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Chapter One

"Steeeee-riiiiike onnnnne!"


The small white sphere flew past the young man in the green-trimmed, white uniform and smacked into the flat leather glove of the gray-uniformed man crouching behind him. The third man in the tableau—the one who had issued the shouted proclamation—wore an anachronistic black jacket and cap, as well as a face mask and chest protector like the crouching man wore. A rumble of discontent went up at his announcement, sprinkled with a few catcalls, from the crowd which filled the comfortable seats of the stadium to near capacity, and the man in white lowered his long, slender club to glower at the man in black. It didn't do him any good. The black-clad official only returned his glare, and, finally, he turned back towards the playing field while the man who'd caught the ball threw it back to his teammate, standing on the small, raised mound of earth twenty or so meters away.


"Wait a minute," Commodore Lady Michelle Henke, Countess Gold Peak, said, turning in her own seat in the palatial owner's box to look at her hostess. "That's a strike?"


"Of course it is," Lady Dame Honor Harrington, Duchess and Steadholder Harrington, replied gravely.


"I thought you said a 'strike' was when he swung and missed," Henke complained.


"It is," Honor assured her.


"But he didn't—swing, I mean."


"It's a strike whether he swings or not, as long as the pitch is in the strike zone."


For just a moment, Henke's expression matched that which the batter had turned upon the umpire, but Honor only looked back with total innocence. When the countess spoke again, it was with the careful patience of one determined not to allow someone else the satisfaction of a petty triumph.


"And the 'strike zone' is?" she asked.


"Anywhere between the knees and the shoulders, as long as the ball also crosses home plate," Honor told her with the competent air of a longtime afficionado.


"You say that like you knew the answer a year ago," Henke replied in a pretension-depressing tone.


"That's just the sort of small-minded attitude I might have expected out of you," Honor observed mournfully, and shook her head. "Really, Mike, it's a very simple game."


"Sure it is. That's why this is the only planet in the known universe where they still play it!"


"That's not true," Honor scolded primly while the cream-and-gray treecat stretched across the back of her seat raised his head to twitch his whiskers insufferably at his person's guest. "You know perfectly well that they still play baseball on Old Earth and at least five other planets."


"All right, on seven planets out of the— what? Isn't it something like seventeen hundred total inhabited worlds now?"


"As a trained astrogator, you should appreciate the need for precision," Honor said with a crooked grin, just as the pitcher uncorked a nasty, sharp-breaking slider. The wooden bat cracked explosively as it made contact and sent the ball slicing back out over the field. It crossed the short, inner perimeter wall which divided the playing field from the rest of the stadium, and Henke jumped to her feet and opened her mouth to cheer. Then she realized that Honor hadn't moved, and she turned to prop her hands on her hips with an expression halfway between martyred and exasperated.


"I take it that there's some reason that wasn't a— whatchamacallit? A 'homerun'?"


"It's not a homerun unless it stays between the foul poles when it crosses the outfield wall, Mike," Honor told her, pointing at the yellow and white striped pylons. "That one went foul by at least ten or fifteen feet."


"Feet? Feet?" Henke shot back. "My God, woman! Can't you at least keep track of the distances in this silly sport using measurement units civilized people can recognize?"


"Michelle!" Honor looked at her with the horror normally reserved for someone who stood up in church to announce she'd decided to take up devil worship and that the entire congregation was invited out to her house for a Black Mass and lemonade.


"What?" Henke demanded in a voice whose severity was only slightly undermined by the twinkle in her eyes.


"I suppose I shouldn't have been as shocked as I was," Honor said, more in sorrow than in anger. "After all, I, too, was once even as you, an infidel lost and unaware of how barren my prebaseball existence had truly been. Fortunately, one who had already seen the truth was there to bring me to the light," she added, and waved to the short, wiry auburn-haired man who stood in his green-on-green uniform directly behind her. "Andrew," she said, "would you be kind enough to tell the Commodore what you said to me when I asked you why it was ninety feet between bases instead of twenty-seven and a half meters?"


"What you actually asked, My Lady," Lieutenant Colonel Andrew LaFollett replied in a gravely meticulous tone, "was why we hadn't converted to meters and rounded up to twenty-eight of them between each pair of bases. Actually, you sounded just a bit put out over it, if I recall correctly."


