A Call To Vengeance – Snippet 22
Back when he was a high-school sophomore, Travis had once accidentally been assigned to a senior-level class. It had taken the office three days to get it all sorted out and transfer him back to the proper class.
The classwork itself hadn’t been too bad. What had made those three days so rough was the sense of being horribly out of place. He was two years behind everyone else, without any social contacts or context, and had no idea how he was supposed to interact with anyone.
He hadn’t thought about the stress of that time in years. Not until he found himself aboard the Royal Yacht Samantha with the exact same stress.
And for exactly the same reason. Travis was a lieutenant. Everyone else aboard in uniform was lieutenant commander or higher, their tunics dripping with medals and ribbons and fancy braid and dress swords everywhere.
Once again, he was a sophomore among seniors.
“You okay?” Lisa murmured from beside him.
Travis took a deep breath, shaking off the feeling. High school was a long ways behind him, after all. And here, at least, he had Lisa to provide moral support. “Just a little overwhelmed, Ma’am,” he said. “Still not sure what I’m doing here.”
“You’re obeying orders, right?”
“Well, yes,” Travis conceded. “But I’m still wondering — ”
“Lieutenant Long?” a voice called from behind him.
Travis turned, some of the fresh spike in his tension bleeding off at the sight of a familiar face. It was Captain Allegra Metzger, who’d been his XO on Guardian during the Secour Incident. “Yes, Ma’am,” he said, giving her his best salute.
“I’d heard you were going to be aboard,” Metzger said, returning the salute and giving Travis an unexpectedly warm smile. “Congratulations on your excellent work aboard Casey. That was a wonderfully inspired idea.”
“Thank you, Ma’am,” Travis said. “I was just lucky I came up with it in time.”
“Careful, Lieutenant,” Metzger warned, her smile taking any bite out of the words. “Your captain doesn’t like his officers using that word.”
Unbidden, and probably improper — Metzger was a superior officer, after all — an answering smile touched Travis’s lips. “You mean lucky, Ma’am?”
“That’s the word.” Metzger shifted her eyes to Lisa. “Commander Donnelly,” she greeted the younger woman. “You’re looking well.”
“Thank you, Ma’am,” Lisa said.
“And ditto what I said about Lieutenant Long’s maneuver,” Metzger continued. “Your coordination with the MPARS corvettes was equally inspired, and obviously just as successful.”
“Thank you, Ma’am,” Lisa said again. “Though if we’re keeping score, I have to point out that Mr. Long’s battlecruiser trumps our little destroyer.”
“Point,” Metzger agreed. “Too bad no one paints kill silhouettes on their ships the way stingships do. Maybe we should adopt that custom. Have either of you met the King yet?”
Travis blinked, the sudden change of subject catching him completely off-guard.
“Ahâ€¦no, Ma’am. Uh — ” He looked helplessly at Lisa.
“No, we haven’t, Ma’am,” Lisa said more calmly.
“Then it’s time you did,” Metzger said. “Come on — I’ll introduce you.”
She headed off, weaving her way through the small knots of conversation that had formed all along the Samantha’s deck. Travis watched her go, a sudden panic freezing his brain. She was going to introduce him to the King?
He started as Lisa slipped a reassuring hand around his upper arm. “Come on, Travis,” she murmured. “You lived through a space battle. You can live through this.”
The King was in another small gathering of people, their faces all earnest and thoughtful. Travis recognized one of the women: Princess Elizabeth, the King’s half-sister. The other three, two men and a woman, were dressed in civilian clothing, and Travis had the nagging feeling that he should know all of them by sight, too.
But it was too late to back off and try to gather more intel. Metzger had already passed the pair of bodyguards at this end of the group, and the King had already broken off his conversation and had smoothed out some of his seriousness as he looked with interest at the newcomers, and Travis would just have to go through with it and do the best he could.
The brief etiquette text he’d read had warned that a guest should always allow the King to speak first. Fortunately, that hurdle was quickly and easily crossed. “Captain Metzger,” the King said, smiling and nodding in greeting as Metzger approached. “Good to see you again.” He nodded to Lisa and Travis. “Would you care to introduce your colleagues?”
“I would be honored, Your Majesty,” Metzger said, giving him a brief bow. Straightening up again, she half turned and gestured to Travis and Lisa. “May I present Lieutenant Commander Lisa Donnelly, currently of His Majesty’s Ship Damocles; and Lieutenant Travis Uriah Long, currently of His Majesty’s Ship Casey. Commander, Lieutenant: His Majesty, King Edward.”
“Commander Donnelly,” the King said, inclining his head to her. “And Lieutenant Long,” he continued, shifting his attention to Travis.
And it seemed to Travis that there was a sudden new interest glistening in the King’s eyes and face.
