Mission Of Honor – Snippet 46

And those difficulties just got one hell of a lot “thornier,” Elizabeth thought sourly. Not just where domestic politics are concerned, either.

“Cathy,” the queen said, extending her hand across the desk.

“Your Majesty,” Montaigne replied as she shook the proffered hand, and Elizabeth snorted mentally. No one had ever accused Catherine Montaigne of a chutzpah deficiency, but she was clearly on her best behavior this morning. Despite the other woman’s lifetime of experience in the public eye, Elizabeth could see wariness and worry in her eyes, and the formality of her greeting suggested Montaigne was aware of just how thin the ice underfoot had become.

Well, of course she is. She may be a lunatic, and it’s for damned sure God forgot to install anything remotely resembling reverse gear when He assembled her, but she’s also one of the smartest people in the Old Star Kingdom. Even if she does take a perverse pleasure in pretending otherwise.

“I’m sorry my invitation didn’t come under more pleasant circumstances,” Elizabeth said out loud, pointing at a waiting armchair when Montaigne released her hand, and the ex-countess’ lips twitched ever so slightly.

“So am I,” she said.

“Unfortunately,” Elizabeth continued, sitting back down in her own chair, “I didn’t have much choice. As I’m sure you’d already deduced.”

“Oh, you might say that.” Montaigne’s expression was sour. “I’ve been under siege by newsies of every possible description since this broke.”

“Of course you have. And it’s going to get one hell of a lot worse before it gets better . . . assuming it ever does get better,” Elizabeth said. She waited until Montaigne settled into the armchair then shook her head.

“Cathy, what the hell were you people thinking?”

The queen didn’t need a treecat’s empathic sense to recognize Montaigne’s sudden flash of anger. Part of Elizabeth sympathized with the other woman; most of her didn’t give much of a damn, though. Whatever else, Montaigne had voluntarily associated herself with some of the bloodiest terrorists (or “freedom fighters,” depending upon one’s perspective) in the history of mankind. Choosing to do something like that was bound to result in the occasional minor social unpleasantness, Elizabeth thought trenchantly.

The good news was that Montaigne had always understood that. And it was evident she’d anticipated that question — or one very much like it — from the moment she received Elizabeth’s “invitation.”

“I assume you’re talking about Green Pines,” she said.

“No, I’m talking about Jack’s decision to assault the beanstalk,” Elizabeth said caustically. “Of course I’m talking about Green Pines!”

“I’m afraid,” Montaigne replied with a degree of calm remarkable even in a politician of her experience, “that at this moment you know just as much about what actually happened in Green Pines as I do.”

“Oh, cut the crap, Cathy!” Elizabeth snorted disgustedly. “According to Mesa, not only was the Ballroom up to its ass in this entire thing, but so was one Anton Zilwicki. You do remember him, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do.” Montaigne’s calm slipped for a moment, and the three words came out flat, hard, and challenging. Then she shook herself. “Yes, I do,” she repeated in a more normal tone, “but all I can tell you is that to the best of my knowledge he wasn’t involved in this at all.”

Elizabeth looked at her incredulously, and Montaigne shrugged.

“It’s the truth, Beth.”

“And I suppose you’re going to tell me the Ballroom wasn’t involved ‘to the best of your knowledge,’ either?”

“I don’t know. That’s the truth,” Montaigne insisted more forcefully as Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “I’m not telling you they weren’t; I’m only saying I don’t know one way or the other.”

“Well, would you like to propose another villain for the piece?” Elizabeth demanded. “Somebody else who hates Mesa enough to set off multiple nuclear explosions in one of its capital’s suburbs?”

“Personally, I think the idea would appeal to most people who’ve ever had to deal with the sick bastards,” Montaigne returned levelly, her eyes as unflinching as her voice. “In answer to what you’re actually asking, however, I have to admit the Ballroom — or possibly some seccy Ballroom wannabe — has to be the most likely culprit. Beyond that, I genuinely can’t tell you anything about who actually did it. I can say, though, that the last time I was on Torch — and, for that matter, the last time Anton and I spoke — no one on Torch, and sure as hell not Anton, was even contemplating anything like this.”

