Chapter Sixteen


            Too many hours later for Michelle's taste, she found herself sitting in a pleasant study sipping an excellent local cognac from a large, tulip-shaped glass. She was thoroughly exhausted, and she had that stuffed-too-tightly feeling that all too often followed state dinners . . . and always made her envy Honor Harrington's genetically enhanced metabolism. But she also felt a sense of accomplishment. However little she liked formal political dinners, she felt reasonably confident she'd carried off her part in this one successfully.

            She wasn't alone in the study. Baroness Medusa sat behind the desk, and Gregor O'Shaughnessy sat in a chair to her right, at the end of the desk. O'Shaughnessy, Medusa's senior intelligence analyst, was slightly built and a good ten centimeters shorter than Augustus Khumalo, with thinning gray hair. Khumalo, Alquezar, Van Dort, and the Quadrant's minister of war, Henri Krietzmann, sat in a semicircle with Michelle, facing the desk. Krietzmann was a short, compact, solid-looking man with brown hair and gray eyes. His left hand had been mangled in some long-ago accident, and although Michelle knew he was actually the youngest person in the room, he looked like the oldest, because prolong had been unavailable on his native planet of Dresden in his youth. In fact, it still wasn't generally available the way it ought to be.

            "Well," Medusa tipped back in her chair, and Michelle strongly suspected that the baroness had just toed off her shoes underneath her desk. "I'm glad that's over. For tonight, at least."

            "As are we all, I'm sure," Alquezar agreed, passing his own glass appreciatively back and forth under his nose.

            "Not me," Krietzmann announced. He and Van Dort, unlike anyone else in the study, nursed moisture-beaded tankards of beer rather than some effete beverage like cognac. "I love evenings like tonight."

            "Yes, but that's because of how much you enjoy pissing off people like Samiha Lababibi by putting on your crude, unlettered barbarian act," Alquezar said severely.

            "Nonsense. Samiha's getting along with me just fine these days," Krietzmann shot back. "Now, there are a few other members of the political establishment . . . ."

            He let his voice trail off provocatively, and Van Dort snorted. Then he looked across Krietzmann at Michelle.

            "Henri takes a certain perverse pleasure in irritating us oligarchs, Milady," he said. "Even the one's he's grudgingly willing to admit are on the side of the angels. That's why he got shuffled off to the War Ministry where he doesn't have to deal with other politicians as much."

            "I wish," Krietzmann muttered. Then he twitched a smile. "In fact, Samiha and I are getting along," he said more seriously. "She's not the worst sort, you know. I have to admit, I was a bit surprised when she resigned as the Spindle System President to take the Treasury Ministry. It seemed like a an awfully big step down, prestige-wise. But she seems to be the right woman for the job, and unlike some of our other colleagues, she genuinely doesn't seem to mind working with an ex-factory hand from Dresden."

            "Yes," Alquezar said, looking across at him. "I do know she isn't the worst sort. That's one reason I asked her to take Treasury. Unfortunately," he turned to Michelle, "she's off-world tonight, hosting a sort of local economic summit on Rembrandt."

            "I imagine having all of your ministers here in Spindle at once is going to be the exception, not the rule, for at least the foreseeable future, Mr. Prime Minister," Michelle observed.

            "That, unfortunately, is nothing but the truth," Alquezar agreed.

            "Actually," Medusa said, "the entire process of creating the new government is going far more smoothly and efficiently than I think most of the people involved in doing the actual work realize. I have the advantage of a perspective none of the rest of you have, Joachim. Trust me, you're doing quite well."

            "So far, at least," Van Dort murmured.

            "Things can always change," Medusa acknowledged equably. "My distinct feeling at this moment, however, is that you're already past the most likely stumbling points, and the Quadrant's systems are showing a remarkable degree of mutual tolerance and internal cohesion. Don't forget how little a lot of these systems truly had in common — aside from astrographic location and the threat of OFS — before the annexation proposal came along. That was certainly a factor while the annexation was getting organized, as I expect all of us remember rather better than we'd like to. In fact, there's being far less infighting than I would ever have anticipated after watching the gladiatorial combat of the Convention!"

            "You can thank the Sollies for that, I suspect," Alquezar said sourly.

            "I probably could . . . if I were willing to thank them for anything," Krietzmann responded with cold, biting bitterness.

            "There's quite a lot of truth to that, I think, though, Henri," Van Dort said quietly. "What happened in Monica — and what was happening on Montana and Kornati — reminded everyone OFS is still out there. And most of them think Verrochio and Hongbo would just love another shot at the Cluster."

            "Do people really think that's likely, Minister?" Michelle asked.

            "'Bernardus,' please, Milady," he replied, then grimaced. "And in answer to your question, yes, there are quite a few people here in the Quadrant who think that's very likely, if Verrochio can figure out a new approach."

            "Even after how badly he got his fingers burned this time . . . Bernardus?"

            "Maybe even especially after getting his fingers burned." Van Dort shrugged. "First of all, we don't know how much — if any of this — is going to stick to him after Ambassador Corvisart gets done with her investigation in Monica. I'm not saying I don't think it will stick to him; I'm just saying we don't know how badly. Second, he's not exactly what someone might call a forgiving man. Even assuming he manages to squirm out without any official sanctions, he's undoubtedly been humiliated in front of the only people he really cares about — his peers in Frontier Security. I'm quite sure his position in the OFS hierarchy's taken some severe damage out of this, and he's going to be looking for a chance to recoup his status and power base. When you factor in his temper and the fact that he's going to want revenge, I think you can safely say that if he sees the opportunity to do us a disservice, he'll seize it with both hands."

            "The view back home on Manticore is that he's most likely to pull in his horns and try to cut his losses," Michelle said.

            "I'm not surprised." Van Dort shook his head. "That would be the smart thing for him to do, after all. After getting his fingers caught in the cookie jar this way, the last thing he needs is to shove his whole hand in while the entire galaxy is watching. That's obvious to everyone else, and one would hope it would be obvious to him, as well. In fact, it probably is. But never underestimate the ability of human nature to ignore the obvious once the emotions are fully engaged. Especially when the human being in question is a fundamentally stupid, superficially clever, and incredibly arrogant man like Lorcan Verrochio. A corner of his mind — such as it is, and what there is of it — must be thinking that if he can only get his hands on the Lynx Terminus after all, it would more than restore his pre-Monica position. After all, pulling that off after what looked like disaster would demonstrate his ability to adapt and overcome adversity, wouldn't it? As a matter of fact, I strongly suspect that if it weren't for Hongbo Junyan's ability to prevent him from throwing good money after bad, Verrochio might have responded to Aivars' attack on Monica by sending in a Frontier Fleet squadron with orders to do whatever it took to 'restore Monica's sovereignty.'"

            "Which is why it's so important to keep that frontier strongly picketed," Baroness Medusa said. "I know you and Admiral Khumalo have already discussed that, Milady. And I know he and I are in fundamental agreement about the best use to make of our naval resources. But having both of you simultaneously here in Thimble, along with the Prime Minister and Mr. Krietzmann, presents entirely too good an opportunity to pass up. What I'd like for all of us to do is to kick around the basic strategic situation and get everyone's insight into what it is we're doing about it."