A Call To Arms – Snippet 12
Lisa Donnelly had called from the shuttle landing field to let Travis know that she was ready to come pick up her dog, and to make sure he would be home.
Travis was home, was ready, and had nervously paced exactly one hundred seventy-four circuits around the room by the time the door chime finally rang.
To his relief, the anticipated awkwardness didn’t materialize. Lisa walked in with a smile and a casual greeting, and then dropped into a crouch and whistled for Crumpets. By the time the Scottie came racing from the bedroom on her little legs, and she and Lisa had had their joyous reunion, any hint of discomfort had long since passed.
And if it hadn’t, Lisa’s next smile would have done the trick. “Thank you so much, Travis,” she said, standing up again with the dog resting in the crook of her arm. “You have no idea how much this means to me.”
“It was no trouble,” Travis assured her. “Crumpets is a great little houseguest.”
“Well, good guest or not, I owe you one,” Lisa said. “Thanks again.”
“No problem,” Travis said, bracing himself. “Umâ€¦you might not know, just coming in today, but there’s supposed to be an announcement from the Palace in about — ” he checked his chrono ” — an hour. If you leave now, you may not get home in time to watch it live. You’re welcome to wait and watch it here if you’d like.”
“That’s all right — if I don’t make it I can listen in the car,” Lisa said. “I don’t want to impose.”
“You’re not imposing,” Travis assured her, trying to keep the sudden desperation out of his voice. He’d been preparing for this moment — and thinking of ways to prolong it — practically since Damocles left Manticoran orbit. “I’ve got some strawberries fresh from this morning’s farmer’s market, and I was going to make some chocolate fondue to dip them in. And you can tell me about Casca while we wait for the broadcast.”
“Oh, Casca was a trip and a half,” Lisa said soberly.
“In a good way, or a bad way?”
“Definitely the bad way.” She hesitated. “I probably shouldn’t be telling you any of this — it’s not exactly classified, but Captain Marcello wanted it kept as quiet as possible. But with your sideways way of thinking — and you do know how to keep a secret. The Phobos thing showed that much.”
“Uh-huh,” Travis said, a twinge of guilt pulling at him. He had not, in fact, entirely kept his role in that incident secret. He’d blabbed that one critical detail to his half-brother, Gavin.
At the time, of course, he’d been frustrated and aching and fully intending to leave the Navy once his five-T-year hitch was up.
He’d never known what use Gavin had made of that indiscretion. He’d expected it to come back to haunt him, though, and had walked on eggshells for several months afterward, waiting for the inevitable official fallout.
No such fallout had ever come. But that didn’t mean he didn’t occasionally still feel it looming silently over his head.
Regardless, he’d learned his lesson. Whatever Lisa told him would stay strictly between them. Especially if it meant spending a few more minutes with her this afternoon.
“Why don’t you go into the living room and sit down?” he suggested. “I’ll go get the fondue going.”
“Let me come help,” Lisa volunteered. “Years of eating fondues, and I’ve never yet seen anyone set one up.”
“You may be disappointed to find out how incredibly simple it is,” Travis warned.
“I’ll take my chances,” Lisa said. “Come on. Let’s melt some chocolate into submission, and I’ll tell you all about Casca.”
* * *
Winton family dinners, Edward reflected, didn’t happen very often anymore. And the depressing fact was that when they did they were far too often of this sort.
Bleak. Painful. Quiet.
He looked around the table, trying to envision how his family had looked in happier times. But for some reason, his brain found it impossible to bring up those images. All he could see was what was, with perhaps a shadowing of what was to come.
At the head of the table sat his father, King Michael, eating mechanically, his gaze a million light-years away. Beside him was his wife Mary, her own gaze alternating between her husband and the plateful of food she was barely picking at. At Edward’s own sides were his wife Cynthia and his son Richard, neither of whom were making any more headway on their meal than anyone else. On Cynthia’s other side was their daughter Sophie, who was probably trying harder than anyone else in the family to exude some cheerfulness, and failing miserably.
And directly across from Edward was his sister Elizabeth.
Edward was trying hard not to look at her. Probably everyone at the table was, if only from a desire to offer her whatever degree of privacy they could while sitting bare meters away. But perversely, and despite his best intentions, Edward found it impossible to keep his eyes turned away for long.
There was just something about widow’s garb that irresistibly drew people’s attention.
In her place, Edward reflected, he probably would have opted to skip this event entirely. No one would have blamed her. The King certainly hadn’t commanded her presence.
