A Call To Vengeance – Snippet 16
Behind the closed eyelids, the young man’s eyes were moving restlessly. Probably dreaming, Elizabeth Winton-De Quieroz decided as she carefully adjusted the blanket across his collarbone.
Almost certainly having a nightmare.
She lifted her eyes from his troubled face to the bandage wrapped around the top of his skull. He was one of Damocles’s injured, one of the ones caught in the blast when the ship’s dorsal missile launcher exploded, sending deadly shrapnel bouncing down three passageways. Spacer Third Class Belgrand had caught what the doctors guessed was part of a monitor console in his chest and head.
At that, he’d been lucky. Five of his fellow spacers had also been injured, two of them worse than him. Three others had been killed outright.
Killed outright. Like everyone aboard Phoenix and Sphinx, Gemini and Gorgon and Hercules.
Including her nephew Richard.
Belgrand’s face blurred as tears formed in Elizabeth’s eyes. A memory flowed in behind the tears: four years ago, just after the death of her beloved husband Carmichael, sitting with Richard at the palace after her father Michael’s abdication. Richard had been only eighteen at the time, but he’d surprised her with the depth of his compassion, understanding, and wisdom. She could remember that even in the throes of her grief she’d made note of his maturity, and had envisioned the greatness he would someday bring to the throne.
Now, that day would never come.
She blinked back the tears. Mourning was fine in its place, but Richard was beyond her help. The other men and women in the ward weren’t, and it was time she focused her full attention where it would do some good.
With a final look at Belgrand, she slipped quietly out of his room and walked down the corridor past the other quiet rooms and the soft conversation of doctors and nurses. Her visits to the physically wounded were mostly symbolic — the King’s sister, dispensing comfort and blankets and all that. Her real work was with the mentally and emotionally wounded, the ones who those few hours of hell had left with invisible but equally debilitating scars.
She still had twenty minutes before her first appointment, plenty of time to look over her notes and prepare her mind. Just down the hall from the consultation room was a small lounge that was usually unoccupied at this hour, and she headed toward it, nodding silent greetings to the handful of medical staff she passed along the way.
Her first clue that the lounge wasn’t empty was when she rounded the corner and spotted the two men loitering casually just outside the doorway. Large men. Watchful men. Armed men.
She came within an ace of simply turning around and walking away. Her brother had been on her case for the past two months — quietly and subtly, but on her case just the same — and she wasn’t in any mood to hear one of his inspirational speeches on how she needed to get on with her life. Besides, she had important work to do.
But she continued walking, resignation mixing with her annoyance. Realistically, if the King wanted to talk to her, there was very little she could do about it.
It was only as she came close enough to recognize the men’s faces that she realized that those weren’t Edward’s guards. In factâ€¦
She picked up her pace a little. Of all the people in the Palace she actually wanted to talk to —
Crown Princess Sophie was sitting on one of the couches, her legs curled up beneath her, her elbow propped on the back of the couch, her head resting on her hand, her eyes turned toward the window and the glittering sun-lit water of Jason Bay in the distance. Even with her face turned away, there was enough ache and depression in her body language alone to make Elizabeth wince.
“Hello, Sophie,” she greeted her niece. “What brings you here this morning?”
“Hello, Aunt Elizabeth,” Sophie said, not turning around. “I don’t know. I just needed to get out of the Palace for a while.”
“Ah,” Elizabeth said, sitting down in the couch beside her. The girl still hadn’t turned around. “Too many memories?”
“Too many broken people,” Sophie said. “Mom and dadâ€¦they’re trying not to show it. But you can see it. You can see it in everything they say and do.”
“And everything they don’t say?”
Sophie’s shoulders hunched briefly. “That’s the worst. You know? What they don’t say. It’s likeâ€¦they’re hurting, but they can’t show it. Not even to me. Not even to each other.”
“He’s the King,” Elizabeth reminded her. “He probably thinks he has to put up a good front.”
“I know,” Sophie said. “That’s what scares me.”
Sophie exhaled, a long, tired sound. “Because some day that’ll be me,” she said, almost too quietly for Elizabeth to hear. “And I don’t think I can do it.” She turned around.
It was all Elizabeth could do to keep her own face under control. She’d expected puffy eyes, tear-stained cheeks, and all the rest of the aftereffects of a good, long, bitter cry.
What she saw instead was a face that was hard and cold and had had every bit of emotion burned out of it. “Sophie?” she asked carefully.
“You see?” Sophie’s throat worked, the sole indication that there was anything going on behind the rigid exterior. “I try — I really do. But this is what I get. It’s this or — ” She broke off. “How does he do it, Aunt Elizabeth? How does he pretend that everything’s all right. How does he smile?”
“I don’t know,” Elizabeth confessed. “But you don’t have to. You’re not him, Sophie. You don’t ever have to be him.”
“No, I just have to be the Crown Princess.” Sophie closed her eyes, and for a brief moment some of the emotion buried inside leaked out. “I don’t want this, Aunt Elizabeth. I never wanted it.”
“I know, honey,” Elizabeth soothed. She slid a little closer to the young woman and put her arm around her shoulders. “It’s okay. It’ll be okay.”
For a minute they just sat that way in silence, holding each other as they reflected silently on their grief. Finally, Sophie stirred. “Thank you,” she murmured.
“You’re welcome,” Elizabeth said. “It’s what family’s for.”
“At least, what’s left of us.” Sophie took a deep breath.
And as Elizabeth watched, the fear and depression faded from her niece’s face, to be replaced by her father’s strength and dignity and force of will. “Okay,” the young woman said.
