt.

One was wife, another sister to the late King; the remaining three had been his close associates, both professionally and personally. Only one thing could have drawn them together at a time when each longed only for privacy to mourn, to compose thoughts and lives torn asunder by the King's sudden death: their loyalty to the King and his ideals . . . and to the abstraction that was the Star Kingdom of Manticore.

That did not mean their sorrow didn't show. It sat at the table with them like a sixth member of their party, one they did not mention but whose presence they all felt. And King Roger, though his body even now was being autopsied and prepared for public viewing, made an almost tangible seventh.

"Coffee, Allen?" Dame Eliska pushed the carafe across the table's polished wooden surface.

The Duke, slim and elegant, his hair showing silver that had not been there when he began his tenure as Prime Minister, shook his head. "I don't dare. My stomach is roiling."

"Tsk, tsk, Allen," the Queen Mother said, her teasing tone almost convincing. "Prime Ministers should never admit to possessing either upset stomachs or nerves."

"I'll remember that," Cromarty promised. "Still, I haven't been Prime Minister very long. Given current events and the inevitable challenges my majority is going to face, I almost wish another party would take over."

"Pshaw," was the Queen Mother's only response.

"You've been Prime Minister longer than poor Elizabeth has been Queen," reminded Lord Wundt. "Poor, poor child. What a terrible burden she must bear."

"My 'poor, poor child,' " Angelique said almost tartly, "is now your reigning Queen. Such comments forget the dignity of her office."

Jacob Wundt had been the Lord Chamberlain for the House of Winton since the middle of Samantha II's reign. Whip-thin, tall, and balding, he had seen Samantha succeeded by Roger and now would see Roger succeeded by Elizabeth. It was his quiet, sincere desire that he not see the throne change hands yet again.

His position, privy to the workings of the Royal Family yet not one of it, granted him patience with the Queen Mother.

"Of course, Your Majesty," he said softly. "I stand corrected."

It was Caitrin Winton-Henke who looked sharply at her sister-in-law.

"Angelique! Your grief is no excuse to forget yourself. Jacob said nothing more than what each of us is already thinking."

Angelique Winton would not have accepted a reprimand from anyone else, but Roger's beloved sister had always been friend and confidante to the impoverished commoner who had found herself elevated to Queen.

"Jacob," she said, turning to face the Lord Chamberlain, "I apologize."

Knowing the Queen's pride and temper (a temper Elizabeth had inherited in full) better than most, Wundt accepted her apology with a smile.

"We're all weary, Your Majesty, and likely to be more so before the next several days have passed."

"And Elizabeth will be the most weary of all," Winton-Henke added. "Thank goodness she has Ariel to support her."

Eliska Paderweski cleared her throat. "And if we are to support her to the best of our abilities we must get on to the business at hand."

Dame Eliska's first ambition had been to serve as a Manticoran Marine but, on medical leave following injuries received during an action against a Silesian pirate base, she had discovered a talent for handling people and paperwork. This, coupled with the ferocity of her Marine training, had made her an ideal member of the Palace administration. Over time, she had risen to serve Roger in the coveted role of Chief of Staff.

"I don't wish to sound callous," Paderweski continued, "but I've already received numerous requests for interviews with Queen Elizabeth. I refuse to push her, but an official statement from the Palace would be helpful. Until a formal Council of Regents is appointed, this group must make a few temporary policy decisions."

"And," Cromarty added, "when Parliament convenes its special session tomorrow morning before the formal Coronation, I should have some idea of what the royal pleasure will be."

Duchess Caitrin Winton-Henke lifted a hand for attention. "Why hasn't Elizabeth been asked to join us?"

"I wanted to give her some time to recover from viewing the holo of the accident." The Queen Mother's voice broke on the last word. "She watched it three times and, despite Ariel's support, she was very upset. I thought it would be easier for her if she had an opportunity to rest."

"Perhaps." Caitrin Winton-Henke tilted her head in a mannerism that recalled her brother. "I'm not certain I would care to have my fate discussed without my presence."

"Discussed only," Cromarty reminded her. "We can't decide anything for her. As difficult as it may be for us to accept, the college girl of yesterday is our Queen today. We can advise, but we cannot do a jot more."

Silence filled the small room, broken only by Queen Mother Angelique reaching to refill her coffee cup.

"Then shall we proceed?" Dame Eliska said briskly. "As I see it, we have three issues in front of us: the choice of a Regent, the selection of the Regency Council, and Elizabeth's marriage."

Cromarty nodded. "If we could begin with the Regent, that would be helpful. The Regency Council, most probably, will be formed from those candidates we select."

Dame Eliska activated a note pad. "An obvious candidate is Queen Angelique; another is Duchess Winton-Henke."

No one protested her nominations. Angelique had been married to King Roger for almost thirty years, for twenty-five of which he had been King. Her astute knowledge of politics was respected within the Palace. Although, in the interest of presenting Roger as a strong, decisive monarch, she usually refrained from public statements of policy, those times that she had chosen to speak had left no one in doubt about her understanding of the important issues.

Caitrin Winton-Henke had retired somewhat from palace life after her brother had provided first Elizabeth, then Michael to separate her from the likelihood of inheriting the throne, but Samantha II had not permitted her second child to grow up in blithe ignorance of political realities. Even though she had been Crown Princess comparatively briefly, Duchess Winton-Henke took seriously the responsibilities that went with being a member of the peerage, and her husband made most of his own decisions in consultation with her.

Her title of "Duchess" might be only a life title, a reminder (along with the Winton name that she added to her husband's when she married the Earl of Gold Peak) that she was sister to the King and one that she would not pass onto her children, but those who knew her considered her a perfect example of what a duchess could be.

"Earl Gold Peak's Centrist leanings—and thus those of Duchess Winton-Henke—are widely known," Cromarty noted. "Some may protest that a Centrist Prime Minister and a Centrist Regent would deprive the Opposition of a fair opportunity to influence policy. The Queen, of course, is above mere party lines."

"True," Dame Eliska agreed. "Do you have any other suggestions?"

Cromarty toyed with his empty coffee cup. "Perhaps a member of the Crown Loyalists would do. They regularly ally themselves with the Centrists, but they're not precisely of our ranks. Their respect for the Monarchy is absolute and should make Elizabeth's dealings with her Regent easier."

"Good point," Angelique said. "Any off-the-cuff suggestions?"

"Howell, Ayre, and Dugatkin all suggest themselves," Cromarty said promptly. "Even if one of them isn't selected as Regent, I think a place on the Regency council for at least one of them would be wise."

"Remember," Caitrin reminded them all, "Elizabeth is past sixteen. She must make the nomination. I suggest we present her with this slate and let her make the final decision."

"I second that motion," Jacob Wundt said. "Elizabeth is certain to have ideas of her own. We would be foolish to waste time refining our choices further."

Dame Eliska drew a line under her list and started a new page with the heading "Marriage."

"And the Queen's marriage?" she asked.

"I suggest," the Queen Mother said, "that I issue a personal statement reaffirming my support for Elizabeth's choice in her fiancé. I cannot believe that Elizabeth will not want to marry Justin."

"True," Wundt said. "He was with her at the holo viewing earlier today."

"Timing for the marriage could be an issue," Paderweski warned. "Too quickly and she may be seen as callous. Too slowly and concern about the succession will be inevitable."

"Elizabeth's coronation is tomorrow," Wundt said. "That and the King's funeral will feed the public desire for ceremony for a time. Perhaps asking her to delay her marriage until a politically sensitive moment would be wise."

"It very well might sway the Commons," Cromarty admitted. "After Elizabeth's engagement, support for a few of King Roger's less popular policies rose there. I'm not certain a wedding would help much in the Lords beyond the Crown Royalists."

Dame Eliska drummed against the table with her stylus. "It's hard to say. I can have my staff conduct some discreet opinion polls."

"Good idea," Caitrin said. "On such a personal issue, I would prefer to present Elizabeth with more than our own conjectures."

Nods rippled around the table.

Paderweski scribbled a note, then said, "If we could take a few minutes for a distasteful subject before we adjourn, I would like to discuss protocol and arrangements for the funeral. It's been almost twenty-six T-years since the Kingdom dealt with a monarch's funeral. We're going to need to politely brief many of those who will be attending."

"I," said Queen Angelique, "have attended at least one. If I might beg to be excused?"

She pushed her chair back from the table and unshed tears glittered in her dark eyes.

"Your Majesty," Wundt said promptly, rising as well.

As one, the group rose, and Caitrin Winton-Henke looked after the retreating widow, remembering the society gossip nickname from many years before.

"Poor little beggar maid," she whispered.


In another conference room, in another part of the same city, another very exclusive council was meeting. As with the council in Mount Royal Palace, several of the members would be recognized as public figures; unlike the royal council, it was the most heartfelt wish of these councilors that their meeting never become a matter of record.

Willis Kemeny, Ninth Earl of Howell, was perhaps the most nervous of the lot. A husky man whose chocolate brown skin suggested a crossover with the House of Winton some time in the past, he was a highly placed member of the Crown Loyalist party. His name was one of those bruited about as a possible successor when old LeBrun retired as Party head.

If pushed, trim, fashionable Lady Paula Gwinner, Baroness Gwinner of Stallman, would call herself a Liberal, yet a perusal of her voting record would reveal expedience rather than allegiance to a particular political philosophy. The youngest person present—a mere twenty-eight T-years—she defended her erratic votes as a reflection of her zeal in studying each issue. Most critics when caught beneath the glare of her golden-brown eyes chose to agree rather than argue.

Neither Marvin Seltman nor Jean Marrou were members of the House of Lords, but they each had held seats in the Commons for many terms. Their attention to the issues that would influence their constituents had made them popular and fairly secure. Marrou was even developing a following outside of her own district.

The last member of the group, Major Padraic Dover, was the only one who did not hold a seat in Parliament, yet in many ways he was the one most privy to the inner workings of the Palace. A native of Gryphon, he served in the Bordeaux Battalion of the King's Own Regiment. For the last eight years, he'd served as a liasion between the regiment and the PGS.

It was Dover who raised his wine glass in an ironic toast.

"The King is dead! Long live the Queen." His voice dropped in tones equal parts menace and triumph. "Our Queen."

The fierce emotion in his voice could not escape his allies. Earl Howell frowned slightly.

"Elizabeth is not yet 'ours,' " he reprimanded primly. "True, King Roger has been dispensed with, but we have yet to complete the maneuvers that will enable us to adequately influence the young Queen."

Marvin Seltman, short, dour, ambitious, and embittered by the status quo, nodded agreement.

"But with the King dead," he said, "the field is much more open. Are those of you in the Lords ready to deal with the issue of the Regency?"

Howell and Gwinner nodded.

"We've instigated a whispering campaign in the Commons," Seltman continued. "It's difficult. Our house has always supported the monarchy strongly, but we're not really looking to undermine the monarchy—simply to suggest that a Regent who is too close kin to Queen Elizabeth won't be in a position to objectively direct her actions."

"Good," Howell said. "I've been doing the same in the Lords. The Crown Loyalist's unstinting support of the monarchy stands me in good stead there. After the special session tomorrow, I'll have a better idea of what's being planned."

"Cromarty," Padraic Dover added, "is at Mount Royal today. I doubt that the visit is purely social."

"Certainly not," Howell sniffed. "Cromarty's Centrists may have been effective toadies to his Late Majesty, but he wasn't of their social circle."

"Duchess Winton-Henke is also at Mount Royal," Dover said. "Her husband and children are due this evening."

"Winton-Henke is a likely candidate for Regent," Howell said. "If you should hear anything that can be used to undermine her . . ."

"Of course I'll pass it on," Dover said. "However, I'm more interested in learning what you're doing regarding Justin Zyrr."

"We're doing everything in our power to delay the wedding," Jean Marrou spoke for the first time.

She was a naturally quiet woman, blind from birth. Her optical nerves would not respond to regeneration therapy simply because there had never been anything to regenerate. The reason for her blindness was uncertain, but she believed, as her parents had, that her mother's exposure to a strain of Artemesian measles brought in by a Solarian League trading ship had caused the damage.

Although the Star Kingdom had long traded actively with other systems, Jean Marrou's upbringing had made her fiercely isolationist. King Roger's policies of trade and expansion made certain—as far as she could tell—that quarantine procedures would be inadequate and that other innocents would be exposed to diseases like that which had ruined her eyes.

Lovely, fair, and terrifyingly intelligent, she had responded to Marvin Seltman's gentle probes with a ferocity that had surprised him. Only her iron self-control made certain that she would not expose the plot in one of the rare evangelical fits that broke her normal composure.

What Seltman did not know, what would have terrified him if he had, was that among the equipment she habitually carried was a small computer with a visual scanner. This fed her a steady stream of information on who was present at a given gathering. It also indicated small details like who was in converse with whom. Unknowns were flagged and filed as such. Routinely, she analyzed this data and drew the conclusions that had made her a brilliant political strategist.

Marrou continued, "However, whether we delay the wedding or not will have no effect on Zyrr's position unless you can follow through with your promise to discredit him in Elizabeth's judgement. You'll also need to bring yourself to her attention in a positive fashion."

Dover nodded sharply. "I know all that. I've also known Beth since she was a girl. I'm certain I can win her over. It's just a matter of getting that interloper Zyrr out of the way."

"And then," Seltman said, spinning his wineglass between his fingers, "with one of us as Regent and another as the Queen's spouse, we'll be in the perfect position to steer the monarchy to our own ends!"


After the meeting adjourned, Marvin Seltman and Paula Gwinner departed in the same vehicle. The other members of the cabal had assumed they were having an affair—a belief they encouraged through small gestures and occasional indiscreet comments. The real reason for their closeness was coolly political.

"Your stocks have just paid a dividend," Seltman said, passing Gwinner a small portfolio.

She opened it and smiled at what it contained. Paula Gwinner had been born to a title, but the title had not come with much in the way of property. That hadn't mattered to her when she was small, but she still recalled the smarting shame she'd felt as an adolescent when she first realized that some of their social peers sniggered at her father's shabby evening clothes or her mother's increasingly out-of-fashion formal wear.

After her own disastrous debut, she had resolved that when she inherited the title, she would somehow acquire wealth as well. Careful investment of her small inheritance had been a beginning. Gradually, she had learned to hear the note in a person's voice that meant a bribe was being offered. After some study, she learned what to accept and what not to accept. Her fortune grew and, when immediate need was satisfied, she learned to crave power as well.