“I’ve read about your actions and the actions of your ships during the Battle of Manticore,” the King continued. “The Star Kingdom is in your debt.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Lisa said, bowing to him the way Metzger had.
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Travis said, following her cue.
“Allow me to introduce some of Manticore’s other defenders,” the King said, gesturing to his conversational companions. “This is Davis Harper, Duke Burgundy, the Star Kingdom’s Prime Minister. Beside him is James Mantegna, Earl Dapplelake, the Minister of Defense. And the lady is Clara Sumner, Countess Calvingdell.”
Travis suppressed a wince. Who was also the former Minister of Defense, having been tossed out four T-years ago when Edward ascended the Throne and reinstated Dapplelake in that post.
And here she was now, talking with her replacement and the man who had kicked her out of her job.
Travis wasn’t good at reading people’s emotions, especially when those people were on their best behavior. But he had no doubt there was some serious tension going on beneath the surface.
“Pleased to meet you,” Burgundy said as the other two murmured agreement. Apparently, the protocol was for him to speak for all three of them.
“Pleased to meet you, Your Grace; My Lord; My Lady,” Metzger responded, nodding to each in turn. “And if I may be so bold, may I express our gratitude for the work that all of you have done in giving the Navy the people and tools necessary to defend the Star Kingdom.”
“Thank you, Captain,” Burgundy said gravely. “In retrospect, I’m only sorry we didn’t push harder.”
“But I think it’s safe to say that the Cabinet’s priorities are going to reflect that new focus in the very near future,” Dapplelake added.
Travis winced to himself. Now what? Was he supposed to say something? What was he supposed to say? What kind of small talk did you make with the King? Thank you for inviting us aboard, Your Highness? I think you’re doing a good job? I like your tie?
The King’s eyes shifted to something behind Travis. “If you’ll all excuse me,” he said, starting toward the gap between Metzger and Travis, “I have a small matter to attend to.”
“Of course, Your Majesty,” Dapplelake said, again apparently speaking for the group. Travis quickly stepped aside, the King and two more of his bodyguards swept past, the King sending a final smile in Travis’s direction as he left.
“Again, congratulations,” Burgundy said, craning his neck as he looked at someone further along the deck. “If you’ll excuse me, there’s someone else I need to speak to.”
“Of course, Your Grace.” Metzger gestured to Travis and Lisa, and the three of them turned and headed in the other direction.
And with that, it was suddenly over.
Beside Travis, Lisa seemed to wilt a little. “Well,” she said.
“Well what?” Metzger asked, sounding amused.
“Just well, Ma’am,” Lisa said. “I’ve — first time I’ve ever met royalty.”
“Well, I suggest you get used to it, Commander,” Metzger said. Travis threw her a sideways look, but the amusement he thought he’d heard earlier was gone. “You’re a rising star, and nowadays that suggests you’ll eventually find yourself up to your collar in politics.”
“Wonderful,” Lisa muttered.
“Fortunately, that’s still a ways in your future,” Metzger soothed. “Right now, Cazenestro and Locatelli have that role sewed up. But they won’t be around forever; and when they go, it’ll be up to officers like you.” She shifted her gaze to Travis. “And you, too, Lieutenant,” she added.
“I hope not, Ma’am,” Travis said. “If Commander Donnelly isn’t up to it, I’m certainly not.”
“You will be,” Metzger assured him. She raised her eyes to the horizon, where only the tallest buildings of Landing were still visible in the distance. “But as I said, that’s the future. For now, I believe they’re setting up an appetizer bar at the stern. Let’s show the politicians and MPARS officers how to do a proper reconnaissance in force.”
* * *
Sophie was standing half-concealed in one of the cabin hatchway alcoves, partially shielded from the brisk sea wind, when Edward reached her.
To find that his half-seen glimpse a moment ago had been correct. The Crown Princess wasn’t alone.
Apparently, she’d brought a date.
Edward clenched his teeth. Of all places, and of all times.
And of all people.
Sophie smiled at him as he approached. Her smile slipped, just a bit, as she saw the look on his face, but she had it back in place by the time he reached the happy couple. “Hello, Father,” she greeted him, ducking her head in respect. “There’s someone I’d like you to meet.” She took the arm of the young man at her side, easing him just a bit closer to her. His face, Edward noted, wasn’t nearly as calm and controlled as Sophie’s. “This is Peter Young, eldest son of Hadrian Young, Earl North Hollow.”
“Your Majesty,” Young gulped, bending deeply at the waist as if hoping a sufficiently deep bow would render him invisible.
Edward could only wish that was true.
“Yes, I know,” he said, nodding curtly to the boy. “A word, Sophie. If you’ll excuse us, Mr. Young?”
“Of course, Your Majesty,” Young said. He bowed again, then eased gingerly past Edward and hurried away down the deck at a quick, stiff-backed walk.