"Whatever," Honor said with a lordly, dismissive wave. "Just tell her what you told me."


"Of course, My Lady," the commander of her personal security detachment agreed, and turned courteously to Henke. "What I said to the Steadholder, Countess Gold Peak," he said, "was 'This is baseball, My Lady!' "


"You see?" Honor said smugly. "There's a perfectly logical reason."


"Somehow, I don't think that adjective means exactly what you think it does," Henke told her with a chuckle. "On the other hand, I have heard it said that Graysons are just a bit on the traditional side, so I suppose there's really no reason to expect them to change anything about a game just because it's over two thousand years old and might need a little updating."


"Updating is only a good idea if it constitutes an improvement, as well, My Lady," LaFollet pointed out. "And it's not quite fair to say we haven't made any changes. If the record books are accurate, there was a time, in at least one league back on Old Earth, when the pitcher didn't even have to bat. Or when a manager could make as many pitching changes in a single game as he wanted to. Saint Austen put an end to that nonsense, at least!"


Henke rolled her eyes and sank back into her seat.


"I hope you won't take this the wrong way, Andrew," she told the colonel, "but somehow the discovery that the founder of your religion was also a baseball fanatic doesn't really surprise me. It certainly explains the careful preservation of some of the . . . archaic aspects of the game, anyway."


"I wouldn't say Saint Austen was a fanatic about baseball, My Lady," LaFollet replied in a considering tone. " 'Fanatic' would probably be much too mild a term, from everything I've ever read."


"I never would have guessed," Henke said dryly, letting her eyes sweep over the stadium once more. The huge sports facility seated at least sixty thousand in its tiers of comfortably upholstered chairs, and she hated to think how much the place must have cost. Especially on a planet like Grayson, where what would normally have been outdoor sports required stadiums with things like air filtration systems just to protect the local population from the heavy metal contents of their own atmosphere.


Not that any expense had been spared on more mundane considerations when James Candless Memorial Field was erected. The immaculately manicured playing field was a green jewel, broken only by white stripes of the traditional powdered lime and the bare, rich brown earth of the base lines. The colors of the field and the even brighter colors of the festively garbed spectators glowed brilliantly in the protective dome's filtered sunlight, and the crowd was liberally festooned with team pennants and banners exhorting the home team to victory. There was even a ventilation system carefully designed to exactly recreate the wind conditions outside the dome, and the Grayson planetary flag, with its crossed swords and open Bible, flew from the top of one of the two foul poles while the Harrington Steading flag flew from the other.


She let her eyes rest balefully on those same foul poles for a moment, then glanced at the huge digital scoreboard projected holographically above the infield, and sighed.


"I know I'm going to regret asking this, but would one of you insufferable know-it-alls care to explain to me where that— " she pointed at the scarlet numeral "2" which had appeared in the "Strikes" column "— came from? I thought it was only strike one."


"That was before the foul ball, Mike," Honor explained brightly.


"But he hit it," Henke protested.


"It doesn't matter. A foul ball counts as a strike."


"But— "


Henke broke off as the pitcher delivered a curveball, which the batter promptly hooked foul over the third base dugout. She looked expectantly at the scoreboard, then drew a deep breath as the count of balls and strikes remained unchanged.


"I thought you said— " she began.


"Foul balls are only strikes until the count has already reached two strikes," Honor said. "After that, they don't count as strikes . . . or balls, either, for that matter. Unless one of them is caught by one of the fielders, of course. Then it counts as an out instead of a dead ball."


Henke regarded her sourly, and Honor grinned back. The countess glowered, then turned an equally disapproving expression upon the armsman.


"'Simple game,' " she snorted. "Right. Sure!"


* * *


The Harrington Treecats lost by a score of eleven to two.


Michelle Henke tried valiantly to project an air of proper commiseration as the luxury air car swept up to the owner's box's private slip to collect her and her hostess' party. Alas, her success was less than total.


"It isn't nice to gloat, Mike," Honor informed her with a certain severity.


"Gloat? Me, gloat? Me, a peer of the Star Kingdom, gloat just because your team got waxed while you and your friend the Colonel were so busy pointing out my abysmal ignorance to me? How could you possibly suggest that I'd do such a thing?"