Marvin Seltman had first approached her in the guise of a member of the Commons courting a member of the Lords. Only after he was certain of her ambition did he take her into his confidence. Now they both served a power other than the Star Kingdom of Manticore.

"Then the news of King Roger's death has arrived in the People's Republic," she said, tucking the portfolio away.

"It has reached my contact," Seltman said, "and our next payment will come when an acceptable Regent has been announced."

"It's so nice to know Haven is as ambitious as Roger feared." Gwinner smiled as she spoke. "I only wish I were as certain of our Manticoran allies. Howell may dislike Roger's expansionism, but his Crown Loyalist training will be clamoring to the forefront in the next several days."

Seltman shrugged. "They were the best I could find. Howell's loyalty to Manticore is unquestioned and unquestionable—his prominence in the Crown Loyalists makes it so. Happily for us, he can stretch his definition of the Crown to exclude a monarch whose extra-System politics seem to threaten the status quo in Manticore."

"I wonder," Gwinner said, "if Roger ever realized how unpopular his decision to annex Basilisk would be?"

"I'm certain he realized it would have its opponents," Seltman said, "but he trusted that the aura of royal authority would help him to make his decision work—and so it has for twenty years."

"Eighteen," Gwinner corrected, "and a good thing, too. The Crown Princess was born the same year Basilisk was annexed."

"Ah, yes, the 'Duchess of Basilisk,' " Seltman sneered. "Good King Roger's way of making certain everyone knew he planned to stick to his guns."

"If Elizabeth were much older," Gwinner reminded him, "we wouldn't have the same opportunity to influence her. I only hope we haven't waited too long as it is."

"She's a college freshman," Seltman waved a dismissive hand. "Right now she's casting about for an anchor. We will provide her with one—two if we're lucky."

"Do you really think Dover will be able to discredit her fiancé and win her hand?"

Seltman shrugged. "I hope so, but it hardly matters. We needed an ally within the Palace Guard. I had despaired of finding anyone corruptible until my spies brought me word of Dover's words on the announcement of Elizabeth's engagement."

"He really had fancied her for himself?" Gwinner asked, shaking her head.

"Why shouldn't he?" Seltman replied. "The Constitution's requirement that the monarch must marry a commoner raises fantasies with every new heir. Dover's ambitions weren't totally unreasonable, and he'd plotted a career path that would take him into Elizabeth's orbit. From what he says, she even took a liking to him when she was younger."

"Apparently she outgrew those fancies," Gwinner said. "It must have infuriated Dover when she accepted a man who, superficially, isn't all that different from our Padraic."

"I agree," Seltman nodded. "Like Dover, Justin Zyrr is from Gryphon and has a military background, but unlike our good Dover, he left the Army and went into research and development."

"And met the Princess when she was on a school trip," Gwinner laughed. "Love among the test-tubes."

"Pedestrian, perhaps," Seltman said, "but her relationship with Zyrr is a fact of her life and therefore must be an element in our planning. If Dover succeeds even partially, Elizabeth loses another reliable support of her young life."

"Tell me," Gwinner said, "for all the talk in today's meeting about the need to 'discredit' Justin Zyrr, you don't expect Dover to do any such thing, do you?"

"No," said Marvin Seltman. "What I expect is that Dover will kill him."


The day after Roger III's death began with the formal coronation of Queen Elizabeth III. Following the ceremony, Justin Zyrr departed Mount Royal Palace for the Indigo Salt Flats where the King had met his death. He left openly, taking his own private air car, nor did he have a bodyguard. Only after he and Elizabeth were wed would he be followed everywhere he went.

When he arrived at his destination, he was startled to see his radar display becoming crowded with large quantities of private vehicle traffic. The PGS had never been happy that King Roger chose to practice a sport that so exposed him to danger, but at least the Indigo Salt Flats were isolated, many kilometers from any dwelling, a quality which had provided a readily sealed security perimeter. Moreover, Roger had purchased the lands with funds from his privy purse, assuring that the Flats would remain private and undeveloped.

Justin had visited the Flats a few times to ski with the King. During those visits, he had been captivated by the deep violet-blue sands rising and falling in glittering dunes. Walking on them with the King, Justin had made believe that they strolled on the surface of a deep, mysterious ocean.

He felt tears welling and dashed a single burning trace away with the back of his hand, angry at his lack of composure. If Elizabeth could be brave . . .

The beeping of the air car's com unit came as a relief. A dry, almost mechanical, voice stated:

"Vehicle, please be notified that you are approaching private lands."

"Acknowledged. Is this a private channel?"

"It is."

"I'm Justin Zyrr, Queen Elizabeth's fiancé. She asked me to come here."

There was no change of inflection in the official voice: "Climb into a holding pattern while we confirm your identity."

A stream of coordinates followed and Justin obeyed. Several minutes later, the com unit came alive again.

"You are cleared to proceed. Stop at the check station for further confirmation."


Justin homed his vehicle in on the beacon that now signaled him from deeper within the Flats. He noted the line of grav tanks marking a perimeter. Most of those trying to cross that armed line were newsies. The rest of the visitors seemed content to stop to one side of the line. A regular stream of people were going back and forth between . . .

He amplified the range on his air car's cameras.

People, young and old, men, women, and children, were filing between their parked vehicles and a makeshift shrine at the edge of the Indigo Salt Flats. The shrine itself was nothing more than a flat outcropping of rock, but it was heaped with small offerings: flowers, pictures, folded notes, personal mementos. He recognized a reproduction of the group portrait taken on his and Elizabeth's engagement, a withered tenth anniversary coronation wreath, a ceramic replica of King Roger's treecat, Monroe.

Respecting the Royal Family's grief, the people of Manticore were making an impromptu pilgrimage to the last place on the planet where their king had walked alive. No doubt when Roger was buried his tomb would become the focus for the outpouring of their sorrow, but for now his subjects journeyed to the place of his death.

Tears flooded back, hot and unrelenting, and this time, Justin let them fall, trusting the autopilot to bring him in. He wished Elizabeth were there—and even more that Roger were. Somehow, it seemed too much that the King would miss this last spontaneous tribute to his twenty-five years of rulership, to his life of service.

Justin banished his tears when his air car came in on the tidy landing strip that had been constructed for King Roger's convenience. A small cluster of buildings sprouted off to one side: guard house, private chalet, hangars. Each was built to withstand an attack on the sovereign or his guests; each, in the end had been helpless to prevent the death that had come to the King in their shadow.

As Justin stepped down from his air car, the door to the guard house opened and a man walked out to meet him. Like all members of the Royal Family's regular security detachment, he was an Army officer in the scarlet facings of the King's—no, the Queen's—Own Regiment. A tall man, with the well-muscled look of a heavy-worlder and the shoulder flash of the Copperwalls Battalion, he walked with a slight limp.

"Justin Zyrr?"


"I'm Captain Adderson." The captain spoke with the clipped accent of the Ice Gia Settlement on Sphinx. "If you'll come inside, I'll complete your ID check."

"Of course."

Justin hastened to follow Adderson into the cool shadows of the guardhouse. The captain smiled and indicated a seat near his desk. Glancing around, Justin noted that scanners that would have done a battleship proud were activated, their data translated into a holotank that, even as Adderson turned to his new task, he monitored with part of his attention.

"I saw you this morning at the coronation, Mr. Zyrr."

"Were you there?"

"No, I've been assigned to the Salt Flats Detail since my leg was broken—I don't regenerate, and the docs couldn't fix it perfectly. Most of the time the post is little more than an honorable semi-retirement, but I've been needed here today. The pilgrims have been showing up since an hour after the King's death was made public."

Adderson pressed Justin's hand to a print scanner, pricked a blood sample, and then directed him to look into a optical scanner. His tone as he continued was a trace defensive.

"Some of the Detail thought of the visitors as ghouls and I suppose some were just that—especially the newsies. Most respect the perimeter, though. They just come to weep and pray. That's why I think of them as pilgrims."

Justin nodded. "That was exactly my thought when I saw them. What did the newsies think they'd find here?"

Adderson shrugged. "I don't rightly know. The King's body has been taken away, the wreckage cleared. All that was completed within an hour of his death."

His voice softened as he spoke, so that the last words were all but inaudible.

"Were you on duty yesterday?" Justin asked.

Pretending to be busy transferring the scanner results to the personnel files gave Adderson a moment to collect himself. When he spoke again, his tones were almost normal.

"I was," he said. "And I saw what happened right in there."

Adderson gestured toward the holotank with his head. Behind him the computer pinged its acknowledgment that Justin's record agreed with the data he had just supplied.

Justin took a deep breath. He could move on now, but if Elizabeth's guess was correct and not simply the out-welling of grief, Adderson could be a valuable resource—or a potential enemy.

"Could you tell me what you recall of the King's last day—the little, personal details?"

Adderson looked suspicious. "You're not looking to sell this to the newsies, are you?"

"No, I'm not." Justin kept his instinctive resentment from his voice. "I'm asking so that I can tell Queen Elizabeth. She's just lost her father, her mother is brokenhearted, and her little brother . . ."

"Poor Prince Michael," Adderson said. "So young to have so much sorrow."

"Exactly," Justin said. "I wanted to be able to give Beth a verbal portrait of her father's last day. Something for her to hold onto during these next few days when it will be too easy to only remember him laid out for his funeral. Was he cheerful?"

Adderson nodded. "Laughing and teasing the Queen, making plans for their competition. They'd been practicing fancy maneuvers. She was nearly as good as him—better at some things."

Justin nodded, remembering the holo of the King and Queen gracefully gliding, looping through the air side by side. For a moment he entertained the terrible suspicion that Queen Angelique might have plotted to kill her husband, but he dismissed it as soon as it had formed.

"So they agreed to ski separately," Justin prompted.

"That's right," Adderson continued. "The Detail techs checked their equipment, and the King had a bit of a row with them when they refused to pass the ski he'd brought with him."

"Oh?" Justin felt his pulse quicken.

"Yes, it was a new model," Adderson said, "and they didn't like the power reading on the molycirc connecting the ski and the belt unit. The King didn't want to hear what they told him, said he couldn't believe it was malfunctioning. I think it was a new set."

Justin refrained from mentioning that the grav ski had been a gift from the new Queen. If that ever became common knowledge, Elizabeth's own honor might be in question.

"But he listened to the techs' advice?" Justin asked.

"That's right, in the end he did. He had other equipment stored here, from other jaunts, and he ended up using an older set." Adderson frowned. "For all the good it did him."

Determined to distract the captain before he could think too far into the implications of the King's accident, Justin rose.

"Has the computer cleared my identity?"

"It has indeed," Adderson said. "Unless you've altered your hand prints, eye prints, blood, and genotype, you are indeed Justin Zyrr. Do you want to tour the grounds?"

"If I might," Justin said.

"Of course you might," Adderson said. "You're as close to the Queen's husband as you might be, and this is her family's land. The records show that you've been here before."


"Then you know the basic rules." Adderson chuckled and quoted: " 'Wear a hat and dark glasses to protect you from the sun's glare, don't eat the salt, and carry water along if you expect to be out more than a short time.' "

"I have everything I need in my air car."

"Then take your walk. I'll keep a weather eye on you from here." Adderson paused as if considering, then he continued, "And you may meet another man walking about out there. He's a scrawny fellow with a fringe of white hair—pre-prolong. I didn't ask and he didn't say, but I believe he may be with the Security Ministry. The computer accepted his clearance faster even than it did your own."

"Thank you for warning me," Justin said. "I'd have been startled to meet someone out there unaware. I'll check in with you before I leave."

"Thank you, Mr. Zyrr."

Justin gathered hat, glasses, and a belt flask of water. Then he crunched down the sandy blue slope to the flats over which the King and Queen had skied just the day before.

He didn't really have much idea what Beth expected him to find. Popular wisdom still held that a criminal would be drawn to the scene of the crime, but, even if that were true, the assassin would be mingling now with the throng of pilgrims, perhaps gloating, feeding on their grief, or perhaps feeling remorse, an urge to confess . . .

No, that would be too easy. Adderson's recollection that the King's ski had indeed been changed for another set—a set that could have been sabotaged in advance—did lend some credence to Beth's theories, but then it had been the difference between the skis that had led her to become suspicious in the first place. To pursue that too closely would be merely to confirm circular logic. He needed something more.

Trudging across the blue salt sand, he wasn't at all certain he would find anything, but for Beth he would continue to look.

Using what landmarks he remembered from the holo, Justin located the general area where King Roger must have crashed. Here the glittering blue crystal sand was gouged and torn, not only from the King's fall, but from the emergency vehicles and personnel who had rushed out to him.

Hunkering down, Justin shifted some of the salt through his gloved fingers, knowing even as he did so that the effort was futile. Perhaps he should go to the morgue where the King's body was being prepared for the viewing, but what could he learn there? He was no pathologist, no forensics specialist. He was just a research engineer!

Footsteps crunching across the sand brought him from his revery. Rising and turning in one graceful motion, he faced the newcomer.

"Justin Zyrr?"

The man who extended his hand in a friendly manner was small and wiry, his features shadowed beneath the brim of a wide straw hat. Justin's general impression was of twinkling grey eyes set amid deep lines and a great floppy mustache. He took the proffered hand and shook it firmly.

"I am Justin Zyrr."

"Captain Adderson told me I might find you out here." The man's voice seemed too deep to come from such a slim chest. "I decided to make 'might' a certainty."

He paused to wipe sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand.

"I'm Daniel Chou."

"With the Security Ministry, Captain Adderson implied."

Chou grinned. "Captain Adderson must have liked you. I don't suppose I'm violating any rules by confirming your guess. After all, you will be the Prince Consort—and, more importantly, Queen Elizabeth trusts you."

Oddly, Justin felt himself coloring. There was something about the little man's brash manner that made him feel like a boy at his grandfather's knee. Given the changes of the last twenty-four hours, the feeling was not at all unpleasant.

"Shall we hoof it back to the landing strip?" Chou said. "Or do you need to do more looking about?"

Justin glared at the blue salt as if it was deliberately trying to hide the truth from him.

"I'm not certain there's anything to look for," he said.

Chou nodded. "Not here, although we had to look. We may have more luck inspecting the remains of the grav ski."

"Why should we do that?" Justin asked, reluctant to take anyone into his confidence without Elizabeth's express permission.

"For evidence," Chou answered. His grey eyes had stopped twinkling. "Evidence to prove King Roger was murdered. Certainly you don't believe his death was an accident, do you?"


