Michelle Henke opened her eyes, then struggled hastily upright in the hospital bed as she saw the person who'd spoken her name. It wasn't easy, with her left leg still in traction while the quick heal rebuilt the shattered bone. But although they'd never met, she'd seen more than enough publicity imagery to recognize the platinum-haired, topaz-eyed woman standing at the foot of her bed.
"Don't bother, Admiral," Eloise Pritchart said. "You've been hurt, and this isn't really an official visit."
"You're a head of state, Madam President," Michelle said dryly, getting herself upright and then settling back in relief as the elevating upper end of the bed caught up with her shoulders. "That means it is an official visit."
"Well, perhaps you're right," Pritchart acknowledged with a charming smile. Then she gestured at the chair beside the bed. "May I?"
"Of course. After all, it's your chair. In fact," Michelle waved at the pleasant, if not precisely luxurious, room, "this is your entire hospital."
"In a manner of speaking, I suppose."
Pritchart seated herself gracefully, then sat for several seconds, her head cocked slightly to the side, her expression thoughtful. Michelle looked back at her, wondering what had brought her to a prisoner-of-war's bedside. As Michelle had just pointed out, this hospital—which, she'd been forced to admit, had been a much less unpleasant experience than she'd anticipated—belonged to the Republic of Haven. In point of fact, it belonged to the Republican Navy, and for all of its airiness and pastel color scheme, it was as much a prisoner-of-war camp as the more outwardly guarded facilities in which the rest of her personnel were confined.
She felt her facial muscles tightening ever so slightly as she remembered her flagship's final moments. The fact thatAjax hadn't gone alone was cold comfort beside the loss of two thirds of the ship's remaining company.
Me and my goddamned brilliant idea, she thought harshly. Sure, we ripped them a new one, but my God! No wonder they thought we'd deliberately sucked them in, then timed our evacuation of the ship perfectly to put them off guard! God knows Iwould've thought exactly the same thing in their place.
It wasn't the first time she'd battered herself with those thoughts. Nor, she knew, would it be the last. When her conscience wasn't prepared to savage her, the coldly logical strategist and tactician within her knew that in the merciless calculation of war, the complete destruction of two enemy battlecruisers and the reduction of at least three more into wrecks fit only for the breakers, was well worth the loss of so many men and women.
And, she thought harshly, at least these people believed me in the end. I think they did, anyway. I may have gotten Alex and way too many of her people killed, but at least no one even suggested the possibility of some sort of "reprisal." Which probably wouldn't have come as such a surprise to me if I'd paid more attention to what Honor had to say about Theisman and Tourville.
She still didn't remember exactly how Stackpole and Braga had gotten her into the boat bay and away from Ajax before the tornado of vengeful Havenite MDMs tore the battlecruiser the pieces. The first wave of lasers had slammed into the ship like sledgehammers before they ever reached the bay, and one of those hits had picked Michelle up and tossed her into a bulkhead like a toy. Somehow Stackpole and Braga had dragged her the rest of the way into the boat bay and gotten her aboard the last pinnace to clear the ship, and they were the only two members of her staff to survive Ajax's destruction.
I sure as hell hope keeping her systems out of Peep hands was worth it, she thought bitterly. But then she reminded herself that she had other things to worry about at this particular moment.
"To what do I owe the honor, Madam President?" she asked, shoving the useless "what ifs" and self-blame ruthlessly aside once more.
"Several things. First, you're our senior POW, in several senses. You're the highest ranking, militarily speaking, and you're also—what? Fifth in the line of succession?"
"Since my older brother was murdered, yes," Michelle said levelly, and had the satisfaction of seeing Pritchart flinch ever so slightly.
