Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 13 

“Are you quite done?” said Cathy. This was an old jape of Anton’s. Most people would have let it go by now, but he was from the Gryphon highlands. One had to make allowances.

“By certain values of ‘town’ and ‘house,’ the label is perfectly appropriate,” said Cachat. His tone was as relaxed and casual as his expression. “To be sure, the values are ones that should be lined up against a wall and shot.”

That was said just as mildly. Cathy wasn’t fooled. She was quite certain that if — no, more likely to have been when — the Havenite agent ever lined someone against a wall and shot them, he’d do so in the same relaxed and casual manner.

Oh, this was going to be so delightful. She’d have to make sure she had a doctor in attendance, though, when she trotted Cachat out for his first public appearance at one of her soirees. He was bound to say something that would cause one or two of the more rigid members of Manticore’s upper crust to suffer cardiac arrest.

****

“He’s a little unsettling, isn’t he?” was Empress Elizabeth’s first comment after Haven’s delegation withdrew from the conference room. She looked at Honor Alexander-Harrington, who was sitting to her left a little way down the large table in the middle of the room. “Special Officer Cachat, I mean.”

Honor chuckled and reached over to scratch the ears of the cream-and-gray treecat perched on the back of the chair beside hers. “At least this time he wasn’t carrying a suicide device. I don’t think he was, anyway.”

Captain Spencer Hawke, her personal armsman, was standing just behind her. His already-stiff stance became rigid. “I assure you, My Lady, he carried no such device… this time. We checked him over thoroughly.” A bit grudgingly, the Grayson added: “So did the Queen’s Own, of course.”

“Not to mention that we had a trio of treecats keeping a beady eye on him,” added Hamish Alexander-Harrington, who was seated across from Honor with Samantha, Nimitz’ mate, curled up neatly in his lap. She made a very pleased with herself sound, and Nimitz and Ariel, the somewhat younger male treecat on the back of Elizabeth‘s chair, bleeked with laughter. Samantha deigned to open one grass-green eye and look at each of them with a predator’s thoughtfulness, then closed the eye once more.

Honor shook her head. “I’m afraid neither of you really understands Victor Cachat. First of all” — she looked at Elizabeth — “to answer your question, yes, he’s a little unsettling. But he’s not a monster or a maniac. He’s more like the closest thing a human can come to a treecat.”

Nimitz issued a sound that was halfway between a purr and a growl. Ariel echoed the sound an instant later, but Samantha merely flipped the tip of her tail.

“The point being,” Honor continued, “any suicide device he’d carry — anywhere, not just here — wouldn’t be a bomb, or anything that would wreak indiscriminate damage. It’d be very selective, with just himself as the target.”

She glanced back at Captain Hawke and then over at the two members of the Queen’s Own Regiment standing guard against the wall behind Elizabeth. “We analyzed the one he brought aboard Imperator when he and Zilwicki paid me that little visit. If he’d activated it, it would have injected him with a chemical compound which would trigger a previously implanted chemical compound that was inert in the absence of the right catalyst . . . at which point it would have sent his heart into severe ventricular fibrillation while simultaneously triggering both brain and pulmonary embolisms.”

The empress grimaced. So did Hamish. For that matter — Honor glanced around the room — so did all the other people seated at the table. Those consisted of William Alexander, Baron Grantville and Prime Minister of the Star Empire of Manticore; Sir Anthony Langtry, the Star Empire’s Foreign Secretary; and two admirals: Sir Thomas Caparelli, First Space Lord, and Admiral Pat Givens.

“So don’t be too sure what Cachat might or might not have been carrying,” Honor continued. “If he thought it was called for, he’s perfectly capable of having a biological mechanism designed so that we could only detect it if we gave him a complete somatic screening. Which we didn’t, of course. That would have been undiplomatic, to say the least.”

Prime Minister Alexander looked alarmed. “If I’d known he was capable of that, I think we should have insisted on a somatic screen.”

Honor started to answer, but the treecats beat her to it. This time, all of them issued sounds that were pretty much pure growls, and Nimitz followed up by pressing one true-hand’s palm to his mouth, then swinging it in a throwing away motion before touching the outermost finger of the same true-hand to his forehead. None of the humans in the room had any problem translating the sign for “bad idea,” and        Hamish barked a laugh.

“It seems none of the six-limbed participants in this little discussion agree with you,” he observed, then looked at Honor for a few seconds. “But I see what you’re getting at. The issue isn’t what Cachat could do but what he would do.”

Honor nodded. “Yes.” She turned back to Elizabeth. “You already knew what Anton Zilwicki’s capable of. Well, now you’ve gotten a feel for how far Cachat will go for something he thinks is really important, which is why you asked for him to come to Manticore. As partnerships go, I think the two of them are the most capable pair of spies the galaxy’s produced in a long, long time. Which is the reason they’ve turned out to be such a nightmare for our real enemies — ours and Haven’s  — and a blessing for us. Men like them don’t give their loyalty lightly, but once they do, it’s stronger than battle steel.”

The last phrase came out flat, certain, final.

“In other words, you’re telling me it’s time to quit shilly-shallying,” said Elizabeth.

“If you dress that up a little, yes. It’s time to decide whether you’re on the floor or sitting out the dance.”

The empress chuckled. So did Hamish. Both admirals just smiled.

For his part, Foreign Secretary Langtry looked unhappy, but didn’t seem inclined to say anything. Prime Minister Grantville sighed and ran his fingers through his hair.

“If I can put this into more formal language,” he said, “what Honor is saying is that while it’s possible Zilwicki and Cachat are wrong, it’s unlikely. And it’s not possible at all that either man’s loyalties are in doubt. Which means our course of action should be based on those presumptions.”

“Spoken like a true statesman, Willie,” said Honor. Nimitz issued a noise that seemed approving. So did Ariel.

Samantha just nodded once, in the gesture the ‘cats had learned from humans centuries ago.

****

“The meeting with the Empress went pretty well, I think,” said Victor later that night over dinner, in response to a question from Cathy. “Hard to be sure, of course. Nobody in that room got where they are by being easy to read.”

Cathy cocked her head. “Then… why do you seem a bit apprehensive?”

Startled, Cachat looked up from his plate. “I do?”

“Tense as a drum,” said Anton. “It’s pretty hard to miss, especially coming from you.”

“Oh. That.” Victor had barely touched his food. Now, he laid down his utensils. Much as a medieval knight on a battlefield might lay down his sword and shield as he conceded defeat.

“I wasn’t actually thinking about that at all,” he said. He glanced at his watch. “We sent the courier to Torch five days ago, right after we arrived here. It should have arrived at Beacon by now.”

Anton sucked his teeth. “Carrying your message to Thandi letting her know that, hey guess what, you’re now on Manticore. Having not stopped at Torch on your way to Haven.”

Cathy looked back and forth between the two men. “Do you think she’ll be upset with you, Victor?”

“Is Uranium 235 fissile material?” mused Anton.

“She’s going to kill me,” foresaw Victor.