Everyone rose and bowed as Queen Elizabeth III entered the council chamber. Tellingly, to a long-time political observer like Duke Cromarty, she accepted the monarch's homage as her due. The fact that she'd been Crown Princess all of her life might explain part of that calm demeanor, but the Prime Minister thought there was something more here.

She might be a girl of eighteen, but she was savvy enough to know that those who had raised her might find it difficult to recall that she was their ruler now. By accepting the homage as offered, she was reminding them all who made the final decisions.

After the Queen had greeted them, Dame Eliska brought the informal regent's council around to business.

"This morning's coronation went well. My polls, formal and informal, show that support for the Queen is high in both houses of Parliament. The sooner the matters of Regent and Regency Council are resolved, the more likely they are to be resolved easily and in the Queen's best interest."

Elizabeth nodded. "I have reviewed your recommendations for Regent and I think they are all sound." Even her voice was different, Cromarty thought. She spoke with a deliberate precision, an air of maturity which was new to her yet far too natural, too . . . inevitable, to be feigned. "Duke Cromarty, do you have anything to add?" she asked, and he cleared his throat.

"Yes, actually, I do. Apparently, there's some resistance to the idea of having either your mother or your aunt serve as Regent."

The Queen Mother started. "I protest! There is a long tradition of—"

Elizabeth interrupted her mother with a gentle hand to her arm.

"I need to hear what the Prime Minister has to say," she said in that same, new voice. "Allen, I am intrigued by your use of the words 'mother' and 'aunt' to describe two of the candidates for Regent. Normally, you observe protocol to a fault. Is there a reason?"

The Prime Minister nodded. "Yes, I chose those words because they reflect precisely the scuttlebutt I've heard. The concern being expressed is that someone as close kin to the Queen as the Queen Mother or Duchess Winton-Henke might not be in a position to advise but might try to rule in your stead."

"Bluntly put," Elizabeth said, "the concern is that I will be dominated by my mother or my aunt."

"Yes, Your Majesty."

"A pity," Elizabeth mused. "I had just about made up my mind that Aunt Caitrin would be an ideal Regent. No offense, Mother, but I do think it would be difficult for us to distance ourselves from our established roles."

The Queen Mother looked hurt for a moment, but then she smiled.

"I agree. It might indeed be hard for me to stop thinking as your mother—and as Roger's wife. You don't need a Regent who might be inclined to say 'But your father would have done it this way.' "

Elizabeth squeezed her mother's hand. "Thank you for understanding. I have reviewed this council's other suggestions and, while I have nothing personal against any of the Crown Loyalist candidates you indicated, I would prefer to have Aunt Caitrin. Your Grace, do you think the Henke holdings can spare you?"

Caitrin Winton-Henke nodded. "They can. The Earl of Gold Peak is quite able to discharge his responsibilities without me."

"Very good."

Elizabeth thoughtfully stroked Ariel for a moment before continuing.

"I haven't forgotten the concern Duke Cromarty reported." Her smile became impish. "I believe the only way to defuse it is to nominate a candidate who would be unacceptable to Parliament for some reason. When the fuss over the first candidate has died down and Parliament has been reluctantly forced to reject my suggestion, then I can nominate Aunt Caitrin. If Dame Eliska is correct, the general desire of Parliament is to support me. Rejecting a second Regent—especially one so well-trained for the job—would go against that general impulse."

A moment of silence fell while the council digested both the plan and the new Queen's willingness to indulge in political manipulation. Duke Cromarty raised a hand.

"Yes, Your Grace?"

"That is very clever, Your Majesty, but what if Parliament confirms your first candidate?"

"There's a simple way to handle that possibility," Elizabeth answered. "I make certain that whomever I nominate is someone who can function in the role—and someone who will be willing to step down for Aunt Caitrin after a bit of time has passed."

"You would need to trust that person a great deal," Duke Cromarty warned. "I expect you have someone in mind."

The Queen nodded, a hint of a grin twitching the corners of her mouth.

"I do indeed." She gestured across the table. "My Lord Chamberlain, Lord Wundt."

"Your Majesty!" Jacob Wundt exclaimed. "I am not fit for the role of Regent!"

Elizabeth smiled at the thin old man.

"You are more fit than many," she said. "As Lord Chamberlain you served and advised both my father and my grandmother. You are a valued asset to the House of Winton. Moreover, I can convincingly speak both of my trust in you and in your irreproachable loyalty to the Kingdom."


The Lord Chamberlain's new protest was cut short by Dame Eliska. She looked up from the figures she had been entering into her computer pad and her smile was broad.

"I believe that Queen Elizabeth's choice will function just as she hopes. I've done some preliminary demographic analysis and the Lord Chamberlain should be rejected, but only after sufficient debate that Duchess Winton-Henke would be confirmed easily."

"And," Duke Cromarty said, "if Lord Wundt is confirmed, he would be a sound Regent. After some months of service, he could claim that his advanced years make him unable to continue. If we wait to make that announcement until some minor crisis requires that the Queen have a Regent in place quickly, then Duchess Winton-Henke should be confirmed without protest."

The Lord Chamberlain's mouth was opening and shutting, but no noise was coming forth.

"Without some gambit like this," Duke Cromarty continued, "I'm uncertain that either the Queen Mother or the Duchess would be confirmed as Regent. I'm at a loss to explain this sudden surge of anti-nepotism—anyone who knows the Lords knows that nepotism is the way of the aristocracy—but it is present."

Elizabeth stroked Ariel, her own features schooled to polite neutrality, but the 'cat's loud purr gave away his own satisfaction.

"Then this is how we will proceed," she said. "As for the Regent's Council, I would like to nominate those here present, the Prime Minister, the Majority Leader for the Commons, and at least one of the Crown Loyalists you suggested earlier."

Paderweski made a note. "When you say the Majority Leader for the Commons, you mean whoever holds that position rather than Rosanna Wilson?"

"Yes. I don't plan for the Regent's Council to meet over-frequently," the Queen replied. "Therefore, the added duties should not be onerous."

"And," Caitrin Winton-Henke said, "since the Regency Council will already have the Prime Minister, we don't need another noble to balance the representative from the Commons, yet we can keep the suggestion that this is a private cabal to a minimum."

Queen Elizabeth arched her eyebrows. "And why shouldn't it be a cabal? This is a monarchy, after all. My father was no figurehead, and I certainly don't intend to be one."

A soft chuckle fluttered around the council table. Elizabeth joined in, then continued.

"I realize that I may not have made myself clear," she said. "I would like Duke Cromarty to serve on the Regent's Council whether or not he is serving as Prime Minister."

Allen Summervale came from an ancient line of Manticoran aristocracy, otherwise he might very well have given some indication of how very pleased he was by this sign of the Queen's favor.

"Thank you, Your Majesty," he said, bowing slightly. "I will endeavor to serve you well."

Dame Eliska changed something on her note pad. "So I should indicate that the Prime Minister will be expected to serve on the Regent's Council."


"Very good," Paderweski smiled. "Perhaps their Graces could make some discrete inquiries—check with LeBrun—to see which of the Crown Loyalists would be best for the post."

Cromarty and Winton-Henke both nodded.

"I'm willing to bet that Howell will be their choice," the duchess said. "He's been rising steadily within the party."

"We shall see," Elizabeth said. "Now, are we ready to adjourn? Any more business for now?"

Heads shook around the table.

"Very well. We all have far too much to do. I'm certain that I'll see some of you at the viewing this evening." She gestured for them all to remain seated when she rose. "Until then."

Ariel in her arms, the Queen departed the council chamber. When the door slid closed behind her, Jacob Wundt spoke softly, reverently:

"Long live the Queen!"

"Amen to that," Cromarty affirmed. "Amen to that."


Once Justin's air car was aloft, Chou chose to elaborate on his earlier comment.

"We always investigate the death of a monarch, even when, as with Queen Samantha, the cause of death is apparent and easy to confirm."

"She died from heart failure, didn't she?" Justin asked.

"Everyone dies from heart failure," Chou said with an odd, wry grin. "In Queen Samantha's case, the immediate cause of her heart's failure was deterioration of her circulatory system beyond the point that regeneration therapy could effectively repair the damage. However, even that is too specific. She died of old age, which is not a bad way to go."

Justin nodded, thinking how the concept of old age was changing with the advent of the prolong therapies. The man seated in the passenger seat would probably die of old age some time early into his first century. If Justin died from the same cause, he would be closer to three hundred years old.

Did those born just the wrong side of the prolong acceptance barrier resent those who were young enough to accept the treatment or did they rejoice that their children's lives would be extended?

Certainly the dangers of prolong went far beyond the over-population that was often cited as the greatest implication of the extended life span. Commoner born, Justin tended to look at the aristocracy from the outside. The idea of some of the more hidebound members of this most-privileged class being able to extend their influence for centuries made him shudder. And what would their children do while they waited to assume their inheritance?

King Roger had seen that Manticoran society faced death by stagnation, which was one he had pushed for Prince Michael to enter the Navy despite the boy's hesitancy. Would other aristocratic parents be so farsighted? Silently, Justin resolved that his and Elizabeth's children would not be trapped by their parents' longevity.

Daniel Chou interrupted his revery.

"What are you thinking about?"

"Change," Justin said honestly, "and how with King Roger's death Beth could very well be Queen for centuries to come. It's strange to realize that between her youth and prolong she could reign for nearly as long as the entire Star Kingdom has been in existence."

"A slight exaggeration," Chou said, "but not by much. That's one of the reasons she would make such a valuable pawn."

"Pawn?" Thinking of his strong-willed, assertive fiancée, Justin chuckled. "Not Beth!"

"Perhaps not," Chou agreed, "but you forget that most of the Kingdom doesn't know our new Queen as well as you do. The news media's polite forbearance regarding the monarch's private life has meant that although the Heir was often in the public eye, those occasions were official, not private."

"I see what you mean," Justin said, "and I begin to understand what you're leading up to."

"If we are to assume murder," Chou said, "then we must look for motive. True, the King had made enemies, but his death does not strike me as a crime of passion."

"If it was murder," Justin cautioned.

"For the sake of discussion, let us assume it was." The impish grin on Chou's weathered features made it seem as if he was suggesting a party game.

"Very well," Justin said, less comfortable with the idea.

"King Roger III was well-loved, but his decisions were not always popular. Correct?"

"Correct—especially in the area of foreign policy."

"Now, what if you didn't approve of King Roger's policies? How would you feel about his continued reign? Remember, he was our first monarch to receive prolong."

"I would be terrified," Justin admitted, getting into the spirit of the game. "With prolong, King Roger would be in a position to continue those policies for at least another two hundred years."

"And he would most certainly strongly influence his heir," Chou said. "Therefore, King Roger must be eliminated."

"You're so cold!" Justin protested.

"Only practical and paranoid. They're required traits for my job."

"Go on, then."

"Obviously, if eliminating the King is to do any good, it must be done within a narrow window of time."

Chou paused, inviting Justin to pick up the thread.

"Elizabeth," Justin spoke slowly, "must be young enough to need a Regent, but not so young that the Regent would effectively rule in her stead."

"Precisely!" Chou applauded. "And she must need that Regent for some years, enough years that her views on policy could be influenced and that influence expected to last."

"When you look at the situation that way," Justin said, appalled yet excited, "King Roger's death becomes not a random accident or a spur of the moment assassination, but the result of a carefully developed course of action. Still, I'm not certain we aren't being too paranoid."

"Very well," Chou said. "Let us look at this from a slightly different angle. When would you say would be the earliest time that conditions would have gained our hypothetical conspirators what they wanted?"

Justin thought for a moment, weighing the various elements.

"Perhaps when Elizabeth was sixteen. Before that she would have been too easily dismissed as a child."

"Did anything happen to the royal family when Elizabeth was around sixteen?"

"I'm not sure," Justin mused. "I didn't meet her until that very year. I'd never been much interested in the royal family, to be honest. That's why we hit it off so well. Beth was on a tour of the research lab where I work and wandered into a restricted area. I was giving her hell when her bodyguard hurried in. When he addressed her as 'Your Highness' I suddenly realized why this pretty girl seemed so familiar."

Justin felt his face grow hot at the memory and he chuckled.

"She wrote me the prettiest apology letter. It crossed in the mails with my apology. Beth thought that the coincidence was so funny that she screened me."

"I imagine you were surprised." Chou laughed.

"Was I ever!" Justin agreed. "We talked for over an hour, just like old friends. Her father was ill and she really needed a friend."

"Think about what you just said," Chou prompted.

"She needed a friend?" Justin answered, puzzled.

"Right before that."

"Her father was ill." The implications hit Justin all at once. "King Roger was ill—very ill! Not many people knew that, but Beth told me. I guess she knew I wouldn't let the news out to the media."

"And you didn't."

"But the King recovered!"

"From a viral infection." Chou was no longer laughing. "The Star Kingdom of Manticore takes its good health for granted. Most infectious diseases were conquered centuries ago. We were never as isolated as many colonies. Mutated diseases like those that ravaged Artemis and Raiden never were a problem for us—especially since we did not let up on the strict quarantine and decontamination procedures from our expedition days."

"We had our own Plague," Justin reminded him, fearing that the old man had made such an art of paranoia that he saw conspiracy where there was none.

"Check your history books," Chou said. "The Manticoran Plague most likely evolved from a small family of viruses the original survey team missed—or that evolved during the six centuries between the initial survey and the arrival of the colonists. Whatever the case, Manticore is not prone to sudden, unexplained viral infections—and I find one that strikes the King alone particularly suspect."

"Maybe so," Justin said. "I suppose you have copies of the medical records on his illness."

"I do, and you're welcome to review them."

"I will, but before I trouble Elizabeth with these theories of murder and conspiracy, I want to take a look at that grav ski."

"Are you saying that the Queen does not share the suspicions that brought you to the Indigo Salt Flats?"

Justin hesitated. "She suspects her father was killed. I don't know what else she suspects. Beth . . . has a temper. I don't want to tell her something that might affect her judgement."

"Yet, if we do find proof of murder, she will need to be told."

"I know. Let's just wait until then. Tonight the wake begins. In two days she must officiate at her father's funeral. That's enough."

"As long as I know that you won't try to keep me from doing my job, I'm willing to wait." Chou grinned, impish once more. "I would have anyhow."