"I'm most sincerely sorry about the death of your father and your brother, Admiral Henke," she said, her voice equally level, meeting Michelle's eyes squarely as she spoke. "We've determined from our own records that StateSec was, in fact, directly responsible for that assassination. The fanatics who actually carried it out may have been Masadans, but StateSec effectively recruited them and provided the weapons. As far as we're able to determine, all the individuals directly involved in the decision to carry out that operation are either dead or in prison. Not," she continued as Michelle's eyebrows began to arch in disbelief, "because of that particular operation, but because of an entire catalog of crimes they'd committed against the people of their own star nation. In fact, while I'm sure it won't do anything to alleviate your own grief and anger, I'd simply point out that the same people were responsible for the deaths of untold thousands—no, millions—of their own citizens. The Republic of Haven has had more than enough of men and women like that."
"I'm sure you have," Michelle said, watching the other woman carefully. "But you don't seem to have completely renounced their methods."
"In what way?" Pritchart asked a bit sharply, her eyes narrowing.
"I could bring up the little matter of your immediately prewar diplomacy, except that I'm reasonably certain we wouldn't agree on that point," Michelle said. "So instead, I'll restrict myself to pointing out your attempt to assassinate Duchess Harrington. Who, I might remind you, happens to be a personal friend of mine."
Michelle's brown eyes bored into Pritchart's topaz gaze. Somewhat to her surprise, the Havenite President didn't even attempt to look away.
"I'm aware of your close relationship with the Duchess," Pritchart said. "In fact, that's one of the several reasons I mentioned for this conversation. Some of my senior officers, including Secretary of War Theisman and Admiral Tourville and Admiral Foraker have met your 'Salamander.' They think very highly of her. And if they believed for a moment that my administration had ordered her assassination, they'd be very, very displeased with me."
"Forgive me, Madam President, but that's not exactly the same thing as saying you didn't authorize it."
"No, it isn't, is it?" Pritchart smiled with what certainly appeared to be genuine amusement. "I'd forgotten for a moment that you're used to moving at the highest levels of politics in the Star Kingdom. You have a politician's ear, even if you are 'only a naval officer.' However, I'll be clearer. Neither I, nor anyone else in my administration, ordered or authorized an attempt to assassinate Duchess Harrington."
It was Michelle's eyes' turn to narrow. As Pritchart said, she was accustomed to dealing with Manticoran politicians, if not politics per se. In point of fact, she didn't like politics, which was why she was content to leave her mother, the Dowager Countess of Gold Peak, to act as her proxy in the House of Lords. Still, no one could stand as close to the crown as Michelle did without being forced to let politicians into hand-shaking range at least occasionally, and in her time, she'd met some extraordinarily adroit and polished liars. But if Eloise Pritchart was another of them, it didn't show.
"That's an interesting statement, Madam President," she said after a moment. "Unfortunately, with all due respect, I have no way to know it's accurate. And even if you think it is, that doesn't necessarily mean some rogue element in your administration didn't order it."
"I'm not surprised you feel that way, and we here in the Republic have certainly had more than enough experience with operations mounted by 'rogue elements.' I can only say I believe very strongly that the statement I just made is accurate. And I'll also say I've replaced both my external and internal security chiefs with men I've known for years, and in whom I have the greatest personal confidence. If any rogue operation was mounted against Duchess Harrington, it was mounted without their knowledge or approval. Of that much, I'm absolutely positive."
Oh, of course you are, Michelle thought sardonically. No Peep would ever dream of assassinating an opposing fleet commander! And, I'm sure, none of them would ever decide it might be easier to get forgiveness afterward than permission ahead of time and fire away at Honor on her own hook. What was that line Honor quoted to me . . . ? Something about 'Will no one rid me of this pestilential priest?' or something like that, I think.
"And who else would you suggest might have a motive for wanting her dead?" Michelle asked aloud. "Or the resources to try to kill her in that particular fashion?"