"Possibly because I've known you so long."


"And possibly because it's exactly what you'd be doing if our positions were reversed," Henke suggested.


"All things are possible," Honor agreed. "On the other hand, some are less likely than others, and given the strength of my own character, that one's less likely than most."


"Oh, of course. I keep forgetting what a modest, shy and retiring type you are, Honor," Henke said as they climbed into the air limo, followed by LaFollet, carrying Nimitz's mate Samantha, and the rest of Honor's regular three-man detachment.


"Not shy and retiring. Simply a more mature and responsible individual."


"Not so mature and responsible that you didn't name your team after a certain furry, six-footed celery-thief and his friends," Henke shot back, reaching out to rub the treecat on Honor's shoulder between his ears.


"Nimitz and Samantha had nothing to do with my choice," Honor replied. "Mind you, they approved of it, but I actually picked it as the lesser of two evils." She grimaced. "It was that, or the 'Harrington Salamanders.' "


Henke looked up sharply, then spluttered a half-smothered laugh.


"You're joking!"


"I wish I were. As a matter of fact, the Commissioner of Baseball had already assigned the Salamanders name when the Owners' Committee and the Rules Committee agreed to expand the league. I had an awful time changing their minds."


"I think it would've been a marvelous name," Henke told her with an impish grin.


"I'm sure you do," Honor said repressively. "I, on the other hand, don't. Leaving aside the entire question of modesty, can you imagine how High Ridge and his crowd would have reacted? It would have been tailor-made for their op-ed pieces!"


"Um." Henke's grin vanished at the reminder of the unpleasant political realities inherent in the existence of the High Ridge Government. Those realties had become progressively less pleasant and more personal, for Honor at least, over the last three-plus T-years. Which, Henke knew, was the real reason her friend had been so delighted to return briefly to Grayson to attend to her obligations as Steadholder Harrington. It was also one of the reasons Henke herself had shown such alacrity in accepting the invitation to spend her own leave as Honor's guest here.


"You're probably right," she said, after a moment. "Of course, in any properly run universe, High Ridge would never have become Prime Minister in the first place, much less held onto the office for so long. I think I'll complain to the management."


"I do that every Sunday," Honor assured her with very little humor indeed. "And I suspect the Protector has Reverend Sullivan do the same thing, just to put a little more horsepower behind it."


"Horsepower or not, it doesn't seem to be working," Henke observed. She shook her head. "I can't believe they've managed to hang on so long. I mean, Jesus, Honor, most of them hate each other! And as for their ideologies—!"


"Of course they hate each other. Unfortunately, at this particular moment they hate your cousin even more. Or feel sufficiently scared of her to hang together, come what may, in opposition to her, at any rate."


"I know," Henke sighed. "I know." She shook her head again. "Beth always has had a temper. It's too bad she still hasn't learned to keep it muzzled."


"That's not quite fair," Honor disagreed, and Henke arched an eyebrow at her.


Michelle Henke, thanks to the assassination which had killed her father, her older brother, the Duke of Cromarty, and the entire crew of the Queen's royal yacht, stood fifth in the line of succession for the Crown of the Star Kingdom of Manticore. Her mother, Caitrin Winton-Henke, Duchess Winton-Henke and Dowager Countess Gold Peak, was Queen Elizabeth III's aunt, the only sibling of the Queen's father, and now Michelle was her mother's only surviving child. Henke had never expected to stand so high in the succession, or to inherit her father's title, for that matter. But she'd known Elizabeth all of her life, and she was only too familiar with the fiery Winton temper which the Queen had inherited in full measure.


Despite that, she had to admit that Honor had actually spent more time with the Queen over the last three T-years than Michelle herself had. Indeed, the visibility of Duchess Harrington as one of the Crown's staunchest supporters in the Lords (and as one of the inner circle of "kitchen advisers" the Queen turned to for advice instead of the members of her official government) was one reason the pro-Government media had spent so much time trying to discredit Honor in any way it could. The subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) vilification which had come her way had been downright ugly at times. But however that might be, she admitted, Honor had not only spent more time working with Elizabeth but also possessed certain advantages others lacked when it came to evaluating people and their emotions. Still . . .