Justin shook his head in disbelief. One moment coolly paranoid, spinning theories that encompassed not only murder but grand treason, the next like a creature from a child's pretend, Daniel Chou was not an easy man to understand. Fortunately, he was an easy man to trust.


After departing the council, Elizabeth made her way through the convolutions of Mount Royal Palace until she came to her father's private office. Motioning to her guard to remain outside, she pressed the call button, thereby warning the occupant that she was there.

If one member of the family had been more deeply hurt by her father's death than even the Queen, it was her father's treecat, Monroe. The 'cat had been in the chalet at the moment of Roger's death and his eerie keening had forewarned the security staff that the accident had been fatal.

Monroe had returned to Mount Royal with King Roger's body, but, unlike a human in a similar circumstance, he had shown no desire to sit with the body. Perhaps his carnivore's direct view of the universe accepted more immediately that a body without a spirit was just so much dead meat. Perhaps he could not bear to see his best friend's form still, cold, and bereft of his animating spirit.

Since his return to Mount Royal, Monroe had hunched, keening and ragged, on his perch in the King's office. Not even Ariel had been able to coax him to eat, but Elizabeth visited whenever she could. Treecat experts, mostly members of the Sphinx Forestry Service, had warned her that Monroe could do any number of things at this point.

Most 'cats who lost their humans (a frequent occurrence pre-prolong, as a 'cat's natural life-span was around two hundred years) suicided. That had always been the great tragedy of the human-treecat bond, yet the 'cats had always made it clear that they accepted the price they paid to adopt their human companions. Now, of course, prolong promised to reverse the age differential, and no one was certain how that would affect relations between the two species.

Normally, in a case where the 'cat did not suicide, it simply returned to Sphinx and rejoined its clan, although in very rare cases, a "widowed" 'cat would adopt another human. So far, Monroe had not indicated any desire to return to Sphinx, and his palpable grief made Elizabeth fear that she would return to her father's office to find the 'cat dead.

She slid open the office door to find Monroe sitting alone. Several members of her father's staff had offered to keep watch with Monroe, but the 'cat had become agitated, as if proximity to another's grief heightened his own.

Ariel bleeked a welcome and leapt from Elizabeth's arms to sit by Monroe. Sitting back on his true-feet, Ariel used his true-hands to groom the other 'cat. Monroe didn't move, but Elizabeth imagined hopefully that his green-gold eyes brightened in response.

"Want something to eat, Monroe?" she asked, extending a piece of celery, fresh from the crisper.

Monroe didn't even as much as curl his whiskers. Ariel grabbed the dainty from Elizabeth's hand and began chomping on it himself, bleeking and chirping what could only be encouragement.

Deciding that her interference could not help, Elizabeth sat in her father's chair and studied the clutter on his desk. Its very disorder vividly reminded her that he had only planned to be away for a day or two.

"Dad . . ." she whispered. "I wish . . ."

Her soliloquy was interrupted by the beep of her pocket com. She took it out and glanced at it, and the caller ID told her that Michael was looking for her.

"Yes, Michael?"

"Our cousins are here—Mike and Calvin. Can we come up?"

"You know where I am?"

"I asked Dover. You're in Dad's office again."

"That's right. Sure, bring them up. Did Uncle Anson come, too?"

"He's with Aunt Caitrin and Mom."

"Then come up. We have some time before the viewing."

Switching off the intercom, Elizabeth swiveled her father's chair so that she could look out the window. Below she could just see the edges of the Blue Hall where preparations were being made for her father's final public duty.

" 'Viewing.' It sounds so cold," she mused aloud.

She hadn't expected any response so when a furious snarl greeted her words she leapt up and turned. On his perch, Monroe had risen on all six feet, arched his back, and was hissing at the group clustered in the doorway.

"I guess we should have knocked," Michael managed to say, his eyes wide.

"Don't worry," Elizabeth said, motioning them into the room. "Monroe hasn't been himself since Dad died."

Her words were comforting, but she did not dismiss the 'cat's response lightly. Ariel reinforced her own impression that Monroe had been reacting to something—or someone—specific.

Who or what? Certainly the 'cat had not been responding to any of the small group now clustered in the office. The Henke cousins had been in and out of the Palace all of Elizabeth's life. It couldn't have been Mike or Cal that Monroe had spat at.

Who though? Not for the first time, Elizabeth wished that her ability to communicate with Ariel extended beyond their empathic bond. Ariel certainly knew more than he could tell, but they were trapped by an unbreachable language barrier.

Even if Monroe had caught a stray thought or emotion from someone passing by, there had been the usual corridor traffic in addition to the guards escorting Michael and the Henkes, far too many people in the area to make guessing easy.

Impulse passed, Monroe was now slouched in his earlier apathy.

Shaking her head, Elizabeth filed the mystery for later consideration and turned her attention to her cousins. Both were darker skinned than Michael or Beth and both wore their curly hair close-cropped, but there was no doubt which of the two was the girl.

Michelle Henke—firmly established as "Mike," much to Prince Michael's disgruntlement—possessed definite femininity that not even the uniform of a Navy lieutenant could disguise. Her brother, Calvin, had taken his degree on Manticore and was already firmly in place as the Earl of Gold Peak's right-hand man.

Mike was the first to bridge the silence. She crossed to Elizabeth and embraced her. The Queen was touched to realize that despite her own deep and very real grief, Mike's dominant emotion was concern for her.

"I can't say how sorry I am about Uncle Roger, Beth." Mike shrugged. "There just aren't words."

"No, there aren't," Calvin agreed. "How are you holding up, Beth?"

"They've kept me so busy I haven't really had time to accept that he won't be coming back," Elizabeth answered honestly.

"I wish they'd keep me that busy," Michael said forlornly. "I've had too much time to think. Mike, what can you tell me about the Navy?"

"That's a big question, Michael. What is it you want to know?"

"I guess I want to know whether I should . . ." He choked back a sob. "Should I . . ."

"Join like your dad wanted you to?"

Crown Prince Michael nodded.

Lord Calvin Henke dropped into a chair.

"Maybe you should think about it from the other point of view, Mikey," he said. "What would you do if you don't join the Navy? There aren't many jobs out there for heirs apparent—even if all they're in line for is an earldom, like me. And unlike me, you can't depend on inheriting the title."

"Depend on?" Michael looked puzzled.

"Unless I die first," Calvin clarified, "I will someday inherit my father's title and responsibilities. In your case, as soon as Beth and Justin start churning out more Wintons you get shoved back a step or two in the succession. You have a lot more freedom than Beth or I do. What do you want to do with it?"

Michael frowned. "I never really thought of it that way. Dad was so careful to tell me how important a duty I had. The way you put it, I'm just so many spare parts."

Mike Henke laughed, a rich contralto that warmed the room.

"Welcome to the club, cousin. I, for one, want to stay spare parts. Cal can be Earl. I'm going to be an Admiral. How about you?"

When the thirteen year-old didn't answer, Calvin picked up the discussion.

"Honestly, Michael, you could get away without doing much of anything. There's always a demand for royals to officiate at ceremonies. Or you could get into politics. One of the advantages of being a Winton is you have a seat in the Lords waiting for you. As long as you don't break too openly with Beth, you could have a vigorous career. The Crown Loyalists would just drool if you were at their meetings. Then there's the ambitious younger set. You could join them."

Michael's eyes widened. "I don't want to make a career of meetings! Dad always made Beth and me go to some of the open sessions of Parliament. I've never been so bored!"

"Think about it," Calvin said, refusing to relent. "There is power there, power and influence. Not all of it would be because your sister is the Queen."

Beth hid her smile in Ariel's fur as Mike took over where her brother had left off. King Roger should have let the Henkes double-team Mikey years ago!

"In the Navy," Mike said, "the question of privilege is less important. Oh, sure, there are those who rise due to family connections—I'm not going to even pretend otherwise. But after a point the jerks get bumped out on half-pay and the better officers rise to the plum commands. There's also prize money to consider. I have an inheritance coming to me and a good allowance, but I love the idea of making my own fortune."

This last caught Michael's attention. Neither Queen Angelique nor King Roger had believed that their children should be spoiled. He was still young enough that the idea of a fortune of his own, for which he would not have to answer to anyone, was quite enticing. Still, he hesitated.

"I'd hate to be one of those who fail," he said, "one of those who end up out of half-pay. What if I flunk out? My grades haven't been the best lately."

"You won't know unless you try," Mike said practically. "My Academy roommate was a dunce at math. Her astrogation was more intuitive than logical, but since she had promise in other areas, her instructors worked with her, and she graduated near the top of our class anyway. You're a prince of the House of Winton. They're going to have real incentive to work with you."

The intercom chimed, warning them that they would be expected at dinner within the quarter hour.

"Can we talk more about this?" Michael asked. He glanced at his father's desk as if he expected to see him sitting there. "I want to do the right thing—and not just try to make Dad happy."

"You bet," Mike draped a hand around his shoulder. "Would Your Royal Highness care to escort the Honorable Michelle to dinner?"

Michael laughed and took her arm with grace.

"In the absence of your fiancé," Calvin said, offering his arm to Elizabeth, "may I escort Your Majesty?"

The playful fashion in which he used her new title reassured Elizabeth that her cousins were determined to treat her with respect—and not to let her get too far above herself. Happily, she lightly stroked Monroe good-bye, gathered Ariel, and accepted Calvin's arm.

When the door opened, Monroe raised his head as if listening for something. His head remained raised, his ears perked, long after the door had closed behind them.


"When do you need to be anywhere?" Daniel Chou asked Justin.

"I need to be at the Palace for the viewing later tonight. I bowed out of a dinner invitation though," Justin said. "The Henkes—King Roger's sister's family—are coming in."

"Don't you like them?"

"I do, quite a bit, but I thought that the families might relax more if I wasn't present. They need the space to weep and, even if I am special to Elizabeth, to most of them I'm still something of a stranger."

Chou smiled. "I can see why Elizabeth chose you. You have an innate sense of protocol—very useful."

"I think," Justin said with complete honesty, "that she chose me because I met her and liked her without realizing that she was the Heir. In fairy tales, the commoner is always discovered to be a princess in disguise. Having been a princess all her life, I think that Beth found being taken for just anyone a relief."

"And soon you will be a prince," Chou said.

"By marriage." Justin turned to look at the old man. "I never wanted to be part of the aristocracy. They have too many responsibilities. Now, in order to marry the woman I love, I need to take on those responsibilities. Strange, isn't it?"

"One of life's little ironies," Chou agreed. "Since you aren't expected anywhere for a few hours, let's go look at the grav ski and then—if you don't mind—get some dinner. My treat. You can drop me off on your way to the Palace."

Justin nodded. "That sounds good."

They parked Justin's air car in a sheltered space near a small, nondescript, grey, rectangular building mingled in with other similar buildings. The place was not ugly; rooftop gardens spilled flowers down the walls. However, it did not register in the imagination.

"This place is constructed to be forgotten," Justin commented.

"That it is," Chou agreed. "A good thing. Come inside."

Justin got an indication of Chou's importance within whatever hierarchy he belonged to when his ID admitted them past checkpoint after checkpoint without need for query or confirmation. At last, Chou unlocked a door as plain and nondescript as the building itself.

"Here we are," he said. "All the materials from the crash were brought here. I've done some preliminary inspections, but I must admit that I haven't found anything significant. That's why I went back to the Indigo Salt Flats, to see if something might have been missed."

"Did you find anything?"


They inspected the shattered gear in companionable silence. Justin's area of expertise was tangential to grav technologies, but he had used grav units in the past, was familiar in theory with what made the compact device counter gravity. After a long, careful inspection he glanced at Chou.



An idea, faint and insubstantial as an evening shadow came to Justin as he stood studying pieces of the broken ski.

"Adderson said that the King had planned to use a different ski set."

"He said something about that to me, too."

"Do you know what happened to it?"

"It was brought back here. It's in that case over in the corner."

With a glance for permission, Justin picked up the case and swung it onto the counter.

"Can we run a diagnostic on this?"


Chou did not chatter, merely handed Justin the instruments he needed. Only after Justin had run the check three times did Chou finally speak.

"Very, very interesting."


"There's nothing at all wrong with this ski set."

Justin set down the diagnostic scanner. "I didn't think there would be. Beth gave it to her father for his birthday. New sets are rather carefully checked—especially when they're being sold to the Crown Princess."

"So that means that whoever directed the King away from using this set is in on the conspiracy," Chou said. "Or so we can hope. I'll do some checking on who was on duty that day, see if Adderson remembers specifics."

"Would there be security videos?" Justin asked hopefully.

"Not in the chalet. That was the Royal Family's private area. Now, what do you want for dinner?"

"I don't know if I have much of a stomach for eating right now," Justin answered. "I don't think I really believed that someone murdered the King until this moment."

"We don't have much evidence," Chou cautioned. "What we have is closer to the negative space in a sculpture—something that helps define what is there but is nothing in itself. A good defense council would laugh us right out of courts."

"What do we do next?"

"Dinner." Chou leaned and patted him on one arm. "You'll want it later. We'll plan while we eat."

Justin nodded. "Let's go then. I'll let you to pick a place where we won't attract attention."

"I know just the place," Chou promised.

"Some super spy hangout?" Justin tried to joke, but his voice sounded flat even to him.

"Something like that," Chou said. "I was thinking of my apartment. I'm not a bad cook."

"Let's go, then."

They put away both the pieces of the shattered grav ski and the undamaged ski before they left.

"We haven't found much," Chou said, looking into the room as he dimmed the light and closed the door. "But it's a beginning."


In a suite in a private hotel so committed to discretion that few people even knew it existed, Marvin Seltman and Jean Marrou watched the news service coverage of the first night of King Roger's wake.

"Look at them!" Seltman almost snarled. "Most of them actively opposed the King, many of them probably raised a private toast when the word of his death came, but to see them weeping you would assume they'd lost their dearest friend."

Jean Marrou turned her blind face toward the news screen. A small implant beneath one ear let her tune into special detailed commentary. The narration told her which august personages were paying their last respects to King Roger III of Manticore.

Tonight was reserved for the cream of the peerage. The new Queen and her family were present to greet them and accept their condolences. Tomorrow the lesser nobles and important commoners would be admitted—including the elected members of the House of Commons.

"I wonder if the Queen will be present when we attend tomorrow's viewing?" she said.

"Don't tell me you can't wait to meet her!" Seltman snapped.

"I have already met her," Marrou said. "She seemed like a nice child. No, I was not anticipating meeting a celebrity. I was wondering about her treecat."