"We don't have many specific details about how the attempt was made," Pritchart countered. "From what we have seen, however, speculation seems to be centering on the possibility that her young officer—a Lieutenant Meares, I believe—was somehow adjusted to make the attempt on her life. If that's the case, we don't have the resources to have done it. Certainly not in the time window which appears to have been available to whoever carried out the adjustment. Assuming that's what it was, of course."
"I hope you'll forgive me, Madam President, if I reserve judgment in this case," Michelle said after a moment. "You're very convincing. On the other hand, like me, you operate at the highest level of politics, and politicians at that level have to be convincing. I will, however, take what you've said under advisement. Should I assume you're telling me this in hopes I'll pass your message along to Queen Elizabeth?"
"From what I've heard of your cousin, Admiral Henke," Pritchart said wryly, "I doubt very much that she'd believe any statement of mine, including a declaration that water is wet."
"I see you've got a fairly accurate profile of Her Majesty," Michelle observed. "Although that's probably actually something of an understatement," she added.
"I know. Nonetheless, if you get the opportunity, I wish you'd tell her that for me. You may not believe this, Admiral, but I didn't really want this war, either. Oh," Pritchart went on quickly as Michelle began to open her mouth, "I'll freely admit I fired the first shot. And I'll also admit that, given what I knew then, I'd do the same thing again. That's not the same thing as wanting to do it, and I deeply regret all the men and women who have been killed or, like yourself, wounded. I can't undo that. But I would like to think it's possible for us to find an end to the fighting short of one of us killing everyone on the other side."
"So would I," Michelle said levelly. "Unfortunately, whatever happened to our diplomatic correspondence, you did fire the first shot. Elizabeth isn't the only Manticoran or Grayson—or Andermani—who's going to find that difficult to forget or overlook."
"And are you one of them, Admiral?"
"Yes, Madam President, I am," Michelle said quietly.
"I see. And I appreciate your honesty. Still, it does rather underscore the nature of our quandary, doesn't it?"
"I suppose it does."
Silence fell in the sunlit hospital room. Oddly enough, it was an almost companionable silence, Michelle discovered. She remembered again what Honor had told her about Thomas Theisman and about Lester Tourville, and she reminded herself that whatever else Eloise Pritchart might be, she was the duly elected president both of those men had chosen to serve. Maybe she was actually telling the truth about not having authorized the assassination attempt against Honor.
And maybe she isn't, too. Not every evil, conniving politico in the universe goes around with a holo sign that says "I'm the Bad Guy!" For that matter, there's no rule that requires them all to look like that son-of-a-bitch High Ridge, either. It'd be nice if all the bad guys did look like bad guys, or acted like bad guys, but that's not the way things work outside really bad holo drama. I'm sure Adolf Hitler's and Rob Pierre's inner circles all thought they were just real sweethearts.
After perhaps three minutes, Pritchart straightened, inhaled crisply, and stood.
"I'll let you get back to the business of healing, Admiral. The doctors assure me you're doing well. They anticipate a full recovery, and they tell me you can be discharged from the hospital in another week or so."
"At which point it's off to the stalag?" Michelle said with a smile. She waved one hand at the unbarred windows of the hospital room. "I can't say I'm looking forward to the change of view."
"I think we can probably do better than a miserable hut behind a tangle of razor wire, Admiral." There was actually a twinkle in Pritchart's topaz eyes. "Tom Theisman has strong views on the proper treatment of prisoners of war—as Duchess Harrington may remember from the day they met in Yeltsin. I assure you that all our POWs are being properly provided for. Not only that, I'm hoping it may be possible to set up regular prisoner of war exchanges, perhaps on some sort of parole basis."
"Really?" Michelle was surprised, and she knew it showed in her voice.
"Really." Pritchart smiled again, this time a bit sadly. "Whatever else, Admiral, and however hardly your Queen may be thinking about us just now, we really aren't Rob Pierre or Oscar Saint-Just. We have our faults, don't get me wrong. But I'd like to think one of them isn't an ability to forget that even enemies are human beings. Good day, Admiral Henke."