“You ready to be Crown Princess again?” Elizabeth asked.
“I suppose,” Sophie said. “You really are good at this, Aunt Elizabeth. You should be in politics.”
“Not a chance,” Elizabeth said firmly. “I’ll take holding the hands of the wounded to refereeing Dapplelake and Breakwater any day.”
“I don’t blame you.” Sophie wrinkled her nose. “I just hope they’re not still going at it by the time I reach the Throne.”
“Not a chance,” Elizabeth said. “Your father’s got at least thirty years of kingship in him, probably more like forty or even fifty. No, you’ll have a whole set of brand-new problems and brand-new annoying people to deal with.”
“Thanks a whole lot,” Sophie said with a small smile. The smile faded. “I don’t know, though. Politics can drive you crazy; but are you sure this job won’t do that, too?”
“Meaning?” Elizabeth asked, hearing an edge of challenge in her voice.
“I just — fine. Does the phrase pressing the bruise mean anything to you?”
Elizabeth felt a lump form in her throat.
“I miss him, Sophie,” she said quietly. “Miss him terribly. But my work here isn’t just a backdoor way to feel sorry for myself. A lot of the people I counsel feel guilty that they survived while their friends didn’t. I know how that feels — that peak bear could just as well have attacked me instead of Carmichael. I can talk to them on their own level, because I’ve been there.”
“I know,” Sophie said. “I see Navy people walking around Landing and I sometimes can’t help wondering why they lived and Richard didn’t. I justâ€¦I don’t want you burying yourself here when there are bigger things you could be doing.”
“Right now, this is as big as I want to get.”
“Okay,” Sophie said. “I justâ€¦I worry about you sometimes.”
“As I worry about you,” Elizabeth said. “That’s also what family’s for.” She patted the girl’s knee. “I know it may not feel like it right now, Sophie, but you’re going to be a good queen someday. I can feel it.”
“I hope so.” Sophie made a face. “Thoughâ€¦I don’t know. Queen Sophie sounds soâ€¦childish, I guess.”
“You want to swap names?” Elizabeth asked dryly. “I’ve always liked yours better than mine.”
“Really,” Elizabeth assured her. “Sophie means wisdom. Elizabeth means my father was trying to get in good with his mother.”
“It does not,” Sophie scoffed. “It means pledged to God. Besides, two Queen Elizabeths? Everyone will think the Royal House of Winton ran out of baby names.”
“It could be worse,” Elizabeth said. “I know brothers who both married women named Sherrie. Forever afterward, everyone had to call them Matt’s Sherrie and Mark’s Sherrie to keep them straight in conversation. At least you’d have The Second after your name.”
“I’ll take it under advisement,” Sophie said. “You know what that means, right?”
“In our family? Absolutely,” Elizabeth assured her. “Your father used that one for years when I was growing up. Usually when I wanted him to do something for me that he didn’t want to do.”
“I’ll bet you were a pesky little sister.”
“You have no idea.” Elizabeth took a deep breath, let it out in a huffing sigh. “We do what we have to, Sophie. And that isn’t always what we want to do.”
“Like putting yourself between Dapplelake and Breakwater?”
Elizabeth forced a smile. “I’ll take it under advisement. Until then, you take care of yourself, okay? And take care of your parents, too. You’re the only one who can.”
“I know.” Sophie forced a smile of her own. “I’ll do my best.”
“You’re a Winton,” Elizabeth reminded her. “I think you’ll find that your best is a lot better than you ever thought it could be.”
“I hope you’re right.” Sophie stood up. “Good-bye, Aunt Elizabeth.”
She watched as Sophie collected her bodyguards and headed back toward the lifts that would take them back outside.
Yes, the Wintons were strong. And historically, at least, they’d always risen to the challenges of their places of authority.
But that authority came with costs. Some of those costs Sophie could already see facing her from her distant future. Some she would be shielded from until she could grow into them, or until she ascended to the Throne.
Some were things that had probably never even occurred to her.
Elizabeth shook her head. Sometimes those were the worst, if only because they reared their heads at the most awkward and unexpected moments.
Maybe she should have warned the girl about that. But that was Edward’s job. Elizabeth had enough trouble handling the realities of life for her own three step-children without taking on that task for someone else’s daughter. Even if that daughter was her niece.
Besides, that was the future. This was the present, and she had work of her own to do. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
Pulling out her tablet, she keyed for her first client’s profile and started to read.
* * *
“You’re not listening,” Chancellor Breakwater growled into his uni-link. “I don’t care who approved it — Cazenestro, Dapplelake, or even King Edward himself. What I want to know is who in bloody hell issued the order in the first place?”
Seated at Breakwater’s secretary’s desk in the outer office, Gavin Vellacott, Baron Winterfall, focused on the set of regulations he’d been tasked with slogging through and tried to ignore the controlled meltdown going on beyond the open door to Breakwater’s main office.
A meltdown he couldn’t fully understand. Breakwater’s primary focus, as always in these situations, was to spin MPARS to its best advantage. Unfortunately — from the Chancellor’s point of view — a non-MPARS person had come up with idea of inflating the two corvettes’ wedges to simulate heavy cruisers, just as a puffer frog swelled itself to twice its size to scare off predators.
From Winterfall’s point of view, it didn’t matter where the idea had come from or who had given which order. None of it diminished in the slightest the crews’ success in bringing their impellers to such an overstressed level and in maintaining the extra load for four hours without collapsing the wedge or losing any of the nodes. Winterfall didn’t know a lot about the technical end of such things, but he knew enough to recognize that was an impressive achievement.