“And you’re confident your good friend and general all-around philanthropist Jeremy X. would’ve told you if he’d been planning this kind of operation?”

“Actually, yes,” Montaigne shrugged. “I won’t pretend my having plausible deniability about Ballroom ops hasn’t come in handy from time to time. For that matter, I won’t pretend I haven’t outright lied about whether or not the Ballroom was behind something . . . or whether or not I had prior knowledge of the ‘atrocity’ du jour. But now that he and Web Du Havel — and your own niece, for that matter — have finally given the galaxy’s genetic slaves a genuine home world of their own? You think he’d be crazy enough to plan something like this — something that had to play into Mesa’s hands this way? Don’t be stupid, Beth! If he’d had even a clue something like this might happen, he’d have stopped it if he’d had to personally shoot the people planning it! And if he couldn’t stop it, he’d sure as hell have discussed it with me if only because he’d recognize what kind of damage control was going to be necessary.”

The ex-countess looked disgusted by her monarch’s obtuseness, and Elizabeth gritted her teeth. Then she made herself sit back.

“Look,” she said, “I know the Ballroom’s never been as monolithic as the public thinks. Or, for that matter, as monolithic as people like Jeremy — and you — like to pretend. I know it’s riddled with splinter factions and no one ever knows when a charismatic leader’s going to take some chunk of the official organization with him on his own little crusade. But the bottom line is that someone nuked Green Pines, and the way it was done is sure as hell consistent with the Ballroom’s modus operandi. Aside from the nuclear element, at least!”

“Assuming the reports out of Mesa are accurate, then, yes, I’d have to agree with that,” Montaigne acknowledged in that same unflinching tone. “But you’re right about the Ballroom’s occasional internal divisions. For that matter, I’d have to admit some of the action leaders who’d accepted Jeremy’s leadership before Torch became independent are royally pissed off with him now for ‘betraying the armed struggle’ when he ‘went legit.’ At least some of them think he’s sold out in return for open political power; most of them just think he’s wrong.” She shrugged. “Either way, though, they’re hardly likely to run potential operations by him for approval.”

“Or material support?”

“Torch has made its position on actively supporting strikes like this crystal clear, Elizabeth. You’ve heard what they’ve said as well as I have, and I promise you, they mean it. Like I say, Jeremy’s not stupid enough not to see all the downsides of something like this.”

Elizabeth tipped back her chair, regarding her “guest” with narrow eyes and scant cheerfulness. There was a certain brittleness to the office’s silence, then the queen raised an eyebrow and pointed an index finger at Montaigne.

“You’ve been talking in generalities, Cathy,” she said shrewdly. “Why aren’t you being more specific about how you know Captain Zilwicki wasn’t involved in this?”

“Because –” Montaigne began firmly, then paused. To Elizabeth’s astonishment, the other woman’s face crumpled suddenly, and Montaigne drew a deep, ragged breath.

“Because,” she resumed, “they’ve specifically linked Anton with this, and I don’t think they just picked his name at random. Oh, I know how vulnerable our relationship makes me — and, by extension, the Liberal Party and the entire Star Empire — where something like this is concerned. But making that link in their propaganda is more sophisticated than Mesa’s ever bothered to be before. I’m not saying it doesn’t make sense from their perspective, because both of us know it does. I’m just afraid that . . . it didn’t occur to them out of the clear blue sky.”

She had her voice under iron control, but Elizabeth had known her for far too long to be fooled. There was more than simple pain in her eyes; there was something very like terror, and the Queen of Manticore felt the personal concern of friendship go to war with the cold-blooded detachment her position as a head of state demanded of her.

“Tell me, Cathy,” she said, and her own voice was softer.

“Beth,” Montaigne looked her squarely in the eye, “I swear to you on my own immortal soul that Anton Zilwicki would never — never — sign off on nuking a public park full of kids — anybody’s kids, for God’s sake! — in the middle of a town. He’d die, first. Ask anyone who knows him. But having said that . . . he was on Mesa. And I’m afraid the Mesans know he was. That that’s the reason they decided to pin this on him, by name, and not just on Torch and the Ballroom in general. And –”