Michelle put down her book viewer as the admittance chime on her hospital door sounded quietly.
"Yes?" she said, depressing the key on her bedside com.
"Secretary of War Theisman is here, Admiral," the voice of Lieutenant Jasmine Coatsworth, the senior floor nurse said, just a little bit nervously. "He'd like a few minutes of your time, if that would be convenient."
Both of Michelle's eyebrows rose. Just over a week had passed since her unexpected encounter with Eloise Pritchart. She'd had a handful of other visitors during that time, but most of them had been relatively junior officers, there to report to her in her role as the senior Manticoran POW about the status of her people and the other prisoners in Havenite hands. All of them had been professional and courteous, although she'd sensed a certain inevitable restraint which went beyond the normal restraint of a junior officer in the presence of a flag officer. No one had mentioned the possibility of a visit from Thomas Theisman himself, however.
"Well, Jasmine," she replied after a moment, with a smile she couldn't quite suppress (not that she tried all that hard, to be fair), "let me check my calendar." She paused for a single breath, eyes dancing with amusement, then cleared her throat. "By the strangest coincidence, I happen to be free this afternoon," she said. "Please, ask the Secretary to come in."
There was a moment of intense silence. Then the door slid open, and Lieutenant Coatsworth looked in. The expression on her face almost broke Michelle's self-control and sent her off in peals of laughter, but she managed to restrain herself. Then her eyes went past the nurse to the stocky, brown-haired man in civilian dress, accompanied by a dark-haired Navy captain with the shoulder rope which denoted her status as a senior officer's personal aide.
"I'm glad you were able to find time in your schedule for me, Admiral," the brown-haired man said dryly. His own lips appeared to hover on the edge of smiling, and Michelle shook her head.
"Forgive me, Mr. Secretary," she said. "I've been told I have a peculiar sense of humor. I couldn't quite resist the temptation, under the circumstances."
"Which is probably a sign that I'm not going to have to discipline anyone for mistreating or browbeating our POW patients."
"On the contrary, Mr. Secretary," Michelle said in a rather more serious tone, "everyone here in the hospital—especially Lieutenant Coatsworth—has treated our wounded people exactly the same way, I'm sure, that they would have treated any of your people. I've been very impressed with their professionalism and their courtesy."
Theisman stepped into the room, looked around once as if personally assuring himself of its adequacy, then gestured at the bedside chair.
"Of course. As I pointed out to President Pritchart when she asked the same question, it's your hospital, Mr. Secretary."
"She didn't tell me you'd said that," he said as he seated himself in the chair, leaned back, and crossed his legs comfortably. "Still, you do have a point, I suppose."
He smiled, and, almost despite herself, Michelle smiled back.
Thomas Theisman reminded her a lot of Alastair McKeon, she thought as she studied the man leaning back in the chair while his aide tried not to hover too obviously over a boss of whom she was clearly more than just fond. Neither Theisman nor McKeon was exactly a towering giant of a man . . . physically, at least. But both of them had steady eyes: Thesiman's brown and McKeon's gray. Both of them radiated that sense of tough competence, and both of them—little as she'd wanted to admit it—projected that same aura of quiet, unflinching integrity.
It was a lot easier when all the Peeps I knew anything about were slime, she reflected. And it makes bearing in mind that they're the ones who lied about all our prewar diplomacy harder.
"I suppose the real reason I came by, Admiral Henke—" the Secretary of War began, then paused. "I'm sorry, Admiral, but it just occurred to me. Are you still properly addressed as 'Admiral Henke,' or should I be calling you 'Admiral Gold Peak'?"
"Technically, I've been 'Admiral Gold Peak' ever since my father and my brother were murdered," Michelle told him levelly. The look in his eyes acknowledged her unstated point, but he gazed back at her without flinching, and she continued in that same, level tone. "I'm still much more comfortable with 'Henke,' however. That's who I've been ever since the Academy."
