Chapter Fourteen


            Augustus Khumalo was grayer than Michelle remembered.

            He was some sort of distant cousin of hers, although she had only the vaguest idea of exactly how and through whom they were related, and she'd met him in passing half a dozen times. This was the first time she'd ever really spoken to him, though, and as she followed his chief of staff, Captain Loretta Shoupe, into his day cabin aboard HMS Hercules, she found herself looking into his eyes, searching for some sign of the moral courage he'd displayed when he received Aivars Terekhov's bombshell dispatch.

            She didn't see it. Not surprisingly, perhaps. She'd discovered long since that people who looked like warriors too often proved to be Elvis Santinos or Pavel Youngs, while the most outwardly unprepossessing people frequently turned out to have nerves of steel.

            I wonder if I'm looking so hard because I feel guilty about the way I've always dismissed him in the past?

            "Vice Admiral Gold Peak, Sir," Shoupe announced quietly.

            "Welcome to Spindle, Milady," Khumalo held out a large, rather beefy hand, and Michelle shook it firmly. The Talbott Station commander was a large man, with powerful shoulders and a middle which was beginning to thicken. His complexion was considerably lighter than Michelle's own — in fact, it was almost as light as the Queen's — but there was no mistaking the Winton chin. Michelle knew there wasn't; she had it herself, if in a thankfully somewhat more delicate version.

            "Thank you, Sir," she replied, then released his hand to indicate the two officers who had accompanied her. "Captain Armstrong, my flag captain, Sir. And Lieutenant Archer, my flag lieutenant."

            "Captain," Khumalo said, offering his hand to Armstrong in turn, and then nodded in Gervais Archer's direction. "Lieutenant."

            "Admiral," Armstrong replied, shaking his hand, and Archer returned his nod with a respectful half-bow.

            "Please," Khumalo said then, gesturing at the chairs arranged in a comfortable, conversational circle in front of his desk. "Find seats. I'm sure we've got quite a lot to talk about."

            That, Michelle reflected, as she settled back into one of the indicated chairs, was undoubtedly one of the greater understatements she'd heard lately.

            Archer waited until all of his seniors had seated themselves before he found a chair of her own, and Michelle watched out of the corner of her eye as her flag lieutenant touched his cased minicomp and raised one eyebrow at Shoupe. The chief of staff nodded permission, and Archer uncased the minicomp and configured it to record.

            "We're due to dine with Baroness Medusa and Mr. Van Dort this evening, Milady," Khumalo said. "At that time, I have no doubt that she and Mr. O'Shaughnessy — and Commander Chandler, my intelligence officer — will be as eager as I am to hear everything you can tell us about the situation at home and this proposed summit meeting between Her Majesty and Pritchart. And I'm also confident that the Baroness and Mr. O'Shaughnessy well have a rather more detailed briefing for you on the political side of events here in the Cluster. I mean, Quadrant."

            His lips twitched sourly but briefly as he corrected himself, and Michelle smiled. No doubt the change in nomenclature was going to take some getting used to for everyone involved, but as she'd warned her own staff, it was important. Words had power of their own, and remembering to get it right was one way of helping to assure everyone out here in Talbott that they'd done the right thing when they requested annexation by the Star Kingdom.

            Of course, it was probable that they'd envisioned things working out just a little differently than they actually had. Not that anyone in Talbott was likely to complain about the final outcome . . . assuming they'd thought annexation was a good idea in the first place, that was. Some of them, like that lunatic Nordbrandt in Kornati, obviously hadn't, and Michelle had no doubt that those Talbotters who continued to object were vociferously unhappy about that same "final outcome."

            The entire annexation debate had posed serious domestic political questions for the Star Kingdom, as well, however, and the answers to those questions had dictated the conditions under which it could go forward. The original proposal hadn't been Manticore's in the first place, and more than one member of Parliament had thought it was a terrible idea. In many ways, Michelle had actually found herself in agreement with those who had objected to the entire concept. Although she'd always felt the advantages outweighed her concerns, she'd still had a high anxiety quotient where some aspects of the proposal were concerned.

            The Star Kingdom of Manticore had been in existence for four hundred and fifty years, during which it had evolved and grown into its own unique identity and galactic position. It was incredibly wealthy, especially for a star nation with such a small population, but the point was that its population was small by the standards of any multi-system star nation. It was also politically stable, with a system which — despite its occasional blemishes, like the disastrous High Ridge Government, and monumentally nasty political infighting — enshrined the rule of law. Manticorans were no more likely to be candidates for sainthood than anyone else, and there were those — like High Ridge, Janacek, her own Cousin Freddy, or the Earls of North Hollow — who were perfectly willing to evade or even outright break the law in pursuit of their own ends. But when they got caught, they were just as accountable in the eyes of the law as anyone else, and the Star Kingdom enshrined both transparency and accountability in government. It also enshrined the orderly, legal exchange of power, even between the most bitter of political enemies, through the electoral process, and it possessed a highly educated, politically active electorate.

            That was why the notion of adding more than a dozen additional star systems whose individual average populations at least matched that of the Manticore Binary System had been dismaying to Michelle, in many respects. Especially given how poor — and poorly educated (by Manticoran standards, at least) — all of those prospective new citizens were. Some Manticorans had been nervous enough about admitting San Martin, the inhabited world of Trevor's Star, to the Star Kingdom, and San Martin had been an entirely different kettle of fish, despite its years as a Havenite "protectorate" under the People's Republic. Its population was still that of a first-rank star nation, with decent educational, medical, and industrial bases, and it had always been Manticore’s immediate astrographic neighbor. Manticorans and San Martinos had known each other for a long, long time; they’d known how one another’s governments and societies worked, and shared many more similarities than they had differences. But the Talbott Cluster was typical of the Verge, that vast belt of sparsely settled, economically depressed, technically backward star systems which surrounded the slowly but inexorably expanding sphere of the Solarian League.