Edward looked back at his daughter. Her eyes were apprehensive, but her jaw was set firmly. Silently, he motioned to the cabin door behind her. Her lip twitched, but she obediently reached behind her back, found the knob, and opened the door. A moment later, they were alone in the cabin, the door once again closed against possible interruption.
“Let me guess,” she said with a sigh. “I should have asked your permission to bring a date along.”
So she thought of it as a date, too. Wonderful.
“But I did clear it with Colonel Jackson,” she went on. “And North Hollow has been doing good work with the Survivor’s Fund that Aunt Elizabeth set up — ”
“Sophie,” Edward said, holding up his hands, palms toward her. “This isn’t about Peter Young, or even Sophie Winton. It’s about Crown Princess Sophie.”
Sophie frowned. “Excuse me?”
“In case you’ve forgotten,” Edward said, “let me remind you that the Constitution stipulates that the monarch must marry a commoner.”
Her eyes widened with surprise and a hint of outrage. “Dad, I’m not planning to marry him,” she protested. “It’s one casual date.”
“And every marriage on Manticore started with one casual date,” he countered. “What happens if one of these casual dates turns into something more? Are you ready for the heartbreak of having to say good-bye to him?”
“So what, I should never have any friends with titles?” Sophie bit out. “Friends sometimes turn into husbands, too, you know.”
“Which is why you have to guard your friendships, too,” Edward said gently. “I’m sorry, Sophie. I really am. I never meant for this to happen to you. But this is the reality, and you’re going to have to accept it.”
Sophie looked away. “It’s not fair, you know,” she said in a low voice. “None of it.”
“Once you’re Queen you can try to get the Constitution changed,” he said. “But I’ll warn you, it’ll be an uphill battle.”
For a moment the cabin was silent. Then, Sophie took a deep breath. “Well, at least you’re not going to make him swim home,” she said with a touch of the old Sophie sense of humor. “That was how you looked when I first saw you.” Her eyes narrowed slightly. “You aren’t, are you?”
“Of course not,” he assured her. “But that does bring up another point. Everyone aboard is all right and will understand. But there will be people at the dock when we return who may not. There will probably also be some watching who revel in spreading rumors and innuendo. I’d rather not pump hydrogen into their bonfires, if you know what I mean.”
“So you do want him to swim home.”
“No, but it wouldn’t hurt to put him in one of the aft cabins when we get close to Landing,” Edward said. “I’ll instruct Major Fergueson to let him out once the rest of us have disembarked and are on our way to the memorial service.”
“Right,” Sophie said. “Like having Peter skulk around under the radar isn’t going to raise some eyebrows.”
“Only if the eyes beneath those eyebrows actually see him. If we do this right, they won’t.”
“I suppose.” Sophie sighed again. “Okay, I’ll tell him.”
“Thank you.” Edward started to turn back toward the door, then turned back. “Oh, and he will be in the cabin alone.”
“Dad!” Sophie said, sounding thoroughly scandalized. “I said it was just casual.”
Beneath his feet, Edward felt the slight change in vibration as the Samantha’s engines slowed. Right on schedule. “Right,” he said. “I forgot.”
“Well, don’t.” Sophie wrinkled her nose. “Aunt Elizabeth said there were costs to being Crown Princess. This was one she didn’t mention.”
“I know,” Edward said. “And again, I’m sorry.” He lifted a finger. “But there are some advantages to being the Monarch,” he said. “Namely, getting to do things that everyone else tells you you’re not supposed to.”
“Right,” Sophie said, frowning slightly. “Like what, drinking red wine with fish?”
“Like this.” He crooked the raised finger back toward the door in invitation. “Come on. I’ll show you.”
* * *
Travis had spotted the boats approaching rapidly from astern shortly after they cleared the horizon. He’d pointed them out to Lisa, and they’d had a short discussion on whether or not they should alert anyone. But then Lisa noticed that the King’s Own at Samantha’s stern were also watching the approaching watercraft and were showing no signs of alarm. A few minutes later, as the approaching vehicles resolved themselves into a pair of sleek hydroplane racing boats, Samantha’s engines changed pitch, and the yacht began slowing to a stop. Again, the guards showed no concern, and Travis put it behind him.
Until he spotted Princess Elizabeth standing by the rail staring at the approaching boats.
And the King’s sister did not look happy.
“Over there,” Lisa murmured, pointing at an empty section of railing as some of the other guests began wandering curiously sternward. “Come on.”
“What?” Travis asked, hurrying to catch up as she headed off. “Why?”
“I want to see what’s going on,” Lisa said over her shoulder. “Snap it up — the King and Princess Sophie are on the way.”
They were in Lisa’s chosen place by the portside rail — downwind from Elizabeth, Travis noted, where the presumed upcoming royal conversation would carry well — when King Edward and Crown Princess Sophie reached Princess Elizabeth.
