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Chapter Thirteen

The man who had been Pavel Young stopped short as he faced the unexpected mirror. He stared across his new office, frozen while the door sighed shut behind him, and his hollow-eyed face looked back, white with strain above his exquisitely tailored tunic. His civilian tunic.


Something happened inside him. His shoulders twitched with an almost electric shock. His nostrils flared, and he crossed the room quickly, his mouth twisted in shame too fresh to lose its fury, and hooked his fingers under the mirror's frame.


It was bracketed to the wall, not simply hung, and pain lanced up his arm as a fingernail tore. But he welcomed the hurt. It was an ally, fanning his hate-filled strength, and he grunted with effort as he drove his fingertips into the small gap like splitting wedges of flesh. Expensive wood paneling yielded with a pistol-sharp crack as the mirror ripped out of the wall, and he staggered back and hurled it from him. It sailed across the palatial office, spinning end-for-end with a soft, whirring sound, then hit the opposite wall with a shattering smash. Mirror-backed fragments of glass pattered across the carpet, ringing and rolling like splintered diamonds on the bare wood beyond the carpet's edges, and madness glittered in his eyes.


A voice from the outer office exclaimed in muffled alarm as the mirror's destruction shook the room. The door opened abruptly, and a distinguished looking man with hair of iron gray looked in. His face revealed nothing, but his eyes widened as he saw the wild-eyed, panting Eleventh Earl of North Hollow standing in the center of the room. The earl was still bent forward in a throwing posture, shuddering as he sucked in huge gulps of air and glared fixedly at the shattered mirror.


"My Lord?" The iron-haired man's soft, courteous voice was touched with the tiniest edge of caution, but North Hollow ignored it. The other man cleared his throat and tried again, a bit louder. "My Lord?"


The earl shook himself. He closed his eyes and rammed his fingers through his hair, then drew a deep breath and turned to the newcomer.


"Yes, Osmond?"


"I heard the mirror fall." North Hollow's mouth twitched at Osmond's choice of verb, and Osmond paused. "Shall I call a cleaning crew, My Lord?" he suggested delicately.


"No." North Hollow's voice was harsh. He drew another deep breath, then turned and walked deliberately behind his desk. He seated himself in the expensive new chair that had replaced his father's life-support chair, and shook his head. "No," he said more calmly. "Leave it for now."


Osmond nodded, expression still bland, but his thoughts were wary. The newest Earl North Hollow could scarcely be blamed for feeling the strain, but there was something dangerous about him. The glitter in his eyes was too bright, too fixed, before he lowered them to the data console before him.


"That will be all, Osmond," North Hollow said after a moment, gaze still fixed on the console, and the other man withdrew without a sound. The door whispered shut behind him, and North Hollow slumped in his chair and scrubbed his face with his palms.


The mirror had brought it all back . . . again. Five days. Five hideous days and five nights more terrible still had passed since the Navy completed his dishonor. He closed his eyes, and the scene played itself out once more against the blood-red haze of his lids. He couldn't stop it. He didn't even know if he wanted to stop it, for agonizing as it was, it fed the hate that gave him the strength to go on.


He saw the iron-faced admiral once more, his eyes shouting out the disgust his regulation expression hid, as he read the court-martial's sentence aloud. He saw the watching ranks of black and gold while the snouts of HD cameras peered pitilessly down from vantage points and hovering air cars. He saw the junior-grade lieutenant marching forward, the brisk, impersonal movement of his gloved hands belied by the contempt in his eyes as they ripped the golden planets of a senior-grade captain from the collar of his mess dress uniform. The braid on his cuffs followed. It had been specially prepared for the event, tacked to his sleeves with a few fragile stitches that popped and tore with dreadful clarity in the silence. Then it was the medal ribbons on his chest, his shoulder boards, the unit patch with his last ship's name, the gold and scarlet Navy flash from his right shoulder.


He'd wanted to scream at them all. To spit upon their stupid concept of honor and reject their right to judge. But he couldn't. The shock and shame had cut too deep, the numbed horror of it had frozen him, and so he'd stood rigidly at attention, unable to do anything else, as the lieutenant removed the beret from his head. The white beret of a starship's commander, badged with the Kingdom's arms. Gloved fingers ripped the badge from it and returned it to his head, replacing it with contemptuous dismissal, as if he were a child unable even to dress himself, and still he stood at attention.


But then it was his sword, and he swayed ever so slightly. His eyes closed, unable to watch, as the lieutenant braced the needle-sharp point against the ground, holding it at a forty-five-degree angle, and raised a booted foot. He couldn't see it, but he heard that foot fall, heard the terrible, brittle snap of breaking steel.


He stood before them, no longer a Queen's officer. He stood in a ridiculous black suit, stripped of its finery, its badges of honor, and the breeze picked at the scraps of gold and ribbon which had meant so much more than he'd known before he lost them. The wind rolled them over the manicured grass while the broken halves of his shattered sword glittered at his feet in the brilliant sunlight.


