“And assuming we could provide you with documentation of such harassment, just what would you do with it?” Pélisard asked.

“Why, we wouldn’t do anything with it.” Anisimovna widened her eyes innocently. “I’m sure, however, that if you were to draw these weighty matters to the attention of Commissioner Verrochio, he would feel constrained to take them most seriously. Especially after the fashion in which Manticore brutally assaulted the Union of Monica in time of peace. Under the circumstances, I feel positive that he would dispatch a significant force here to New Tuscany to fully investigate matters. And, should it transpire that your allegations of harassment are justified, that same significant force would be under orders to protect you from further infringements of your territoriality.”
“Forgive me for pointing this out,” Pélisard said, “but the naval resources Commissioner Veroochio personally controls are quite limited. I’m afraid a handful of destroyers, or even a cruiser division or two, would scarcely constitute a significant deterrent to the Manticoran Navy.”
“No, they wouldn’t,” Anisimovna agreed. “However, a full squadron or two of Frontier Fleet battlecruisers would, I suspect.”
“A squadron or two?” Pélisard blinked.
“Or even three,” she said calmly. “I just happen to know that a Frontier Fleet task force has been dispatched to the Madras Sector to reinforce Commissioner Verrochio’s OFS naval detachment. It’s under the command of an Admiral Byng, I understand. And it just happens I have a small file on him with me.” She extracted a data chip folio from her slender purse and laid it on the corner of Boutin’s desk. “It’s fascinating viewing, actually. Or I think so, at least. Admiral Byng would appear to be the sort of League officer who recognizes Manticoran arrogance and imperialism for what they are. The sort of officer who would be naturally disposed to at least listen to the complaints of some single-system star nation which finds itself being bullied and harassed by the ‘Star Kingdom.’ If Commissioner Verrochio — or, for that matter, your own government — were to request him to send a detachment here to New Tuscany to investigate matters personally, I feel confident he would agree.”
“And if it happened when he did that there was a . . . confrontation between him and the Manties . . . .” Pélisard’s voice trailed off, and Anisimovna nodded.
“Of course, by far the most likely outcome would be for the Manticorans to back down,” she said. “They may have been willing enough to take on Solarian battlecruisers in Monican hands — after all, the Monican Navy had neither the experience to make full use of them nor the industrial power to replace them if they were damaged or destroyed — but I suspect they’d be far more leery of facing battlecruisers crewed by the Solarian Navy. And if they were foolish enough to do anything of the sort, I’m sure the SLN would make short work of them.”
Pélisard looked less than confident of that last sentence’s accuracy. On the other hand, Anisimovna thought, he had to be aware of the enormous imbalance between the Solarian League’s resources and those of the Star Kingdom of Manticore. Ultimately, no other star nation had the wherewithal to resist the juggernaut might of the League. Which meant . . . .
She could almost see the gears turning inside his head as he worked his way through the implications of what she’d just said. She could tell the exact moment when he reached the end of the process, because his eyes narrowed suddenly and he looked at her very intently.
“In some ways, it would almost be a pity if they did back down, wouldn’t it?” he observed slowly.
“Well, it would mean the situation would remain . . . unresolved,” Anisimovna agreed. “It’s sometimes necessary to lance a boil to drain its poisons. It’s seldom a pleasant experience, but that doesn’t make it any less necessary in the long run. So, yes, it would be . . . suboptimal.”
“But if their local commander chose to be imprudent,” Pélisard said even more slowly, “and if there happened to be some sort of shooting incident, then this Admiral Byng you’ve mentioned would almost be forced to take steps.”
“Not just a minute, Nicholas!” Dusserre said sharply. “‘Shooting incidents’ are all very well, I suppose. But I’m not at all happy about the thought of having one of them right here in New Tuscany!”
“I don’t blame you a bit, Mr. Dusserre,” Anisimovna said calmly. “I wouldn’t much care for the thought of having something like that happen in my star system, either. As I say, though, it would be unlikely for anything of the sort to happen if Admiral Byng were present in strength. I’m thinking — as I’m sure Mr. Pélisard was — more of an incident which occurs somewhere else. One that could be . . . suitably tweaked, shall we say, to demonstrate the ruthlessness and viciousness of the Manticorans. Say, one of your warships, badly damaged or even destroyed by an unprovoked Manty attack. The trick would be to time the incident properly. Ideally, we’d have Admiral Byng already in the vicinity when we complain about this atrocity to Commissioner Verrochio.”
“At which point he would presumably move that detachment you referred to to New Tuscany immediately,” Pélisard said. “With orders not to allow any further Manticoran aggression. In fact, he’d probably sail straight to Spindle to demand an explanation, wouldn’t he?”
“Oh, I feel confident he would.” Anisimovna smiled. “And I imagine the odds of an unfortunate confrontation between him and the Manties would be considerably enhanced when he did. Oh, and I suppose I should also mention that my sources tell me a sizable force from Battle Fleet is also in this general neck of the galaxy. Carrying out training exercises in the McIntosh System, I believe.”
It was very, very quiet in President Boutin’s office. The McIntosh System was barely fifty light-years from Myers, and Myers was only a very little over three hundred light-years from New Tuscany. Which meant any task group carrying out exercises at McIntosh could reach New Tuscany in as little as thirty-two T-days.
“Given McIntosh’s proximity to Myers, I strongly suspect Commissioner Verrochio would send the Battle Fleet senior officer there a message, requesting her assistance, at the same time as he dispatched Admiral Byng — or one of the admiral’s squadrons, at least — to New Tuscany to investigate your allegations. Which would mean, of course, that even if some Manticoran officer were foolish enough to fire upon New Tuscan units or anything of the sort, Admiral Byng would have ample forces in close proximity which he could call upon to . . . stabilize the situation once more.”
The quiet was more intense than ever, and as Aldona Anisimovna listened to it, she knew she had their complete attention.