Apparently, the warning Travis had read about letting the King speak first didn’t apply to family.
“You aren’t serious,” Elizabeth said in a low voice.
“I’m very serious,” Edward assured her. “And really, you’re worrying about nothing.”
A couple of people in civilian clothing, apparently realizing they were in the eavesdropping zone, moved politely away from the rail. Lisa, behind Travis, nudged him to move a little closer.
“The sea is smooth, the wind is perfect,” the King continued.
“And at three hundred kilometers an hour it doesn’t take much of a wave to — ”
“And this is the last time.”
Elizabeth broke off.
“What do you mean, the last time?”
“Just what I said: the last time,” the King repeated. Travis could only see half his face, the other half blocked by his sister’s head, but he looked very serious. “At least, for a long while. Sophie understands that in her new role as Crown Princess she has to give up this kind of activity. I thought that as a gift to her she and I could have one last outing before putting the hydroplanes away. And the hang gliders, and the eddy-spinners, and all the rest of the excitement in her life.”
“Now you’re just trying to make me look bad,” Elizabeth said. “So you’re not going to be doing your usual racing thing?”
“No racing,” Edward assured her. “Just a father and daughter getting out on the water to feel the wind in our faces. Actually, I’m thinking we’ll just go on ahead and make sure everything’s ready for the luncheon.”
“You won’t be doing any crazy stunts?”
“Well, I won’t,” Edward said. “Sophie, are you planning any crazy stunts?”
“No, Your Majesty,” Sophie said solemnly.
“The King’s Own has cleared the whole area?”
“Out to five kilometers.”
“The boats have been thoroughly checked out?”
“Two times each, by two different techs.”
“And you’ll keep it under two hundred kph?”
The King and Crown Princess looked at each other. “If it’ll make you feel better, yes,” the King agreed.
Elizabeth’s shoulders heaved in a silent sigh. “And I can’t stop you anyway, can I?”
“Please, Aunt Elizabeth,” Sophie said. “Can you just be happy that I’m getting one last ride before I have to be all upright and proper?”
“And boring?” the King murmured.
Elizabeth shook her head. “You two are hopeless,” she said. “Fine. But if I have to watch this, Sophie, don’t expect me to come watch your next hang gliding, too.”
“Fair enough,” Sophie said. “Thank you.”
“Now that that’s settled,” the King said, “it’s time to get suited up. Your gear’s in Cabin Three, Sophie. Last one in their boat is — ”
“Edward?” Elizabeth interrupted, her voice ominous. “You said no races.”
The King frowned briefly, then smiled and inclined his head. “I did, didn’t I,” he agreed. “Fine. Sophie, last one in their boat is last one in their boat. Good enough?”
“You know, even a King isn’t supposed to mock his younger sister,” Elizabeth said. “But fine. Go suit up, Sophie. Just promise me that when you get to Triton you make sure your father doesn’t eat all the crab cakes.”
“I will,” Sophie promised. She gave her aunt a quick hug, then hurried forward along the deck.
“You be careful,” Elizabeth said, almost too quietly for Travis to hear. “And keep her careful, too.”
“I will,” the King said, taking her hand. “And I promise: it will be the last time. At least until she’s Queen and can drive you crazy with these things without my help.”
“Yes, that makes me feel so much better.”
The King gave her a final smile, then headed off after his daughter.
Lisa tapped Travis’s arm, and together they drifted away from the rail.
“What do you think of that?” she asked.
Travis shook his head. “I don’t like it.”
“It is a little risky,” Lisa conceded. “There are a lot of things that can go wrong when you’re traveling that fast.”
“I’m sure they know what they’re doing,” Travis said. “I just don’t think it fits the proper mood of the day. This is supposed to be an afternoon of gratitude, with an evening of solemn remembrance following it. Doesn’t seem right for the King to head off on a hydroplane jaunt as if this was just another afternoon’s outing.”
“Maybe,” Lisa said, a bit doubtfully. “But then, he is King. He kind of gets to do whatever he wants.”
“I suppose. But as King, shouldn’t he also do what’s good and proper?”
“I suppose.” Lisa pondered a moment. “Tell you what. When you get to be King, you can make out a list of good and proper things for future kings to follow.”
Travis frowned sideways at her. Was she mocking him?
Probably. But that was all right. Somehow, jibes from her didn’t hurt. “Great idea,” he said. “I’ll start campaigning for the job tomorrow.”
“Sounds good,” Lisa said. “For now, let’s just campaign for a few of those little nut clusters on the appetizer table.”
Travis craned his neck. Those clusters did look good. “Is that an order, Commander?”
“Absolutely, Lieutenant.” She nodded toward the table. “I’m going in. Cover me.”