"About face!" The admiral's voice had snapped the command, but it no longer applied to him. His eyes had opened again, against his will. It was as if some outside force were determined to make him watch his final shame as those solid ranks turned their backs upon him in perfect unison.


"Forward, march!" the admiral snapped, and the officers who had not been found wanting obeyed. They marched away from him, with a precision Marines could not have bettered, timed by the slow, measured beat of a single drum, and left him alone and abandoned on the field of his dishonor. . . .


His eyes popped open, escaping the substance of his nightmares—for a time. His mouth twisted with a foul, bitter curse, and his fists were white knuckled on the desk before him as the hate poured through him.


He was a man who was used to hate. It had always been a part of him, racing through his veins. When some arrogant commoner challenged his rightful authority, when some spiteful superior denied him the recognition which was his just due, the hate had been there, boiling like lye. And the hate had been there when he crushed some upstart inferior, as well. He'd tasted it when he used his power to punish those who dared defy him, but then it had burned sweet, like intoxicating wine.


This hate was different. It didn't burn; it blazed. It was a furnace within him, consuming him. This time his whole world had turned upon him, chewed him up and spat him out like so much carrion at the feet of the bitch who'd delivered him to destruction, and every cell of his being cried out for vengeance. Vengeance upon that slut Harrington, but not just upon her. He would—he must—destroy her and everyone else who had betrayed him, yet he needed even more. It had to be done right, in a way that returned their contempt sneer for sneer, that spat upon their precious codes and putrid honor.


His teeth grated, and he made himself sit still, trembling, until the raw fury receded. It didn't go away. It simply shrank back to something that let him move and think, speak without spewing the curses that seethed within.


He pressed a key on his com console, and his father's—no, his—senior aide answered instantly.


"Yes, My Lord?"


"I need to see Sakristos and Elliott, Osmond. And you. Immediately."


"Of course, My Lord."


The circuit went dead, and North Hollow tilted his chair back. He folded his hands in front of him, lips curled in an ugly smile, and nodded slow agreement with his thoughts as he waited.


The door opened again within minutes to admit Osmond and another, younger man. They were accompanied by an elegantly groomed red-haired woman of stunning beauty, and something hungry flickered in the back of North Hollow's eyes as he gazed at her.


"Sit." He pointed at the chairs facing his desk, and a trickle of pleasure seeped through him as they obeyed. It wasn't the same as the Navy, but there was another sort of power here. The power of his name and the political machine he'd inherited was like a subtle aphrodisiac, and he rolled it across his tongue as he considered his underlings.


He let them sit for several seconds, let them absorb their obedience even as he absorbed his authority over them, then pointed at Osmond.


"Where are we in our negotiations with Baron High Ridge?"


"The Baron has agreed to sponsor your maiden speech, My Lord. He's expressed some small concern over the Jordan matter, but I took the liberty of assuring him his fears were groundless."


North Hollow nodded with a grunt of pleasure. High Ridge had been reluctant to personally sponsor North Hollow's first speech in the Lords. The baron was as well known for the religious fervor with which he protected his family name and political position as for his reactionary intolerance, and he'd been afraid the dishonor the Navy had smeared across North Hollow would besmirch him, as well . . . but not as frightened as he'd been when he discovered the earl's father had passed his arsenal of secret files to his son with his title. North Hollow could have destroyed a score of political careers—and the family names of the men and women those careers belonged to—and High Ridge's was among them.


The baron's involvement in the Jordan Cartel had been hidden behind more than a dozen layers of dummy shareholders, but the last Earl of North Hollow had discovered it. High Ridge's shares had been no more or less than bribes, providing the cash to bail out the family fortunes at a critical moment. Worse, he'd sold them in a single block, using inside information to get out just before the Admiralty announced the suspension of all Navy contracts with the cartel while charges of fraud and substandard building practices were investigated. That large a stock transaction, coming just before the actual announcement, had been a major factor in sparking the frantic sell-off that brought the cartel down in the Kingdom's worst financial failure in over a T-century. Thousands had been hurt, hundreds had been completely wiped out, and none of the investigators had ever been able to determine who'd ordered that first, fatal sale.


None of them except those who'd worked for North Hollow's father.


"The Baron did ask me what subject you intend to speak upon, however, My Lord." Osmond's voice broke in on the earl's reverie, and North Hollow snorted.


"I intend to speak about the declaration," he said in a sarcastic, "what else?" tone. Osmond simply nodded, and the earl's eyes swiveled to the younger man beside his aide. "That's why I wanted to see you, Elliott."


His chief speech-writer cocked his head and poised his fingers attentively over the keys of a stenographer's memo pad.


"I want this handled carefully," North Hollow went on. "I do not want to attack the Government." The red-haired woman on Osmond's other side raised her eyebrows, and North Hollow snorted again. "I have no intention of breaking with the rest of the party, but if I sound as if I want some sort of vengeance for what the Government's done to me, I'll only undermine my own influence."


Elliott nodded, fingers flicking keys, and North Hollow pretended not to notice the way Osmond's shoulders relaxed ever so slightly.


