Mission Of Honor – Snippet 48
“Oh, you think, do you?”
“I can’t be absolutely certain, of course. I mean, what with Torch and all the others, it was something of a . . . multinational effort.”
“I see.” Elizabeth sat back once more, then shook her head. “You don’t think having so many cooks stirring the soup could have anything to do with whatever obviously went wrong, do you?”
“I think it’s possible,” Montaigne acknowledged. “On the other hand, the way Anton and Victor normally operate, it’s unlikely anybody but them really knew enough to seriously compromise the operation. Still,” she drooped visibly again, “you’re right — something did obviously go wrong. I can’t believe Mesa just decided to include Anton in their version of what happened, and that means something blew, somewhere. What we don’t know is exactly what blew and how serious the consequences were. But –”
“But this long without any word suggests the consequences could have been pretty damned serious,” Elizabeth finished softly for her.
“Exactly.” Montaigne drew a deep breath. “On the other hand, Mesa hasn’t produced his body, or mentioned Victor or Haven, or taken the opportunity to take a swipe at Beowulf for its involvement. That suggests it didn’t blow completely. I know” — despite her best efforts, her voice wavered — “there can be advantages to simply ‘disappearing’ someone and letting her side sweat the potential consequences in ignorance. And given how we seem to have been underestimating, or at least misreading, Mesa’s role in this, and its possible sophistication, it’s possible they recognized that accusing Haven and Beowulf of involvement, as well, would be too much of a good thing. Too much for even Solly public opinion to swallow. But I keep coming back to the fact that if they could actually prove Anton was on Mesa, it would have been the absolute clincher for this fairy tale about his being involved in the attack. So if they didn’t offer that proof –”
“It seems unlikely they had it in the first place,” Elizabeth said.
“Exactly,” Montaigne said again, then chuckled.
“I was just thinking,” the ex-countess said. “You always did have that habit of finishing thoughts for me when we were kids.”
“Mostly because someone as scatterbrained as you needed someone to tidy up around the edges,” Elizabeth retorted.
“Maybe.” Montaigne’s humor faded. “Anyway, that’s where we are. Anton was on Mesa about the time the nukes went off. I can’t prove he wasn’t involved, but if Mesa could prove he was, the bastards would have done it by now. So either he’s on his way home, and his transportation arrangements have hit a bump, or else . . . .”
Her voice trailed off, and this time Elizabeth felt no temptation at all to complete her thought for her.
“I understand,” the queen said, instead.
She tipped her chair back, rocking it slightly while she thought hard for the better part of a minute. Then she let it come back upright.
“I understand,” she repeated. “Unfortunately, nothing you’ve just told me really helps, does it? As you say, we can’t prove Captain Zilwicki — and, by implication, Torch and the Star Empire — weren’t involved. In fact, going public with the fact that he was on Mesa at all would be the worst thing we could possibly do at this point. But I’m afraid that’s going to make things rough on you, Cathy.”
“I know.” Montaigne grimaced. “You’re going to have to take the position that the Star Empire wasn’t involved, and along the way, you’re going to have to point out that even assuming Anton was involved, he’s no longer an ONI agent. Ever since he took up with that notorious incendiary and public shill for terrorism Montaigne, he’s been establishing his own links to the abolitionist movement and, yes, probably to those Ballroom terrorists. Under those circumstances, clearly neither you, personally, nor the Star Empire is in any position to comment one way or the other on what he may have been responsible for since going rogue that way.”
“I’m afraid that’s exactly what we’re going to have to do,” Elizabeth acknowledged. “And when some frigging newsy pounces on his personal relationship with you, the very best I’m going to be able to do is ‘no comment’ and a recommendation they discuss that with you, not me.”
“And they’re going to come after the firebrand rabble-rouser with everything they’ve got,” Montaigne sighed. “Well, it won’t be the first time. And, with just a little luck, they’ll give me the opportunity to get in a few solid counterpunches of my own. The idiots usually do.”
“But it’s going to make problems for your Liberals, too,” Elizabeth pointed out. “If — when — this turns as ugly as I think it’s going to do, Willie and I are both going to find ourselves forced to hold you at arms length . . . at best. And that doesn’t even consider the fact that at least someone inside the party’s going to see this as an opportunity to boot you out of the leader’s position.”
“If that happens, it happens.” Montaigne’s tone was philosophical; the flinty light in her eyes suggested that anyone who wanted a fight was going to get one. In fact, Elizabeth thought, the other woman was probably looking forward to it as a distraction from her personal fears.
“I’m sorry,” the queen said quietly. Their eyes met once more, and this time Elizabeth’s sad smile was that of an old friend, not a monarch.
“I’ve always been ambivalent about the Ballroom,” she continued. “For personal reasons, in part. I understand all about ‘asymmetrical warfare,’ but assassinations and terrorist attacks cut just a little too close to home for me. I’m not hypocritical enough to condemn the Ballroom for fighting back in the only way it’s ever been able to, but I’m afraid that’s not the same thing as saying I approve of it. But whether I approve or not, I’ve always admired the sheer guts it takes to get down into the blood and the mud with something like Manpower. And despite our own political differences, Cathy, I’ve always actually admired you for being willing to openly acknowledge your support for the people willing to fight back the only way they can, whatever the rest of the galaxy may think about it.”
“That . . . means quite a bit to me, Beth.” Montaigne’s voice was as quiet as Elizabeth’s had been. “Mind you, I know it’s not going to change anything about our political stances, but it does mean a lot.”
“Good.” Elizabeth’s smile grew broader. “And now, if I could ask you for a personal favor in my persona as Queen of Manticore?”
“What sort of favor?”
Montaigne’s tone and expression were both wary, and Elizabeth chuckled.
“Don’t worry! I wasn’t setting you up for a sucker punch by telling you what a wonderful, fearless person you are, Cathy.” She shook her head. “No. What I was thinking about is that this news is going to hit the Haven System in about a week and a half, and I shudder to think about the impact it’s going to have on Duchess Harrington’s negotiations with the Pritchart Administration. I’m sure it’s going to have repercussions with all of our allies, of course, and thank God we at least consulted with them — unlike a certain ex-prime minister — before we opened negotiations this time around, but I’m more concerned about Haven’s reaction. So what I would deeply appreciate your doing would be writing up what you’ve just told me, or as much of it as you feel you could share with Duchess Harrington, at least, for me to send her as deep background.”
“You want me to tell the Duchess Anton was actually on Mesa?”
There was something a bit odd about Montaigne’s tone, Elizabeth thought, but the queen simply shrugged and nodded.
“Among other things. It would help a lot if she had that kind of information in the back of her brain. And I believe the two of you know one another, don’t you?”
“Fairly well, actually,” Montaigne acknowledged. “Since I came home to Manticore, that is.”
“Well, in that case, I probably don’t have to tell you she has an ironclad sense of honor,” Elizabeth said. “In fact, sometimes I think her parents must have had precognition or something when they picked her first name! At any rate, I assure you she’d never even consider divulging anything you may tell her without your specific permission.”
“If you’re confident of her discretion,” Montaigne said in that same peculiar tone, “that’s good enough for me.” She smiled. “I’ll go ahead and write it up for you, and I’m sure she won’t say a word about it to anyone.”