She started to add something more, then stopped herself with a tiny headshake. There was no need to tell him a tiny part of her still insisted that as long as she could put off formally claiming the title in all aspects of her life, her father and her brother wouldn't truly be gone.
"I understand," Theisman told her, and cleared his throat. "As I was saying, then, Admiral Henke, the real reason I came by was to add my own reassurances to President Pritchart's. I know she's already told you your people are being well taken care of. On the other hand, I also know you and I are both fully aware of how seldom that was the case during the last war. So I decided I should probably come by and put in my own two-credits worth. After all," even his smile reminded her of McKeon, "in this instance, at least, we're the leopard who has to prove he's changed his spots."
"I appreciate that, Mr. Secretary," Michelle replied after a moment. "And I also appreciate the fact that I've already been allowed to communicate with the senior POWs. Who, I hasten to add, have confirmed everything you and President Pritchart have told me. Duchess Harrington's been assuring everyone that your attitude towards captured personnel isn't exactly the same as Cordelia Ransom's or Oscar Saint-Just's. While I won't pretend I wouldn't rather be sitting down to dinner at Cosmo's in Landing just now instead of enjoying your hospitality, I'm glad to see just how right she was."
"Thank you." Theisman looked away for a moment and cleared his throat again, harder this time, before he looked back at her. "Thank you," he repeated. "That means a lot to me—knowing Lady Harrington's said that, I mean. Especially given the circumstances the only two times we've actually met."
"No one in the Star Kingdom blames you for what those Masadan lunatics did on Blackbird, Mr. Secretary. And we remember who told Honor—Duchess Harrington, I mean—about what was happening. And who testified for the prosecution at the trials." She shook her head. "That took more than just integrity, Sir."
"Not as much more as I'd like to take credit for." Theisman's smile was off-center but genuine.
"No?" Michelle cocked her head. "Let's just say thatI wouldn't have wanted to be the officer who stood up and painted a great big bull's-eye on her own chest when I knew a senior officer corps full of Legislaturalists was going to be looking for a scapegoat for a busted operation."
"That thought did cross my mind," Theisman admitted. "Then again, the fact that the Masadans really are the lunatics you just called them didn't hurt. In a way, my testimony only underscored the fact that it was their idiocy in seizing 'Thunder of God' that really blew the operation wide open. Well, that and Lady Harrington. Besides," he smiled again, "Alfredo Yu made a much better—and more senior—scapegoat than I could have."
"I suppose. Oh, and while I'm at it, I should probably say that Admiral Yu's also been one of the senior officers on our side who's spoken well of you."
"I'm glad." Theisman's face softened at the mention of his old mentor. Then it tightened again. "I'm glad," he repeated, "but I wouldn't have blamed Lady Harrington for changing any positive impression she might have had of me when I just stood there and watched Ransom drag her off to Cerberus."
"And just what were you supposed to do to keep that from happening, Sir?" Michelle asked. He looked at her, as if surprised to hear her say that, and she snorted. "Don't forget that Warner Caslet came home from Cerberus with her, Mr. Secretary. From everything he's said, it's pretty evident Ransom was only looking for an excuse to 'make an example' out of you, as well as Admiral Tourville. And Nimitz—" she'd caught herself just in time to substitute the treecat's name for Honor's "—could 'taste' enough of your emotions to know how you felt about what was happening."
His eyes narrowed, and she watched him digesting her confirmation of the ability of the telempathic 'cats to reliably detect the emotions of those in their vicinity. She had no doubt Havenite intelligence had been passing on the revelations from the Star Kingdom's newscasts about treecat intelligence since Nimitz and his mate Samantha had learned to communicate using sign language, but that wasn't quite the same thing as firsthand, independent confirmation.
Of course, I don't imagine any of those reports have mentioned the minor fact that Honor's become an empath herself, she reflected. And I don't have any intention of telling them about that, either.