"Her treecat?" Seltman spoke the word as if he could not believe that he had heard aright.

"Yes, studies show that they have a marked telempathic sense. No doubt it's strongest with those humans they bond with, but I understand that they can 'read' others as well."


"And I was wondering if Queen Elizabeth's 'cat might be able to read us—what we've done."

"They're telempaths, not telepaths," Seltman corrected. "They read vague emotions, not thoughts. Any treecat attending the viewing is going to be so overwhelmed by strong emotions that any inadvertent hostility we let leak out will be part of the flood."

"I hope so."

"In any case," Seltman continued. "I feel no hostility at all towards our little Queen. I feel nothing but a great deal of affection. If our plan works, she is going to be our ticket to advancement."

"And to protecting the Kingdom from adverse out-system influence," Marrou said woodenly.

"Exactly, Jean, exactly," Seltman soothed. "The others should be here soon. I wonder what rumors they will have picked up? The Queen's nominee for Regent is going to be announced tomorrow, but Paderweski's savvy. She's going to have permitted some strategic leaks so that the Palace will have responses planned."

Marrou touched the implant. "We should know fairly soon. Earl Howell just departed. Paula should be on her way."

"She wasn't high enough ranking for tonight's little gathering," Seltman said, "but she was going to visit with some of the ambitious young turks. They'll have an entirely different line than Howell's."

They fell into silence then. To be completely honest, neither particularly liked the other. Jean Marrou found Marvin Seltman ambitious and coarse. Seltman distrusted Marrou as a fanatic whose dreams would ultimately come to ruin. Still, for now each believed that the other was useful.

Earl Howell arrived first, Lady Gwinner a few moments after. Padraic Dover, like all members of the Queen's Own, was standing a "voluntary" extended watch.

As he took his seat in one of the overstuffed leather chairs, Howell looked haggard. Seltman, deferential as always (although privately he found the older man's lack of backbone disturbing), poured him a snifter of Gryphon cognac. By contrast, Gwinner was bubbling with suppressed energy. Seltman embraced her, sniffing lightly for traces of intoxicants. If she had been indiscreet . . . but he found nothing and decided that her effervescence was purely enthusiasm for a project going well.

"Earl Howell," Seltman said after all were settled with drinks and a plate of delicacies had been in everyone's reach, "perhaps you could tell us about the viewing."

He wanted to scream "Did you learn anything!" but knew the Crown Loyalist needed to be handled with extreme delicacy.

"The King's body was laid out very tastefully," Howell began, as if by dealing with inconsequential matters he could work his way toward the difficult material. "And his widow and children were in attendance. They seemed quite distraught, but the Queen Mother spoke kindly to me and the young Queen offered her hand, saying that my loyalty to the Crown had come to her attention and she would remember it."

Howell's voice broke.

"How sweet of the little Duchess of Basilisk," Gwinner said, only a touch of acid in her voice. "Or now that her father is gone, will she be assuming the title of Princess of Basilisk that he took?"

At another time, her approach might have been heavy-handed, but this time it was perfect. Howell stiffened, sipped his cognac, and much of the exhaustion dropped from his features to be replaced by something rather like hope.

"Perhaps we will not need to concern ourselves for much longer with the question of what titles go with that improperly annexed system," he said. "LeBrun told me this evening, confidentially . . ."

He paused until everyone had nodded.

" . . . that the Queen in seriously considering a member of our Party for her Regent's council and that, if he were asked . . ."

"Which he will be," Gwinner interrupted.

Howell raised a chiding eyebrow, " . . . that I will be his first choice."

"Congratulations," Seltman said. "This also means that you would be considered as a candidate for Regent as well. Do you have any idea who the Queen will be nominating tomorrow?"

Blind Jean Marrou raised a hand for attention. "May I hazard a guess?"

Seltman was taken aback. Marrou had been with him all evening and had admitted when they met that she had no idea who the candidate would be. Had she been holding out on him? However, her almost uncanny talent for political analysis was one of the reasons he had recruited her. It might be amusing to learn what she would say.

He glanced at the others, saw some reflection of his thoughts in their expressions, and grinned.

"Certainly, Jean. Who do you believe will be nominated as Regent?"

"Normally, I would not hazard a guess based only on listening to news commentary," she began, clearly enjoying the moment, "but tonight I had the distinct impression that the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Jacob Wundt, is her choice."

Both Howell and Seltman gasped. Gwinner shook her head, laughing.

"Incredible, Jean! That's exactly what I heard from my sources. How did you know?"

"Listening to the description of the Queen's party tonight," Marrou said smugly, "I noticed that she frequently called the Lord Chamberlain to her side."

"But this was a social/political function," Howell protested, "that is his usual role. How could you tell that anything had changed?"

"The frequency, the proximity, the fact that he also spent time speaking with Cromarty. As you know, Wundt is closer to being a Crown Loyalist than anything else. His new friendliness with the Prime Minister seemed to indicate that Cromarty now finds him useful."

Seltman nodded. "Interesting. Padraic's reports confirm that Wundt has been part of the informal council meetings that have been held today. I had assumed his presence was because he could provide information on the inner workings of Palace protocol. However, My Lord, did you hear anything that would confirm this?"

Howell had stopped gaping like a fish, but he continued to study Marrou as if her talents were akin to sorcery. Marrou did not help to settle him by appearing to feel his gaze and turning her blind eyes on him.

"Yes," Howell managed. "LeBrun did say something of the sort. He also said that he expected the party to be somewhat torn on confirmation. Our platform usually is complete support for the Crown and, as you've noted, Wundt is by personal inclination one of our own, but his age and the fact that he has not actively participated in debate on the issues make him a poor choice as Regent."

Seltman rubbed his hands briskly together. "If even the Crown Loyalists have second thoughts, than some of the other factions must be truly torn. When is the vote for confirmation to be held?"

"The question will open for debate tomorrow at ten," Howell said. "Protocol demands that it not be called to the vote until reasonable discussion is held. However, the need to put in place both a Regent and a Regency council suggests that no one will choose to filibuster."

"I second that," Gwinner said. "Since Wundt has never firmly allied himself with any one party, no group will see a benefit from delaying the vote. My guess is that we will have a vote by midday tomorrow."

Marrou nodded. "I suspect the pacing in Commons will be similar. Our general support for the Crown will not extend to rubber-stamping the Regent. A few well-made speeches . . ."

"Can we expect one from you?" Seltman asked. "I am somewhat less popular."

"That's true," Marrou agreed. "Your personal ambitions are too well-known. While they frequently garner you respect, since no one thinks you would promote an issue you haven't carefully researched, I think too much interest in the Regent would seem suspicious."

Seltman stared at her, trying to decide if he had just been insulted. He decided that he had, but that it was not worth comment.

"I shall hold my tongue then," he said. "You will speak. Earl Howell will certainly be expected to speak, since he is a rising hope within his party. Paula?"

Gwinner nibbled a piece of cheese before answering. "Let me get a feeling for the mood of the House. Given my youth and my position as a second-generation prolong recipient, I don't wish to speak out against an older candidate. It could cause something of a backlash. If I can find an angle that is not age or party related, either I'll speak or I'll put the idea into one of my more ambitious colleague's minds."

"Who do you have in mind?" Howell asked.

"Sheridan Wallace hates anything that promotes established privilege," Gwinner replied, "but he's smart enough to say so tactfully. I can use him."

"Who do you think will be the Queen's second choice?" Seltman asked. He was amused to see that everyone looked at Jean Marrou. Knowing she could not see this, he prompted, "Jean?"

"I can't say based on what I heard tonight," she said honestly. "I will have a better idea after I attend tomorrow's viewing, especially if I can schedule my timing to match the Queen's attendance."

"She won't be there all day tomorrow?" Gwinner asked.

"No," Marrou said. "The newscast noted that this would be unduly exhausting. Instead, various members of the royal family will be attending in shifts. I believe that the Henkes will be taking on some of this duty."

"They were all present tonight," Howell noted. "Lord Calvin Henke and Justin Zyrr both stayed close to the Queen. The Honorable Michelle shadowed the young Crown Prince."

"The House of Winton and its offshoots have always been clannish," Seltman said. "Although I don't have Jean's gift for analysis, I still suspect that the Queen's next candidate will be a family member. Paula, I suggest that you begin to lay groundwork for why this would be unacceptable."

"I'll do what I can," she promised. "Certainly, Earl Howell can't. It would look too much like self-interest."

Jean Marrou stood, balancing herself lightly against the back of her chair. "If we are finished with tonight's discussion, I believe I will make my way to my hotel. If I'm too late screening my husband, he'll screen and wonder why I'm still out."

"You could screen from here," Seltman offered.

"No, I would be more comfortable among my own things." She smiled. "Besides, if I am to attend the viewing during the Queen's vigil, I need to rise early to make some inquiries."

"Good night then," Seltman said.

The earl, with the instinctive social courtesy of his rank, rose and walked her to the door.

Deep in her own thoughts as she left the hotel, Jean Marrou switched off the small computer unit that regularly scanned her environment and reported on those present. Even if she had not been distracted, it is doubtful that she would have taken note of the security guard who held the door for her or bothered to run a cross-check to learn that she had encountered the man before at the estate of the Earl of North Hollow.


As predicted by many, Lord Jacob Wundt was not confirmed as Regent for young Queen Elizabeth. After heated debate, a vote was taken and Parliament sent its regretful refusal.

"We'll wait until tomorrow to name Aunt Caitrin as our next choice," Elizabeth said to Dame Eliska and the Queen Mother. "That will give ample opportunity for the pundits and politicos to guess."

"Should I put out any hints?" Paderweski asked.

"No," Elizabeth said decisively. "I think not. Simply state that I regret the result of Parliament's vote and will be reviewing their objections to Lord Wundt before selecting my next nominee."

"Acid, Beth," Queen Angelique commented. "Your father would be proud."

"Thanks," Elizabeth grinned. "Now, I believe I have a few hours in my schedule to spend with Justin. If you would excuse me?"

"Of course, Your Majesty," Dame Eliska said, concealing a slight smile.

"Have fun, dear," Queen Angelique added. "And give Justin my love."

Ariel romping beside her, Elizabeth hurried off to her suite in King Michael's Tower. Justin, his handsome features somber, was waiting. After they had embraced, Elizabeth sat him down firmly and planted herself in his lap.

"Tell me, Justin," she said. "I don't need to be as sensitive as Ariel to know that you have found something out—and that you don't like what you've learned."

Taking a deep breath, Justin said, "I have every reason to believe that you were correct in believing that the King was assassinated."

As concisely as if he were presenting an experiment report, Justin told her of his visit to the Indigo Salt Flats, of his meeting with Daniel Chou, and, finally, of their conclusions. When he finished, Elizabeth's eyes shone with tears.

"I knew," she whispered, "but I so wanted to be wrong."

"You might as well have been for all the evidence we found," Justin said flatly. "Chou is right. Negative evidence won't hold up in court. We need something more."

"Chou is checking the records for who was at the Flats that day?" Elizabeth queried.

"That's right."

"Then we can't despair until we know what he learned. Justin, you must be my ears and eyes in this. With the Regency confirmation and the wake, I cannot spare attention."

She squared her shoulders. "Until we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is the Kingdom's business, I must apply myself to ongoing problems."


"Nothing that I can't handle with Cromarty and Mother's advice, but the existing business of the Star Kingdom didn't stop simply because the King died. Already there are those who are trying to use this period of transition to their advantage."

"That's hardly fair!"

"No it isn't, but my Parliament is filled with canny politicians. I may not agree with their tactics, but I'm rather like a starship captain who takes battle damage in a skirmish and then finds an enemy squadron bearing down. There simply isn't time to complain about fairness."

Justin nodded agreement and chuckled. "It still isn't fair."

"True," Elizabeth squeezed his hand, "but it could be worse."


"I could be facing this without you."


Chou wasn't very hopeful when he met Justin late that morning.

"I've checked," he said, "and I have the names of everyone on duty on the chalet on the day of the King's death and for a week before. No one on the list has the least blemish on record, not that I expected to find any."

"No," Justin agreed. "Anyone on report would have been put on duty elsewhere. The Star Kingdom doesn't take risks with its monarchs."

"And," Chou continued remorselessly, "I've run mock-ups based on the available data and there are numerous ways the accident could have been caused. The most likely is a small receiver set mounted on the ski and controlled by remote."

"Wouldn't that have been found during the diagnostic?"

"It would if it was set in the ski's own works," Chou said, "but if it was placed in a strap or within a bit of decoration . . ."

"Or if the person doing the diagnostic chose to overlook it," Justin added. "Did you find out who dissuaded the King from using the ski set that Beth gave him?"

Chou nodded. "It was a member of the King's Guard named Padraic Dover. He's a native of Gryphon and has an impeccable record."

"I've met him," Justin said. "He's been on the Palace staff since Beth was eight or ten. That doesn't make him a likely suspect."

"No," Chou agreed, "but that's exactly what we need to look for—an unlikely suspect. There is no one who is likely."

The two men sat in silent meditation, Chou stroking his drooping mustache, Zyrr frowning and chewing on his inner lip.

"I suppose I'd better speak with Dover," Chou said at last. "Do you want to attend?"

"Why don't I speak with him?" Justin suggested. "If you call on him he's going to know that something is up. Even if he's innocent, a casual mention of the interview could start rumors."

"The PGS questioning a member of the Queen's Own," Chou mused. "Yes, it might raise questions. You can talk to him more casually. But I'd like to be present—concealed—if possible."

"We can work something out. Can you get into my suite at the Palace without being noticed?"

Chou merely smiled.

"Then before I leave here I'll try to set up an appointment with Dover so you know when to meet us."

Twenty minutes later, Zyrr had made the appointment for later that same day. Returning to the Mount Royal complex, he was accosted by Michelle Henke.

"Hi, Mike."

"Justin! You're the very man I was hoping to find."

Zyrr doubted that the Honorable Michelle had found him by accident. Already, the confident young woman left little to chance.

"What can I do for you?"

"It's Monroe. He's becoming increasingly despondent. We're worried that he's going to suicide. He won't tolerate anyone but immediate family near him, so we've been taking turns sitting with him, but right now everyone is scheduled elsewhere. Michael and I are set to be at the viewing next; Calvin is out meeting with some of the young turks, trying to sway their vote for one of Beth's projects, Mom is—"

"I get the picture. Do you need me to take care of Monroe?"