"As a matter of fact, I don't want to sound anti-Navy, either," the earl continued. "We'll settle up with those bastards later. For now, I want to strike an 'in sorrow, not in anger' note. And—" he paused, studying the three staffers narrowly "—I intend to speak in favor of the declaration."


Elliott's eyes widened and darted up to the earl's face before he could snatch them back down again, and North Hollow saw the shock in them. Osmond stiffened in his chair, half-opening his mouth as if to protest, then snapped it closed again. Only Georgia Sakristos seemed unsurprised. She leaned back in her chair, crossing sleek legs, and her blue eyes gleamed with a certain detached amusement as Elliott finally found his voice again.


"I— Of course, My Lord, if that's what you want. But, forgive me for asking, have you discussed any of this with Baron High Ridge?"


"I have not. I will, of course—after we deliver the draft of the speech to him. At the moment, however, you three are the only ones who know. No one outside this room will know until I tell you differently. I intend for this speech to come as a complete surprise when I deliver it."


"But, My Lord," Osmond began in his most diffident voice, "this represents a complete break with the Association's position."


"It does." North Hollow smiled thinly. "But the Peeps are going to attack us again as soon as they get organized whether we declare war or not. Should they do that while the party still opposes a war vote, it'll only validate the policy Cromarty and his cronies have been advocating all along. And, of course, invalidate the Opposition's."


He paused, watching Osmond's face, and the aide nodded slowly.


"I don't expect the Government to embrace me—not, at least, until the . . . public relations situation dies down. Nor do I expect to play any overt role in the actual tactics of arranging the accommodation. But opening the door by advocating a partnership with the Government despite what it's done to me will be an investment in political capital. Hell, half the Association already realizes we're backing an untenable position. If I give them a way out—especially one that lets whatever deal they strike look like a patriotic gesture—they'll kneel down in line to kiss my ass."


"And the Government will owe you, too, whether it wants to admit it or not," Sakristos murmured.


"Exactly." North Hollow's smile turned even more unpleasant. "I'm too new to the Lords to retain the whip's position, but I don't plan to be that way forever. Not that the whip is what I want. It'll take a few years, but Baron High Ridge will have to step down eventually. When he does, I intend to be ready."


Even Sakristos' face showed surprise this time, and all three of North Hollow's subordinates sat back, eyes narrow as they worked through the permutations. The earl's father had never wanted the party's top position. He'd preferred to act more discreetly, brokering deals as the power behind the throne, but it seemed the new earl was cut from different cloth.


Different cloth, perhaps, but with the same secrets in his vault and the same organization behind him, and narrow eyes began to gleam with ambition of their own as they visualized the ways those secrets could be used to ease other contenders aside. North Hollow let them contemplate the possibilities, then pointed at Elliott once more.


"Does that give you a feel for the sort of speech I need?"


"Uh, yes. Yes, My Lord. I think I understand."


"How soon can you have a draft for me?"


"By tomorrow afternoon, My Lord?"


"Not soon enough. I'm due to take my seat in three days. Give it to me before you go home tonight."


Elliott swallowed, then nodded.


"In that case, you'd probably better get on it. Osmond, I want you to draw up a list of reliable newsies. Set up an exclusive interview with someone we can trust to ask the right questions, then get to work on the answers. I want to go over the preliminary list with you, with dossiers on each possibility, by tomorrow morning."


"Of course, My Lord."


North Hollow nodded dismissal but waved Sakristos back into her chair when she rose with the two men. Osmond and Elliott filed out of the office without seeming to notice, and Sakristos crossed her legs once more.


The door closed, and North Hollow smiled at his father's chief dirty tricks specialist.


"Yes, My Lord?" she said politely.


"Pavel. It's still Pavel to you . . . Elaine."


"Of course, Pavel." Sakristos smiled back, but it was hard, even for her, for she knew the new earl's reputation. His father had promised to remove her name from his vault before he passed it on—that had been part of the quid pro quo that ensured her loyalty—but Pavel's use of the name "Elaine" proved he hadn't. She'd been afraid of that, given the suddenness of the old earl's death, and a shiver ran through her at the confirmation of her worst fear. Dimitri Young had been too wrecked by dissipation to do more than ogle her, but Pavel's smile told her he wanted more of her than the last earl had . . . and he had the weapons to demand it. He could do far worse than ruin her career; he could send her to prison for so long not even prolong would preserve her looks until she was released.


"Good." North Hollow's smile turned ugly for just a moment, touched with a greasy hunger that revolted her, then vanished. "At the moment, however, I have another job for you. I've got some . . . unfinished business with the Navy, and you're going to help me take care of it."


"If you wish, Pavel," she said as coolly as she could. "From a political viewpoint, however, Mr. Osmond would—"


"I'm not thinking about politics," he interrupted. "You're my direct action specialist, aren't you, 'Georgia'?" She could almost taste the gloating pleasure with which he used her assumed name, but she forced her expression to remain politely attentive.


"Yes, My Lord, I am," she said calmly.


"Well, that's what I want. Direct—very direct—action. Now, here's what I have in mind. First—"


 


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