Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 21


Chapter 14

After the delegation from Torch had all entered the suite assigned to them in Mount Royal Palace, Berry turned to Thandi.

“But…” Her voice was very small. “If you go too, what’ll … I mean…”

Palane put an arm around her. “You’ll be fine, girlfriend. Your father will need me a lot more than you will. Jeremy isn’t really planning any coup d’états, as it turns out.”

“Lord, no,” said Jeremy, sprawling onto a couch in the suite’s central chamber. “I’d be a lamb among lions. The only woman on Torch scarier than the Great Kaja is the damn Queen herself.”

Berry gave him a reproving glance. “Am not.”

“Are too. The veritable reincarnation of that Russia czarina. Catherine the Great, wasn’t it? Except her husband was a squishy fellow — she had him deposed, if I recall correctly — whereas our Queen’s consort is one of those Beowulfan knee-breakers. Ogres flee at his approach.”

In a more serious tone, he added: “I’m really quite satisfied with the way our government’s turning out, Berry. Especially you.” He cast a colder eye on DuHavel, standing nearby. “I’m not even too disgruntled with our Prime Minister. Wishy-washy though he be, and given to far too many compromises with the establishment.”

“We are the establishment, Jeremy,” Web said mildly.

“Pah! Only on our own itty-bitty planet. I was speaking of the great behemoths of the galactic establishment.”

DuHavel eased himself into a couch at right angles to the one Jeremy was occupying. “In any event, whether or not I am indeed guilty of compromisitis, I think it’s all becoming a moot point. Or am I the only one who thinks we’re about to be tasked with providing the new anti-Manpower alliance with an occupation force for Mesa? Not all of it, of course. Not even most of it.”

Berry stared at him. “Huh?”

Jeremy smiled, very thinly. “I’m reading the tea leaves — say better, the entrails — about the same way as you, Web.”

Berry now stared at him. “Huh?”

“Same here,” chimed in Thandi. She was still on her feet, close to the door, in a parade rest stance. “In fact, I think it’s pretty much a done deal.”

Berry turned to stare at her. “Huh?”

The door buzzed. Thandi glanced at her watch. “About what I figured.” Leaning over slightly, she opened the door.

Victor Cachat came in, followed closely by Anton Zilwicki. A little behind them was Jacques Benton-Ramirez y Chou.

Thandi and Victor looked at each other, both very stiff-faced. Anton’s mouth quirked a little and he said: “You can blame me, Thandi. Victor was all for stopping at Torch first, but –“

“He’s lying,” said Victor.

“You’re lying,” said Thandi. Neither one of them looked away from each other.

“– I insisted that, oh, the hell with it. If the two of you won’t accept that perfectly workable attempt to provide everyone with a way to save face, drop it anyway. We’re got a mission to organize, not to mention laying plans for an occupation force for Mesa.”

Berry scowled. “I hate feeling like the dunce in a crowd. What are you all talking about?”

“If it makes you feel any better, Your Majesty, I’m scrambling to catch up myself,” said Jacques, closing the door behind him.

Berry was still grumpy enough to say: “Don’t call me ‘Your Majesty.’ I hate that title.” A bit belatedly, she added: “Please.”

“You’re not at home, Your Majesty,” Web said. “He has to and you have to let him.”

“What he said,” chipped in Jeremy. “Although now that we’re here on Manticore we’re going to run into a bit of a problem. There’s one too many majesties about. So we have to start adding modifiers. That’s how they used to do it back in the old days. ‘Your Most Christian Majesty,’ ‘Your Most Catholic Majesty,’ that sort of thing.”

He looked around the room. “What say you, gentle folk? I propose Her Most Modest Majesty.”

Berry sniffed. “Wasn’t three minutes ago you said I was the reincarnation of Catherine the Great.”

“I was hoping you’d forgotten. All right, then. Her Most Fearsome Majesty.”

Whether by conscious intent or not — and with Jeremy X you never knew; there was usually a method to his whimsy — his banter had eased some of the personal tension in the room.

Quite a bit, as it turned out. Thandi took three steps over to Victor, seized the back of his head and planted a quick, fierce kiss on his lips. “I forgive you,” she said. “Don’t do it again.”

Then, taking him by the hand, she led him over to another couch where they both sat down. This couch was the third leg of a U-shaped furniture arrangement in the center of the room. They faced Jeremy across a table that had presumably begun life as a coffee table but had long since mutated into a low-slung version of something that belonged in a banquet hall. Web DuHavel sat to their right, on the couch that formed the connecting link to the U.

Berry sat next to Web. He slid over to allow her room in the middle of the couch so that Anton could take a seat on her other side. Jeremy did the same so that Jacques and Ruth could share his couch. The Beowulfer leaned back in a very relaxed manner, something which the high-tech and expensive piece of furniture made easy to do. Ruth, as was her habit, perched on the edge of the seat. The couch put up a fight but she mastered the beast easily enough.

Once everyone was seated — or half-seated, in the case of Ruth — Jacques said: “I wasn’t actually trying to reassure Her Majesty. I really am trying to catch up. Am I correct in thinking that at least some of you are seriously contemplating using Torch troops as part of an occupying force for Mesa? If so, I suspect my niece is of a like mind.”

“And what do you think?” asked Victor.

“I don’t know. The idea hadn’t even occurred to me before this.”

The Havenite agent nodded at Zilwicki. “Anton and I spent a fair amount of time discussing the idea. Since we had plenty of time to spare, while we were drifting around in space. The logic is quite robust.”

“Sure is,” said Ruth. She started counting off on her fingers. “First, we’ve got to occupy Mesa. I leave aside for the moment the precise definition of ‘we,’ but at the very least it’ll include the Star Empire, the Republic of Haven, the Kingdom of Torch, and — this is a bit of a guess, but the odds are long in favor — Beowulf.”

“You can take that as a given also,” said Benton-Ramirez y Chou.

“Add to that Erewhon and Maya Sector,” said Victor. “Not immediately, but sooner or later it’s bound to happen.”

Jacques cocked his head at him. “Erewhon, I concur. But are you sure about Maya Sector? Barregos and Roszak are about as devoted to realpolitik as the Andermanni.”

“If ‘rayal politique’ means what I think it means,” said Berry, “I think you’re misjudging them a little. Luiz Roszak, anyway. I don’t know Oravil Barregos.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Anton. “Cold-blooded self-interest will drive them toward us just as quickly as whatever shreds of idealism they still possess.” A bit grudgingly, he added: “Which are some pretty big shreds, at least in the case of Roszak.”

“To get back to the point,” said Ruth, “once everybody figures out that we have to occupy Mesa sooner or later” — she held up another finger — “it won’t take them long to realize that sooner is way better than later. That’s because –“

Another finger came up. “A big part of this war is the propaganda front. Most people in the Solarian League still don’t believe our version of what’s happening. The single biggest step we could take to start turning that around is to overrun Mesa. Fast and hard. That way we can — hopefully — get access to their own records.”

Anton grunted skeptically. “I wouldn’t count on that. The very fact that McBryde could do the damage he did indicates the Alignment has contingencies in place to destroy any critical records if they need to.”

Ruth looked stubborn, an expression that came rather naturally to her. “Okay, maybe. But there’ll still be people who can be interrogated.”

“Unless they murder all of them,” said Jeremy, “which I wouldn’t put past the bastards for a minute.”