But Elizabeth had a strength of will far beyond Edward’s own, as well as a stubborn streak a kilometer and a half wide. Both qualities had driven him crazy in the past, back when he was the teenaged heir to the Manticoran Throne and she was just a smart-mouthed kid who felt it was her sacred duty to keep her half-brother from feeling too comfortable.
The two of them had butted heads countless times over the years. But there’d never been any doubt in his mind that she loved him dearly, just as there was never any doubt that he loved her.
And now, to see her sitting there like a bag of broken glassâ€¦
Perhaps sensing his troubled gaze, she looked up from her plate. Their eyes met, and for a brief eternity a wordless flicker of empathy and understanding flowed between them. Then her eyes closed in a slow blink, and when they opened again the moment had passed. She was again his younger half-sister, a wounded bird, standing defiantly against the pain. “It’s all right, Edward,” she murmured, just loud enough for him to hear. “It’s not about me. Not today.”
Edward nodded. Understanding or agreement, she could take it whichever way she wanted.
He looked his attention to the three children seated on her right and left. They, too, were trying to be brave and grown-up. But to him they looked like baby chicks huddled beneath their mother’s wings. They hadn’t been present at the horrific hunting accident that had taken their father, so unlike Elizabeth they wouldn’t have those images etched eternally across their retinas.
But they would never forget the day they’d been given the news. They would never forget the words their grandfather and grandmother had used in that terrible and life-changing moment.
Just as Edward himself would never forget his own ill-considered and morbidly prescient words bare weeks before the tragedy.
Mary and I will be watching them, the King had said, referring to Elizabeth’s step-children as she and her husband Carmichael prepared for their Sphinxian hunt.
So trading off a potential mauling versus guaranteed and unabashed spoiling? Edward had flippantly replied.
He hoped desperately his father hadn’t repeated those words to Elizabeth. Bad enough that he would have to remember them the rest of his life. It would be too much to bear if he knew Elizabeth would also associate her husband’s death with her half-brother that way.
The word, crashing in upon the silence, was startling. But Edward had had words unexpectedly thrown at him by senior officers over the years, and his body managed not to flinch. “Yes?” he answered, looking up.
His father was gazing at him from the head of the table, his eyes older and wearier than Edward had ever seen them. “It’s time,” the King said gently. “We need to get ready.” He nodded to Edward’s son. “You, too, Richard.”
Edward gave his sister one last glance as he rose from his seat, feeling as he did so his wife Cynthia’s brief reassuring squeeze on his arm. “Yes, Sir,” he said.
It’s not about me. Elizabeth’s quiet words echoed through Edward’s mind as he and his father left the dining room and made their way down the Palace hallway. She’d been right. Tonight was about their father, and about the future of the entire Star Kingdom.
Edward swallowed hard. God help us, he prayed silently. God help us all.
* * *
“Hurry up, Gavin,” Breakwater snapped from across the room. “We’re going to be late.”
“Yes, My Lord,” Winterfall said, peering into the mirror and making a small adjustment to his jacket. He could understand the Chancellor’s impatience; it wasn’t often these days that King Michael asked to address a session of the House of Lords. And it was practically unheard-of for him to ask that the session be broadcast live.
Naturally, Breakwater suspected something underhanded was about to happen. And given that today was also supposed to be the day that the first two of the Pegasus-class corvettes would be formally handed over to MPARS, the focus of the Chancellor’s suspicions were leaning that direction.
Winterfall wasn’t ready yet to buy into Breakwater’s current conspiracy thoughts. Certainly not about the corvettes and MPARS. For one thing, the Navy didn’t have a whole lot of wiggle room in that deal, especially given that the King had officially signed off on it. For another, there was no way Michael would be crazy enough to try to renege on the arrangement in full sight of God, Parliament, and the entire population of Manticore.
In fact, especially given that the Palace had announced Crown Prince Edward would also be there, there was only one possibility Winterfall could see that would jibe with Breakwater’s fears.
And that possibility was a frightening one. If the King had decided that MPARS was chipping too strongly at the RMN, what better solution than to take control of the service away from the Exchequer and make it into its own, independent department? And if he did, who better to hand it off to than his own Navy-trained son?
That scenario apparently hadn’t occurred to Breakwater, and Winterfall had no intention of bringing it to his attention. Still, it was the most likely possibility he’d come up with. And of course, by making the announcement as publicly as possible, the King would give Breakwater a choice: sit silently by in apparent assent, or go ballistic in full view of the entire Star Kingdom.