"I'm glad," he said, after a moment. "Not that knowing she understands and sympathizes makes me feel any better about the entire Navy's failure to meet its obligations under interstellar law under the old r'egime."
"Maybe not," Michelle replied, "but, then, you had a little bit to do with the reason that it is the 'old r'egime,' too. And with Chairman Saint-Just's rather abrupt . . . retirement. Or so I've heard, at any rate."
The captain standing at Theisman's shoulder stiffened, her expression more than a little outraged at the obvious reference to the reports (unconfirmed, of course) that then-Citizen Admiral Theisman had shot Saint-Just out of hand during his successful coup, but the Secretary of War only chuckled.
"I suppose you could put it that way," he acknowledged, then sobered just a bit. "On the other hand, I didn't help overthrow Saint-Just just so we could go back to shooting at one another again."
"Sir, with all due respect, I don't think that's going to be a particularly profitable topic," Michelle said, meeting his eye steadily. "I can't begin to tell you how glad I am to learn how humanely your POWs are being treated, but the accusations and actions which led to the resumption of hostilities aren't something I'm really prepared to discuss. Nor," she ended unflinchingly, "is that topic one upon which I believe you and I are likely to find ourselves in agreement."
"No?" Theisman gazed at her calmly, almost speculatively, while his aide bridled behind him. Then the Secretary of War shook his head. "Very well, Admiral Henke. If it's a topic you'd prefer not to discuss at this time, I'm entirely prepared to defer to your wishes. Perhaps another time. And," there was something odd about the look in his eyes, Michelle thought, "you might be surprised at just how close to agreement we might be able to come."
He paused, as if waiting to see if she would rise to the bait of his final sentence. And, truth to tell, she was tempted—very tempted. But one thing of which she was painfully aware was just how totally unsuited she was to the role of diplomat.
Honor might be the right woman for that, these days, at least, she thought. But the best I can say about me is that I'm smart enough to know that I'm most definitely not the right woman for it.
"Well, at any rate," Theisman resumed a bit more briskly, "I understand from the doctors that they're going to be moving you out of the hospital the day after tomorrow. I trust you'll find your new accommodations as comfortable as could be expected, under the circumstances, and I'd also like to extend a formal invitation to join me for supper before we send you off to durance vile. I promise there won't be any truth drugs in the wine, and there are a few other officers I'd like you to meet. Admiral Giscard, Admiral Tourville, and Admiral Redmont, among others."
"Admiral Redmont and I have already met, Mr. Secretary," Michelle told him.
"So I understand." Theisman smiled thinly. "On the other hand, a little more time has passed since then, and Admiral Redmont and I have had the opportunity to . . . discuss his actions at Solon."
"Sir, Admiral Redmont didn't—"
"I didn't say I didn't understand what happened, Admiral," Theisman told her. "And, if we're going to be honest, I might very well have reacted the same way if I'd thought you'd deliberately waited to abandon ship until you knew I'd sailed into your ambush. But if we're going to keep a handle on atrocities and counter-atrocities, then anytime something like this comes along, it needs to be addressed squarely. I don't doubt that Admiral Redmont acted correctly after he'd picked up your surviving people. And I don't doubt that the two of you handled yourselves with proper professional courtesy. I hope, however, that you'll accept my invitation and give all of us an opportunity to discuss the incident and our reactions to it in a less . . . charged atmosphere, shall we say?"
"Very well, Mr. Secretary," Michelle said. "Of course I'll accept your invitation."
"Excellent." Theisman rose and extended his hand to her. They shook, and he maintained his grip for a heartbeat or two afterward. Then he released her hand and nodded to his aide.
"We'd better be going, Alenka," he said.
"Yes, Sir." The captain opened the hospital room door, then stood waiting at a position of semi-attention for her superior to proceed her through it.
"Until tomorrow night, then, Admiral," Theisman said to Michelle, and he was gone.