"Honor, I love Beth as my cousin, and I respect her as my monarch," she said after a moment. "But she has the temper of a hexapuma with a broken tooth when something sets her off, and you and I both know it. If she'd just managed to hang onto it when the High Ridge Government was first being formed, she might have been able to split them up instead of driving them together in opposition to her."


"I didn't say she'd handled things perfectly," Honor pointed out, leaning back while Nimitz arranged himself comfortably across her lap. Samantha wiggled down from LaFollet's arms to join him, and Honor gave the female 'cat's ears a welcoming caress. "In fact," she went on, "Elizabeth would be the first to agree that she blew her best opportunity to hang onto control when she lost her temper with them. But while you've been off having adventures in space, I've been sitting on my posterior in the House of Lords, watching High Ridge in action. And from what I've seen there, I don't think it really mattered, in the long run, how she handled them."


"I beg your pardon?" Henke said just a bit uncomfortably. She knew Honor hadn't meant it as a criticism, but she couldn't help feeling at least a little guilty. Her mother held a seat of her own in the Lords as a duchess in her own right, so she and Michelle had seen no reason why she shouldn't hold her daughter's proxy and represent them both. Duchess Winton-Henke had always found politics far more absorbing than Michelle ever had, and the deaths of her husband and son had left her looking for a distraction. Michelle had needed a distraction of her own, which she'd found by throwing herself even more completely into her space-going duties as an officer in the Royal Manticoran Navy.


A distraction Honor had been conspicuously denied.


"Even assuming that there were no ideological fissures within the High Ridge Government, there aren't enough Conservatives, Liberals, and Progressives in the Lords to sustain High Ridge's majority without the support of at least some of the Independents," Honor pointed out. "High Ridge has managed to bring Wallace's New Men on board, as well, of course, but even that's not enough to change the dynamics of the major parties significantly. And however much she might have frightened or angered High Ridge and his cronies, she never said anything threatening to the Independents who've decided to support him, now did she?"


"No," Henke admitted, remembering bits and pieces of conversations she'd had with her mother and finding herself wishing she'd paid more attention at the time.


"Of course not. He managed to gain their support without her ever losing her temper with them. And even if she had, you would have thought something like the Manpower Scandal would have split a lot of those Independents away from the Government."


"As a matter of fact, that's exactly what I expected to happen when Cathy Montaigne dropped her bomb," Henke agreed, and shrugged. "Personally, I always liked Cathy. I thought she was a little dippy before she went off to Old Earth, maybe, but it was obvious she's always believed in her principles. And, damn, but I like her style."


"I've decided I like her, too," Honor confessed. "I never thought I'd say that about any member of the Liberal Party, either. Of course, aside from the Liberals' anti-genetic slavery stance, I don't know how much she really has in common with the rest of 'her' party." Honor's tone remained almost serene, but her eyes narrowed dangerously. Her bred-in-the-bone hatred for the genetic slave trade was as implacable as a Sphinx winter, probably because of her mother. "I don't believe I've ever heard anyone else express herself so, um . . . eloquently on the topic," she added.


"She does have a way with words, and I'd certainly agree that she suffers from a certain tunnel vision on that particular topic," Henke allowed with a smile. "Not to mention a pronounced need to kick the Establishment in the teeth just on general principles. One of my cousins is married to Cathy's brother-in-law George Larabee, Lord Altamont, and she tells me Lady Altamont, George's mother, is absolutely livid over the way Cathy is openly 'living in sin' with a mere commoner. And not just any commoner! A Gryphon highlander who's on half-pay for his offenses against military discipline!"


Henke chuckled, then sobered.


"This time, though, I thought she had the bastards nailed. God knows how she got her hands on those records—and, personally, I'll be just as happy if He never gets around to explaining it all to me. But from what Mom said, and from everything I read in the 'faxes, it certainly sounded like there wasn't much question that they were genuine."


"No question at all." Honor, who, unlike Henke, had a very good notion of how the Countess of the Tor had come into possession of the damning documentation, agreed. For a moment, she considered explaining her suspicions about Captain Zilwicki and his role in the mysterious intelligence windfall to her friend, then decided against it. They weren't really something Mike needed to know . . . just as she didn't need to know some of the other things Andrew LaFollet had discovered about Anton Zilwicki. Like exactly what it was that the half-pay captain's new private security firm was doing with some of the information which the Countess had not turned over to the authorities.