"Would you? Michael's with him now."

"Do you think Monroe would come to my suite? Someone is coming to meet me there."

Mike tilted her head thoughtfully. "I don't see why not. A change of setting might be good for him. If he fusses, you can have your appointment redirected to Uncle Roger's office."

Justin glanced at his chronometer. "I'll run over and relieve Michael one way or another."

"You're a prince!" Mike gave him a quick peck on the cheek.

"Not yet," he smiled.

Laughing, the Honorable Michelle hurried off to don her uniform for the viewing.

Mike, Justin mused as he walked over to King Roger's office, couldn't fail to make an impression on young Michael. He'd be willing to bet that the Crown Prince was being not so subtly indoctrinated in the virtues of a Navy career.

When the guard at the door signalled Prince Michael that Justin had arrived, Justin was admitted with indecent haste.

Michael must have taken the initiative to have his valet bring his formal wear to the office so that he could dress while he waited, for he stood by his father's desk, nearly attired in his court finery.


"You're the second person in ten minutes to greet me with such delight," Justin said wryly. "I suppose I should be honored. Mike has filled me in and I'm here to spell you with Monroe."

"Thanks, Justin." Michael gestured to where the treecat lay limp and bedraggled on his perch. "He's quit eating, only drinks a little water. Beth says she thinks the only thing keeping him from quitting is knowing that we're worried about him."

"So we want to stay close." Justin completely agreed.

He walked over to the limp 'cat and stroked him, suppressing his shock when he felt how sharply the 'cat's backbone stood out beneath the fluffy camouflage of his coat. The cat's eyes were closed and not even a hint of green flickered when Justin tried to tickle him under his chin.

"Are you even certain that he's conscious?" he said, shocked.

"No," Michael said wearily. He seemed years older than the boy who had burst into tears at the memory of his argument with his father. "The vet said that Monroe isn't conscious much of the time, but that he can probably still feel our concern."

The Crown Prince extended his arm. "Can you help me with my cufflinks, Jus? These are Dad's. They're harder to snap tight than my old ones."

"No problem."

Justin fastened the cufflinks and straightened the lace front of the boy's dress shirt. When King Roger I had become the first monarch of the Kingdom of Manticore, he had commissioned an artist to design court dress. His only dictums had been that the new attire would be comfortable, elegant, and equally suited for male or female wear.

The artist had done his work brilliantly, Justin thought as he helped Michael into his jacket. The tail coat worn over tailored trousers had been borrowed from ancient England. The ruffled shirt with its lace cuffs had been taken from a slightly earlier time. There was no hat to create awkward clutter, and the footwear consisted of low-heeled boots that looked elegant while permitting the wearer to stand comfortably for hours.

By tradition, each noble house had its garb tailored in colors corresponding to those of its family's crest—in the case of the Wintons dusky blue trimmed with silver, although the Queen wore the red and gold of the Star Kingdom of Manticore. Awards, marriage alliances, and the like were indicated by slim bands at the cuffs. Since tradition also dictated that the fabrics be sumptuous brocades, a gathering of the nobility was awe inspiring indeed.

Commoners wore clothing of similar cut, but avoided both brocades and color combinations that directly mimicked an aristocrat's heraldry. However, Members of Parliament were encouraged to allude to the district they represented in the colors they elected to wear.

On the few occasions in his pre-Elizabeth life where a uniform would not serve, Justin had opted for rather generic colors. Since his official engagement, however, he wore a combination of Gryphon's bronze and dark brown with bands in the Winton colors at his cuffs. Idly, he thought that before he dismissed his valet, he had better make certain his clothing was ready for tonight.

When Michael had left, Justin crossed to Monroe.

"Come on, fellow. Time for a change of venue."

The treecat didn't budge from his perch. However, when Justin picked him up he came away with only a token grasping of his claws.

"You need some fresh air, Monroe," Justin said firmly, aware that even weakened, Monroe could do him serious harm. "Don't fuss."

Monroe didn't and, although they attracted some attention as Justin carried the 'cat through the back ways to his suite, they arrived without incident.

Settling Monroe on a heap of pillows at one corner of his sofa, Justin conferred with his valet about the condition of his formal wear, then dismissed the man until he should call for him.

When Monroe rejected his bribes of celery and he failed to locate Chou, Justin settled down, feeling slightly disgruntled, to wait for his appointment with Padraic Dover.


For Padraic Dover the time since King Roger's death had been an exercise in frustration. The first stage of the plan had gone so smoothly that he had naively believed the second would as well, but he couldn't even get near the Queen, much less find time to charm her.

Part of this was his own duty roster. His seniority proved to be a bane, granting him special honors such as standing watch over the King's body. If Queen Elizabeth was not in a meeting, making a public statement, or keeping vigil with her father's body, she was closeted with family members. Once, briefly, their paths had overlapped during the viewing, but although she'd greeted him, there had hardly been opportunity for conversation.

And finding Justin Zyrr had been as difficult. From one of his associates, he learned that Zyrr had visited the Indigo Salt Flats and wandered about for a while. Otherwise, he had been in and out of Mount Royal on such an irregular schedule that Dover had not been able to cross his path.

Therefore, Padraic had been astonished when he received a polite letter from Zyrr asking if Dover would call on him early that evening. For a moment, Dover had panicked. What if Zyrr knew?

Then he'd reassured himself. How could Zyrr know anything? They had been careful. The receiver had disintegrated on impact as planned; Dover had destroyed the transmitter himself. As panic ebbed, Dover realized that a golden opportunity had been given to him. He would be alone with Zyrr—at Zyrr's own request.

As he inspected his uniform before the meeting, Dover constructed his cover story. He would stick to the truth for openers. Zyrr had summoned him to his apartment, then he had asked Dover to participate in some perversity.

Running his tongue over his lips, Dover toyed with his options. He could say that Zyrr asked him to acquire the services of one of the more notorious courtesans. Or he could say that Zyrr had propositioned him. Padraic smiled cruelly as he considered how he would feign reluctance to discuss the encounter, then reveal Zyrr's unspeakable wishes.

Of course, at some point during the encounter as reported by Padraic Dover, Zyrr would have become violent. Dover would have been forced to defend himself—for once he was glad that Zyrr was such a big man; it would make his own use of deadly force understandable.

Elizabeth was a sweet, compassionate girl. Surely she could be manipulated to take pity on a shocked and horrified member of her own Guard. At this point, Dover's thoughts slid into pure, improbable fantasy. He was imagining Elizabeth's tearful but romantic marriage proposal when his chronometer chimed, reminding him that his destiny was only moments from beginning.

Pressing the call buzzer, he was somewhat surprised when Zyrr answered the door himself. One of the holes in his plan had been what to do about Zyrr's valet. He had resolved somewhat reluctantly (for double murder weakened his story of indignant outrage) that the man must also die.

"Major Dover," Zyrr nodded greeting, motioned Dover into the apartment.

Dover followed with alacrity, sizing up both his opponent and the sparsely furnished living quarters. Not even the smallest noise betrayed the presence of another person and he began to hope that they were indeed alone.

"I've taken the liberty of dismissing my valet so that we can talk in private." Zyrr looked unwontedly serious. "I must ask you to swear by our shared birth world that nothing we discuss goes beyond this room."

"I so swear," Dover replied promptly, wondering if his guesses could have been correct and Zyrr required something illicit of him.

His initial plan had been to kill Zyrr immediately and then fill the remaining time with setting the stage for the "seduction." Now curiosity got the better of him. He permitted Zyrr to motion him to a chair and watched attentively as the Queen's fiancé took his own seat on the sofa next to a battered, rather ugly cream and grey throw pillow.

"I would like to speak with you about certain events on the day of King Roger's death," Zyrr began.

Dover felt a surge of terror, but kept his expression neutral.

"I understand that you were on duty at the chalet when the King was getting ready to go out skiing." Zyrr paused long enough for Padraic to manage a stiff nod. "Captain Adderson, who was also on duty that day, recalls that you ran the diagnostic on the ski set the King had brought with him."

Dover's thoughts raced in circles as he tried to reconcile the content of this interview with his glorious fantasies of only moments before. What had Seltman told him to say if questioned? The words had been drilled into him before the accident, they must be there . . .

He heard his own voice, sounding flat and wooden: "Yes, I ran the diagnostic. According to the read-out, the grav ski set was unreliable."

Although it might be considered a breech of protocol, he rose to his feet. He could not kill Zyrr from across the room. The death blow must be dealt hand-to-hand, otherwise his tale of an over-strong reaction to a physical advance would not stick.

Blithely unaware of his own danger, Zyrr continued:

"I ran a diagnostic on that very ski set myself," he said, "and found nothing at all wrong with it. In fact, it was newly purchased equipment, fresh from the factory."

Padraic's wooden voice answered, his mind intent on crossing the few remaining steps: "I only did my duty, Sir. According to the read-out the diagnostic tool gave me, the grav unit was malfunctioning."

"Perhaps your diagnostic tool was in error," Zyrr said, sounding almost relieved. "Please relax, Major. I mean you no harm."

But I mean you harm, Dover thought, and, moving as if to return to his chair, he chopped his hand down in a killing blow.

It never reached his target. In a sudden fury of spitting, hissing grey-and-cream fur, the ragged throw pillow resolved itself into the attacking form of a thin, but still deadly treecat.

"Monroe!" Zyrr shouted, lunging to his feet, uncertain whether to go after Dover or the 'cat.

Dover tried to take advantage of Zyrr's indecision to bring his blow home. The treecat had clawed his chest, but its prolonged fast and general despondency had so weakened it that what should have been a deadly assault failed to do more than tear the heavy, anti-ballistic weave fabric of his uniform.

Undecided no longer, Zyrr dodged Dover's blow, but his evasion brought him up against the edge of the sofa. He fell backward.

With one hand, Dover grabbed at the treecat, ripping its hold from his tunic front. With his other hand, he fumbled for the pulser at his belt. Shooting Zyrr would be harder to explain, but the apartment was soundproofed and he was certain that he could be convincing, especially with the marks of the treecat's assault on his uniform.

He should not have been able to miss at such close range, but Zyrr kicked the low coffee table out so that it hit Dover in the shins. The shot went wild, plowing a bloody gash across the top of Zyrr's right shoulder.

Stumbling back a few steps, Dover was reaiming when Monroe lunged at him again. The treecat chose to forsake the dramatic leap in favor of sinking his teeth into the soft area behind Dover's left knee.

Dover screamed and kicked, trying to batter the six-legged fiend loose and only seeming to anchor the 'cat more deeply. He felt blood running down his leg into his boot, then a dull pain as Zyrr came to his knees and knocked the pulser from his grasp.

"Surrender, Padraic Dover," a calm voice demanded.

Still trying to dislodge Monroe, he saw that a skinny old man with drooping mustaches had entered the room, a pulser in one hand. Dover's bowels weakened as he recognized one of the senior members of the PGS, the comic little man that everyone in the Service knew to fear and respect.

In the face of Daniel Chou's unforgiving gaze, the fight went out of him. Dover dropped his hands.

"Padraic Dover," Chou repeated coldly, "I place you under arrest for attempted murder of Justin Zyrr, the murder of King Roger III, and the crime of grand treason."

There was a moment of pure silence and stillness during which even Monroe's muffled growling ceased. Dover felt the fangs and claws leave his leg. Slowly, he raised his hands.

"I . . ." he began.

Then there was a surge of grey and cream and before he could lower his hands, Monroe flung himself from the fallen coffee table into Dover's unprotected face.

Padraic Dover's world became a wreckage of red. Blood washed down his face, blinding him; something was wrong with his throat. He couldn't breath. Horrified, he recognized the ragged, burbling noise as his own breathing and felt the blood flowing down his windpipe, choking him.

There was shouting around him, words about a med team. Someone was pulling the furious treecat away. It all seemed curiously distant, though. From the one eye that was not washed over with blood, Padraic saw the ceiling light fixture and realized that he was lying on his back. Odd. He hadn't remembered falling.

A voice, powerful, insistent, demanding answers, was questioning him, asking about the King's death, if he'd had any allies in his crime. He realized that he could choke out a few words if he tried.

"Tell me!" Chou was saying.

"Why should I?" Dover managed to gasp.

And then, pleased with himself, he died.


Later that evening, Jean Marrou went to pay her respects to the King and tried to puzzle through the subtleties of mood and human interaction. Her implant whispered information from which she wove a tapestry of who was in favor with whom, who was rising in influence, who was falling although unaware of the slide from grace.

This was a familiar game to her, one she played without needing to divert much of her conscious attention to it. Her interest was in the young Queen and those gathered around her. The new nominee for Regent would be a member of the Queen's family. All the signs pointed to that, although the speculation that eddied around her proved that others were not as adept at reading those signs.

Her satisfaction faded the longer she observed the royal group. Something was wrong, of that she was certain. Justin Zyrr hovered closer to the Queen than was his wont—over three centimeters closer on average than he had during the previous evening's vigil.

The Queen's treecat was edgy and alert—again, more so than it had been the previous night. Her computer reported that it restlessly scanned the crowd, as if searching for someone. At that moment, Marrou resolved not to join the line of those slowly filing by the casket, for it would take her too close to Queen and 'cat.

Catching something of the tension of those she observed, Jean Marrou remained only long enough to be seen, to trade platitudes with various colleagues, and then to plead exhaustion and retire. No one would think oddly of that. She had learned long ago that her blindness made people pity her and assume a fragility she did not possess.

Leaving the viewing, Marrou proceeded by a circuitous route to the rendezvous where she was to meet her co-conspirators. She would be early, but she could have a drink, compose her nerves, and review her records to find support for her growing conviction that the next candidate for Regent would be the Duchess Caitrin Winton-Henke.

Upon arriving at the hotel, she opened the door locks with a series of old-fashioned keys. Computer locks, while more complex and more secure, also kept records. Eschewing the grav lift, she walked up the stairs, still working on composing her thoughts. A small corner of her mind was debating whether to order a small meal rather than a drink as she put her key into the final lock.

As she pushed the door open, she became aware of voices in conversation. Eavesdropping had been a profitable pastime ever since she was small and discovered that adults tended to forget that a blind child was not necessarily deaf. Softly closing the door behind her, she waited in the entryway, her naturally acute hearing augmented by one of the units in her computer.

Even as her implant informed her that the people conversing were Marvin Seltman and Paula Gwinner, she recognized their voices. She quashed a small impulse to retreat and re-enter with more noise when she realized that what she was hearing was not lovers' banter but something much more interesting.

"Dover didn't show up for our rendezvous today," Seltman was saying. "I made some inquiries, and I believe he may be in disgrace. He may even be dead."

"Lucky for us," Gwinner said.

The clinking of ice in a glass made Jean Marrou smile slightly. Whenever she was nervous, Gwinner toyed with something. Her voice remained cool.

"I suppose that means that we can give up on our hope that he would succeed in replacing Zyrr."

"True," Seltman said, "but then that was never any more than a long-shot. Dover has fulfilled his purpose in our plans. Perhaps it's best for us that he was put out of the way before he could realize how futile his hopes were and decide to betray us."

Something about his inflection on the plural pronouns made Marrou's skin crawl. Seltman continued:

"Our allies wouldn't care to have the plot exposed. Rather than rendering the Queen vulnerable, knowledge that King Roger was assassinated would solidify support behind her—especially in the Commons. Normal folk love anything that makes them pity royalty for their lot."

Paula laughed. "True. No one assassinates bus drivers or factory workers. If Dover is truly out of the way, we are safer. Neither of the others will speak—they have too much to risk."

"I hope so," Seltman said. "Earl Howell is invaluable now—especially if he gets a place on the Regent's council. I worry more about how Jean would react if she ever realized our friends' part in King Roger's illness a few years ago. . . ."

"How could she?" Gwinner scoffed.

"There's something witchy about the way she plays with data patterns," Seltman replied. "I wouldn't underestimate her, not for a minute."

"Do we really need her?"

Marrou held her breath, waiting for the answer.

"Yes," Seltman said slowly, "especially at the start. Her popularity in the Commons makes her an ideal person to promote some of the policies that will create a favorable atmosphere for takeover."

Gwinner's ice clinked. "She's fairly Progressive in her point of view—we'd do better with a Liberal. Progressives have the sense to realize Haven is a threat."

Marrou, standing still as a shadow despite an urge to turn and run, bit into her lip to keep from gasping aloud. Suddenly, those cryptic pronouns were making terrible sense.

"We are creating an atmosphere," Seltman reminded Gwinner, "which will help slow the Manticoran military build-up. A Progressive can do that as well as a Liberal. Remember, Jean rather desperately wants our system to remain a private little archipelago in the cosmos. That impulse will fuel her eloquence in our cause."

Poised to run, Jean Marrou realized how foolish that would be. If she didn't show for the meeting, then the others would become suspicious. She must make an entrance, stay, talk calmly about issues, and only then, when she was safe, consider what action to take next.

Could she confide in Howell? Hardly. He would panic and do something foolish that would get them both killed. Nor did she feel up to blackmailing the two Havenite sympathizers—even if her own loyalty to the Star Kingdom would have permitted her to do such a thing.

Chewing the inside of her lip, she reached behind her. Opening the door, she let it fall shut behind her.

"Anyone here?" she called.


Earl Howell had not been happy with Marrou's prediction that Duchess Winton-Henke would be named Regent, yet he no more doubted her than a primitive would have questioned a shaman. His dreams had been full of himself as Regent, directing the young Queen, becoming her favorite, his influence extending for centuries. A place on the Regency Council was not large enough for such dreams.

He had kept the three of them late, discussing options, tactics, plans to stop this nomination as well. Marrou had planned and plotted with the rest, aware that her safety rested on her being needed.

Then, when the hour grew late enough that even Howell's fervor had diminished, she left. First, in case someone was watching, she went to her hotel. After waiting a few hours, she went to Mount Royal Palace. Dawn was not far off when she arrived.

"I need to speak with Queen Elizabeth," she told the astonished duty guard.

"The Queen is getting her much needed rest," the guard said. "You may leave a message and if her schedule can accommodate you . . ."

"Please!" Marrou interrupted. "I must speak with her."

"I don't have the authority to awaken the Queen for anything less than an act of war," the guard said stubbornly.

Marrou played her trump card. "Please! This has to do with what happened with Padraic Dover early today."

Her blindness felt smothering. She wished she could see the guard's expression, but she forged on. Remembering the young man hovering at the Queen's shoulder that evening, she pleaded:

"If I can't talk with the Queen, let me speak with Justin Zyrr."

This seemed to decide the guard. Putting her into a small, soundproofed waiting room, he placed a call. Sometime later, she was escorted to another room. The flatness of the noise around her told her that this room was also soundproofed.

The scent of the room held rich upholstery fabrics and some type of incense; the carpet underfoot was thick and plush. At least she was not in a holding cell. After a time, during which she was offered refreshments, she heard the door slide open.

Two people entered. One of them her computer identified as Justin Zyrr; the other was a stranger.

Zyrr spoke, "Ms. Marrou? I don't believe— Oh, yes! You're the member for South Shore, aren't you. You asked to speak with me?"


His words reminded her that she was a person of some small influence—nothing to a Queen or Prince Consort-to-be, but still someone. She held her head high.

"May I ask for an introduction to the person with you?"

A rasping voice, a slight chuckle underlying its notes, answered, "I'm Daniel Chou. I'm with PGS. Today I helped save Justin's life when he was attacked by Padraic Dover. I'd certainly like to know how you knew that something had happened to Dover. We've put a complete blackout on the incident."

"He didn't show up for a meeting," Marrou said firmly.

Chou's voice told her that he was at least as good at reading people as she was. She sincerely hoped that he would be able to tell that she was telling the truth.

"A meeting," Chou said. "Why don't you tell us more?"

And so she did, sparing nothing, not even her own part in the conspiracy. Apart from occasional gasps of surprise from Zyrr or a brief request that she clarify some point, they let her speak without interruption.

"When I overheard Gwinner and Seltman talking," she concluded, "I realized their motives and mine were not as closely linked as I had believed. Honestly, I feared for my own life if they came into power, but I also feared for the Star Kingdom."

"That's been your motive all along," Chou said, almost teasingly, "if we're to believe your story. You feared what King Roger would do to the Star Kingdom; then you feared your own allies. Do you have any proof of this rather extraordinary tale?"

"You can check the places and dates I mentioned," Marrou said. Her hand dropped to the computer at her waist and, feeling as if she were newly blinding herself, she detached it. "This contains a complete record of both our last meeting and the conversation I overheard between Gwinner and Seltman."

A hand accepted the device. Without the visual link, she had no idea who, but she imagined it was Zyrr.

"This could be falsified," Chou said.

"It isn't," Marrou interrupted, "but I have an idea how you can prove my good faith."

"How?" Zyrr asked.

"I know something about Sphinx treecats," she said. "I visited there some years ago. My sensors give me information enough to navigate, but I hoped that I would be adopted and that the 'cat's senses would augment my own."

Her shoulders drooped as she recalled the rejection. "None would have anything to do with me, but I did get a strong impression that they could read emotions. Perhaps the Queen's 'cat . . ."

"Ariel could," Zyrr answered, and Marrou wondered at his slight emphasis on the word "Ariel." "I'll talk to Beth."

"She needs to know this in any case," Chou agreed. "Go and find her. While you do so, I'll sit with Ms. Marrou here. We can listen to her recording. Then I'll copy it so she can have her device back."

Jean Marrou could almost hear his smile. "It's quite a remarkable device. It must be of inestimable value to you."

"It is," she said.

Then the long wait began.


There was nothing extraordinary about Willis Kemeny being summoned before the Queen. His new nomination to the Regent's council and almost certain confirmation made such a meeting inevitable.

It was rather more interesting that Baroness Gwinner and Mr. Marvin Seltman, MP, should also be summoned. Although their summons came quietly, through very discreet channels, they reached the ears of the Earl of North Hollow.

Sitting in his grav chair, his bulk billowing around him, he considered this bit of news, combined it with certain other information, and smiled greasily.

Calling his secretary, he handed her four invitations and directed that they be sent only after his spies reported that the four addressees had departed Mount Royal under their own power.

Then he returned to the work of the moment. Somehow, he suspected that Earl Howell would not be confirmed onto the Council of Regents. Sending out messages, he began to agitate for Baron High Ridge to take Howell's place. High Ridge's membership in the Conservative Association might make him less palatable to the new Queen than a Crown Loyalist, but with Howell out of the running, he might just squeak in. And North Hollow had some very interesting material on High Ridge in his files, material that might come in useful if the Regent's council needed a bit of directing.

Happily, the Earl of North Hollow went about his morning's work.


When Ariel had finished confirming Jean Marrou's essential honesty and Queen Elizabeth had heard the recordings, the Queen retired to her privy chamber and requested that Chou, Justin, and Duchess Winton-Henke meet with her there.

"I," she said pithily when all were gathered and Duchess Winton-Henke had heard the full story, "want their heads."

Ariel, bristling in her lap, telegraphed the intensity that Elizabeth would not permit herself to put into her voice. Monroe, lying on the chair next to Justin, raised his head and hissed.

Neither Chou nor Justin said anything, their gazes turning to the duchess.

"Then all of this must become public," Caitrin said.

"Yes," the Queen said. "What of it? They have conspired to assassinate the King—and succeeded. Two of them are Havenite minions. All are treasonous."

"They must be given a trial."

"Must they?" Elizabeth's dark eyes glinted angrily. "Did they give my father the benefit of the legal fashion in registering protests?"

"If you have them privately executed," Caitrin said evenly, "you are as much in violation of our Constitution as they are themselves. Would you like to give Haven's other allies an opportunity to bring action against you? If you are impeached, then Prince Michael takes over a kingdom in chaos. Haven will certainly strike then."

Justin Zyrr raised his hand in question. "What's wrong with a trial? Daniel and I have found some evidence, but Marrou's confession and her recordings make conviction a certainty."

"Perhaps." The duchess steepled her fingers and looked over them, her eyelids half-closed. "Before I continue, let me state that I agree with Elizabeth. I want these bastards' heads. You may forget, Beth, but Roger was my big brother, my buddy, my—"

Her voice broke. Sipping water, she steadied herself with admirable poise.

"I am only too aware of the consequences of a public trial," she continued. "First of all, Howell is one of the three or four most important Crown Loyalists. Public doubt placed on him will weaken the authority of the party—and, don't forget, they are Cromarty's most reliable allies outside of his own Centrists.

"Secondly," she continued, "publicly trying Havenite spies—both of whom are members of Parliament—will most certainly start a witch hunt within our government. Members of the Lords hold their seats by inheritance, but those in the Commons are elected. And the Commons, if I may remind you, tend to support Crown policy. If incumbents can be challenged on their imagined Havenite leanings, the upset may lead to members being elected who will not tend to support the Crown."

Chou nodded, "And open a way for Haven to get more of its lackeys into Parliament."

"Exactly," the duchess agreed. "Who would accuse members elected on an anti-Haven platform of being a spies themselves?"

Queen Elizabeth listened, her mahogany face stiff, but dark spots of color on either cheek making her anger readily apparent. Duchess Henke glanced at her, read her mood, but continued relentlessly.

"Thirdly, Marrou would almost certainly be let off with only minor penalties. Her testimony is needed to condemn the others. Although she has not once hinted that she would plea bargain—"

Chou interrupted. "I hinted that the opportunity would be open to her and she simply looked affronted. She's ready to take her licks."

"No matter," Caitrin Winton-Henke said remorselessly. "Marrou's role in the trial cannot help but make her something of a hero in the public eye. Even if she is barred from holding office thereafter, as a private citizen she still will be in a position to influence others. Politically, her primary interests are domestic. She is actively opposed to our foreign policy. If we help to make a hero of her, we will be creating a powerful adversary."

The Queen opened her mouth, but her aunt's eyes locked on hers and her voice, cold with hard-held self-control, marched on across whatever she might have said.

"And finally, there are the foreign policy implications of making all this public. If we accuse the People's Republic of having ordered its paid agents to plan Roger's assassination and then convict those agents of that crime in open court, the very least that could happen would be severance of all diplomatic relations. And, yes, there's nothing I'd like better than to punch the bastards who paid for this right in the eye. But we're not ready yet, Beth. That's what Roger was doing, the reason they wanted him dead before he could get us ready. They don't want to hit us yet. We're too far away, and they've got too many problems closer to home. Besides, they probably figure they can use stooges like Seltman and Gwinner to keep undercutting our efforts to build up any effective opposition. But if it comes to a shooting war now, the odds are very, very good that we'd lose. If we avenge Roger's death, we risk losing the very thing he died to achieve."

Queen Elizabeth hit the flat of her palm against the table. Ariel's tail lashed back and forth.

"You make your points very well, Aunt Caitrin, but I cannot accept that these people will be permitted to go free. If a trial is unacceptable, I must take refuge in our Code Duello."

"Beth!" Justin gasped. "You couldn't!"

"Is the Queen not permitted the same recourse as a private citizen?" she responded angrily.

"Can you fire a pistol?" Chou asked, his tone one of idle curiosity, but his eyes burning.

"I can," Elizabeth said proudly. "My father made certain that both Michael and I had training."

"And how would you challenge them without making public the reasons for the challenge?" Duchess Henke said. "Remember, each one must accept your challenge. I do not believe Marvin Seltman could be so goaded. He knows that you have too much to lose if this becomes public."

"I will offer . . ." Elizabeth's voice faded, her eyes flooded with tears.

"And Marrou would have every reason to request a champion," Daniel Chou added. "And the opportunity for an enemy to offer her the use of a skilled specialist is too great to ignore."

Justin leaned across the table and took Elizabeth's hands in his, ignoring Ariel's growled threat.

"Beth, you'd be killed and for nothing. The end results of a duel would be sufficient to severely weaken the Star Kingdom."

Queen Elizabeth stayed silent for a long while, her downcast eyes studying the tabletop as if reviewing her options. When she spoke, her voice was hoarse with unshed tears.

"I most sincerely hope that I am never forced to refuse any of my subjects the choice you have taken from me today. I never realized that the Queen would be less protected by the law than the least of her subjects."

Caitrin Winton-Henke touched her arm. "Why do you think Roger so enjoyed dangerous sports? The monarch is given great power and privilege, but the cost is so high no sane person would pay it."

"Why should I then?" Elizabeth asked, her voice calm.

"Because you're a Winton," Caitrin answered, "and we all understand our duty."

"Give me your advice then," the Queen said, freeing one hand from Justin's grasp to blot the tears from her eyes, "on how we should handle this mess."


When the summons to Mount Royal came, Marvin Seltman considered taking advantage of one of the escape plans he had in place. Something about the little old man with the drooping mustaches who brought the invitation, rather than the more obvious threat of the two burly "bodyguards" who accompanied him, made him decide that such an attempt would be unlikely to succeed.

When they arrived at Mount Royal, the sight of his three co-conspirators quashed the vague hopes he had been nourishing that this was unrelated to his recent extra-legal activities. Swallowing a sigh, he permitted himself to be offered a seat and put his mind to salvaging what he could from the situation.

The group gathered in the council chamber did not offer a great deal of hope for a happy ending. There gathered were the Queen, Queen Mother Angelique, Crown Prince Michael, Dame Eliska, Duchess Winton-Henke, Justin Zyrr, and the little, wizened man who had brought him to the palace.

Queen Elizabeth's expression was cold as space, but the lashing tail of the treecat who crouched on the back of her chair gave lie to her calm.

"This meeting," the Queen began without further ceremony, "is to be regarded as a state secret, its minutes to be sealed until at least a century after my death. To speak of the proceedings will be considered treason—not that I expect that threat to trouble any of you greatly."

Her words were a beautiful bit of irony. They could be interpreted as meaning that she would not believe any here gathered capable of contemplating treason . . . or that she knew that several of them already were guilty of it. She continued:

"I am fully aware of—and possess incontrovertible, legally admissible proof of—the roles the four of you and the late Padraic Dover played in the death of King Roger the Third. In case you're curious, Padraic Dover met his death when he attempted to assault my promised husband. Through great good luck, my father's treecat was with Justin and saved his life."

Her words gave menace to the treecat growling at her own shoulder, but with a thrill of delight, Marvin Seltman realized that the 'cat was growling from frustration rather than because it intended to attack. His terrified fantasy that he would meet his death as had Dover vanished and he leaned back in his chair, crossing his legs with renewed confidence.

Queen Elizabeth's next words stole some of that confidence from him.

"Ms. Marrou and Earl Howell, from what I have learned, your crimes grew from a misplaced belief that our people were seriously threatened by King Roger's plans to expand the Star Kingdom's sphere of influence. That you turned to murder to right these wrongs rather than working within our established government was your folly. You are traitors, no doubt, but traitors who are, oddly enough, still loyal to the system you would circumvent.

"Mr. Seltman and Lady Gwinner, you have no such excuse for your actions. Not only are you murderous traitors, but we have undeniable proof that you are both in the pay of the People's Republic of Haven."

Gwinner made a small sound, as if she would, even at this late date, try to offer some excuse. The Queen's dark gaze silenced her:

"Don't try to tell us how you were led astray by Mr. Seltman. Your stock portfolio records reveal some very interesting additions that cannot be easily explained. You have had ample time to reconsider any 'bad influence.' "

Earl Howell stared at his former allies, the expression on his aristocratic features an undisguised mixture of horror and revulsion. His mouth shaped words that protocol would never permit him to speak aloud:

"I never knew. I never even suspected."

Elizabeth might have pitied him, but the memory of her father's twisted body, her mother's anguished scream, kept her hard.

"For reasons I do not intend to discuss," Queen Elizabeth continued, "I do not care to bring this matter to trial. Nor, although you have forfeited the protection of the law, will I have you quietly executed. Instead, I have other offers for you."

The dark eyes sought Howell. The man who sat there was a poor mockery of the bold politician who a few hours earlier had directed plans for his ascendance to the Regency.

"Willis Kemeny, I cannot strip you of your titles without the type of lengthy explanation I am certain both you and I would both prefer to avoid. Therefore, I request that you voluntarily renounce your seat in Parliament and pass it to your eldest daughter, Maralise. As she is a minor, a Regent will need to be appointed for her. I am certain that both you and I would be satisfied with LeBrun taking on that responsibility."

Aware that the Queen's offer would permit him to salvage both his life and his reputation, Howell rose to the occasion.

"Your Majesty," he said in his deep orator's voice. "I am most sincerely concerned about my health if I remain active in public life. The shock of learning that two of my associates were conspiring with the People's Republic of Haven has been the final blow to my constitution. I will obey your recommendations with alacrity."

The Queen nodded. "To make certain that you attend to your health as you should, you will be required to report to a physician whose name will be given to you."

"I understand, Your Majesty."

"Jean Marrou."

"Your Majesty."

"In many ways, your crime, unlike that of the others gathered here, was motivated by principle and personal experience, not raw ambition. However, you did violate the oath to uphold the Constitution and the Crown that you swore when you took office, so your treason is no less heinous. Yet, in committing your crimes you neither violated a noble's particular vassalage to the Crown, nor treated with foreign powers."

Seltman, hearing the Queen rationalize for Marrou, was certain the blind bitch had bargained for her freedom. There was no way to confirm his suspicions . . . at least not now. Just give him time! Then Marrou would learn what it meant to cross him!

The Queen was continuing: "Nonetheless, I cannot permit you to retain your seat in Parliament. If you persist, there are subtle ways that I can make my disfavor known."

Marrou nodded solemnly. "I understand. Perhaps like Earl Howell, I should resign."

"I think that would be wise. Your popularity in the Commons is such that I would be more comfortable if you would relocate to a district where you are less well-known. Earlier, you made mention of your interest in Sphinxian treecats. My suggestion is that you relocate to one of the forest reserves and pursue your desire to acquire a companion."

Blind eyes wide, Marrou managed a polite, "Thank you, Your Majesty!"

"I must warn you," the Queen continued, "that your life will not be entirely safe. Remember that all treecats are empaths . . . and that I believe they're much more intelligent than even the 'experts' guess. You will not be able to fool them about who and what you are, and they may choose to take vengeance for the pain your actions helped cause Monroe."

A guttural growl from Ariel seemed to confirm this warning.

"However," the Queen went on, "if you are willing to take the risk, a place will be found for you."

Marrou held her head high. "Will I be permitted to take my family?"

"If they wish to go. However, I remind you that you may not speak of these matters to them."

"I understand. Will I also have a 'physician' to report to?"

Queen Elizabeth nodded. "You will, but my greatest assurance of your fidelity will be the treecats themselves."

"Will Monroe be returning to Sphinx?" Reasonably, Marrou looked rather frightened at the prospect.

"No." For the first time, Elizabeth smiled. "In the process of saving Justin's life, it appears Monroe has adopted him. They are both getting accustomed to the idea, but Monroe will be remaining with him."

Justin Zyrr touched her hand. "And what a wedding ours will be with two treecats as attendants!"

The Queen squeezed his fingers, but the coldness returned to her features as she surveyed the remaining two conspirators. For the first time, some of the anger she must feel surfaced.

"I can hardly express the disgust I feel for you," she said to Gwinner and Seltman. "These two plotted out of misplaced loyalty to the Star Kingdom. Your only reason was greed and ambition.

"For the safety of the Star Kingdom, you must be removed to where you cannot serve Haven's interests. Fortunately, Duchess Winton-Henke has suggested an ideal location for you. Basilisk is under our administration, yet it is far enough away that you will be unable to effectively influence Manticoran politics.

"Mr. Seltman, your business acumen and personal ambition are so well-known that no one will question your leaving to take a Crown-granted concession on Medusa."

"And if I refuse?" Seltman tried to sound menacing.

"Dame Eliska has done some analysis on this."

Dame Eliska consulted her screen and spoke as precisely as a computer: "A conservative analysis says that your refusal, combined with strategic placement of rumors, would destroy your political career quite neatly. You are up for re-election next year, are you not?"

Seltman nodded. He had held his seat for so long he had forgotten how easily it could be taken from him.

"Moreover," Paderweski said, "your business associates will hear those rumors. Projections say that there would be an immediate downturn. Following your failure to be re-elected, your profit base would be diminished by half and fall further thereafter. We would also make certain that your little 'extra' income was cut off entirely. And, of course, your Peep employers might well decide to tie up a loose end once you were no longer of use to them."

"And if I insisted on a trial?" Seltman roared.

"For what?" the Queen said coldly. "No one is accusing you of anything. The Crown is simply offering you a job."

Seltman crumpled, beaten, but even as he accepted the Queen's politely worded exile he was planning his comeback. They would forget him in time. Haven had agents on Medusa; he could contact them. Yes. . . .

The Queen had turned her attention to Paula Gwinner.

"You are somewhat more difficult to deal with," she said, "as I cannot remove your titles. However, I am also offering you a job on Basilisk as assistant to Daniel Chou."

The wiry old man straightened and gave Gwinner a casual wave. His mustaches flopped.

"Liaison to the natives," he said, "in a really lonely district. We probably won't see another human for months at a time. They don't even trade with humans. They're good folks, though. Smell a bit funny, but they are fiercely honorable."

"Mr. Chou will also be in a position to help Mr. Seltman with his new business venture, although I plan to assign him a partner in the concession. There are many loyal servants of the Crown who would be delighted with the opportunity."

Seltman glanced at Gwinner. Paula was clearly in shock. She probably didn't even hear the Queen's next words.

"Your vote, Lady Gwinner, will be handled by proxy. The only difficulty with your somewhat fluid voting record is that you have no strong allies. However, I am certain that Lord Jacob Wundt would be honored to transmit pertinent data to you and forward your votes."

Lady Gwinner straightened. Perhaps, Seltman thought, like him she assumed where there was life and freedom, there was hope.

"Your Majesty, I would be delighted to accept both your offer to relocate and your choice of a proxy."

Her words were spoken so gracefully and with such a genteel flourish that only the glint in her eyes belied them.

"Very good," the Queen said. "Due to the sensitive nature of this meeting, I am assigning all of you bodyguards. You will not know who they are, but I assure you, they will be there. You have my permission to leave."

Escorted by Daniel Chou, the four left.

"I hope the restrictions we've placed on them will be enough," Duchess Winton-Henke said.

"Hope is all we have," Elizabeth said. "Hope that the checks and balances of our system will preserve it. Isn't that what you've been telling me?"

"Precisely, dear." The duchess smiled. "And it's about time for lunch. I don't know about you, but I'm famished!"

* * *

The Earl of North Hollow found himself wishing his son Pavel wasn't away on active service. He would have liked to tuck him behind a curtain somewhere and show him how a masterstroke was delivered.

Three of those he had summoned to him had come at his call. Only Jean Marrou had declined, sending a message that she was "relocating to Sphinx and retiring from public life."

No matter. Despite her brilliance in some areas, she was a small fish indeed. Seltman, Gwinner, and Howell, however, studied him as his butler passed around tea and cakes. Howell's eyes were dull, as if he had taken a mortal blow. Seltman and Gwinner, though . . . they were still sharp and suspicious.

When they were settled and the room sealed (except for his own recording equipment, of course), he rubbed his fat hands together, a parody of the jovial fat man.

"I have gathered you here to note that through my own channels I have become aware of certain of your actions."

He outlined their meetings, their connection with Padraic Dover, the purchasing of certain obscure electronic parts, Seltman's secret trip into the wilds on the day of King Roger's death. Unknown even to himself he provided more data than even Daniel Chou had ferreted out (although in fairness to Chou, Dover's actions had made such ferreting unnecessary).

When he had finished, he paused, pleased with himself.

"I could make this data public," he said, "but I feel that such is a Crown prerogative."

He chuckled greasily. "However, it could come to certain ears in a privy fashion. . . . Perhaps to LeBrun, Earl Howell? I simply wanted you to know this, in case I need you to be, shall we say, of service."

"I am retiring from Parliament," Howell said firmly.

"But an aristocrat never really retires, does he?" He favored Gwinner with a leer. "Or she."

Gwinner barred her teeth in a parody of a smile. "Sadly, my duty to the Crown takes me to Basilisk." And none too soon, you old letch, her eyes seemed to add.

"Lovely," the Earl purred. "Perhaps I shall call on you if I am out that way. Any more tea or cakes? I see that we understand each other. Do be thoughtful now, won't you? For now, my interest parallels that of the Crown. I would hate to see its policies jeopardized."

He centered his thin smile on Seltman. "King Roger was so very popular. I'm certain that any proof that you had a hand in his death might have unfortunate consequences."

Seltman shuddered, a thousand plots for his political resurrection dying under that chilly gaze.

"Of course," he said. "Your interests and those of the Crown are as one."

The Earl of North Hollow looked around his sumptuously appointed study. "The People's Republic of Haven doesn't care for aristocracies, nor for personal ambition. I rather do, and so will my son, Pavel, when I pass on. Remember that, won't you?"

When another offer of tea and cakes was refused, he had the butler show them to the door. Another day's work well done.


Only when lunch was over and the servants dismissed, did Elizabeth finally relax her stiff shoulders. Taking one each of her mother and her brother's hands, she said in a small voice:

"Did I handle that all right? Can you forgive me for not getting better vengeance for Dad?"

Queen Angelique, still in shock from the revelations of the previous hour, could only nod proudly. Michael, however, squeezed her hand tightly.

"You did the right thing, Beth. After watching you be Queen, I don't think the Navy is going to be hard at all."

Elizabeth kissed him. "I'm glad you've made up your mind."

"Cousin Mike helped," Michael admitted bluntly. "She made the Navy sound so good I can hardly bear the thought of not making it in!"

"The people who help are the most important of all." Elizabeth rose from her chair. "Without Justin's willingness to listen to my worries, none of this might have been solved."

"Marrou might have confessed in any case," Justin admitted honestly.

"Perhaps, but indirectly Dover's attacking you was what made her nervous and sent her from the viewing early enough to overhear Gwinner and Seltman. And Dover attacked because you questioned him." She took his arm. "Don't deny me the pleasure of thanking you."

"Then thank Monroe, too," Justin said. "And I can't help but feel that Daniel is getting poor reward for his service."

"Don't," Dame Eliska said surprisingly, stirring her coffee with a fingertip. "Daniel is getting old and was beginning to feel useless. This assignment will make his final years fruitful and keep him from doing something self-defeating like retiring."

Queen Elizabeth surveyed her loyal circle. "Aunt Caitrin is almost certain to be confirmed as Regent. If not, I'm just too tired to worry about what we do next."

"My early indicators," Paderweski said, "and those of Duke Cromarty indicate that she will be."

Elizabeth smiled. "Tonight is my father's funeral. After that, we can begin again."

Queen Mother Angelique nodded and raised her glass in toast: "To new beginnings!"

Coffee mugs and crystal met with a soft chime as the rest took up the Queen Mother's toast:

"To new beginnings!"



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