"Unfortunately," she went on instead, "the individuals who were specifically named were all relatively small fish. Socially prominent in some cases, perhaps, and politically important enough to be highly visible in others, but not close enough to the seats of power to be really crippling. The fact that so many of them had connections to the Conservatives and—especially!—to certain members of the Liberal Party, as well, was certainly embarrassing. For that matter, the Ministry of Justice has put a couple of dozen of them away for a long, long time. But there were just enough of them in the other parties or among the Independents—even two among the Centrists, I'm sorry to say—for the apologists to argue that 'everyone did it' and keep any one party from being singled out for blame. And the fact that there were no direct links to the party leaders let the Government defuse the worst possible repercussions by shouting louder than anyone else for the prosecution of the individuals who were named. Like Hendricks, when they recalled him from Old Terra and sent out a new ambassador."


"Or Admiral Young," Henke said grimly, and Honor nodded with a carefully neutral expression. The implacable hostility between her and the Young clan went back for over forty T-years, punctuated by bitter hatred and more than one death. Which was one reason she'd taken great pains to maintain her facade of neutrality when the Navy recalled Admiral Edwin Young from Old Terra, convicted him of violation of the Articles of War before a court-martial, and stripped him of his rank. The civilian courts had been equally harsh, even with his family links to the powerful Earl of North Hollow, whose influence at the highest level of the Prime Minister's own Conservative Association was enormous. He'd managed to escape the death penalty, but despite his exalted birth, he would be spending the next several decades as a guest of the Royal Ministry of Justice.


"Or like Young," she agreed after a moment. "In fact, what happened to him is a pretty fair example of just how ruthlessly the leadership was prepared to cut its losses . . . and exactly who they were prepared to jettison in the process. He was a Young, which made him highly visible, and a Navy flag officer, which made his 'isolated criminal actions' even more satisfyingly visceral. But he was only a fourth cousin of North Hollow, and, frankly, he was a nonentity in terms of the Conservative Association's real power structure. So when North Hollow made no move to save him, he became a highly satisfactory sacrifice to the 'principles' of his noble relative and simultaneously served as 'proof' that North Hollow himself and—by extension—all of the Conservative Association's leadership had never been involved in such heinous offenses. Which was precisely why the Government party leaders turned on all the minor fish so violently . . . and publicly. After all, they'd not only broken the law; they'd also betrayed the trust those leaders had reposed in them." It was Honor's turn to shrug. "Much as it stuck in my craw, I have to admit it was a brilliant job of political damage control. Which, however, High Ridge and New Kiev only managed to pull off because a majority of the Lords who weren't involved, including the Independents, decided to look the other way and settle for scapegoats."


"But why?" Henke demanded. "Mom said exactly the same thing to me in one of her letters, but I never understood the logic behind it."


"It all comes down to politics and what you might call the historical imperatives of constitutional evolution," Honor told her as two heavily armed stingships in the markings of the Harrington Steadholder's Guard slid into place on either wing. She and Henke were invited to supper at Protector's Palace, and Honor leaned further back and crossed her legs as the air limo started out on the lengthy flight to Mayhew Steading through a brilliantly blue, cloud-stippled sky, carefully watched over by its escorts.


"Basically," she said, "a majority of the House of Lords are willing to close their eyes to things they don't want to know about, even where something like slavery is concerned, because, however honest they may be themselves, they'd rather have a government like High Ridge's than take a chance on what might replace it. Despite all the corruption and pork barrel vote-buying that involves, they regard High Ridge as a lesser risk than giving Elizabeth and her supporters back control of both houses."


"Mom said something about that—and about how San Martin fitted into the political equation. But she was in a hurry to finish her letter, and I never asked her for a complete explanation," Henke confessed.


"To paraphrase something Admiral Courvoisier once said to me, no captain—or commodore—in the Queen's Navy can afford to be a virgin where politics are concerned, Mike. And especially not when she also stands as close to the Throne as you do."


There was absolutely no condemnation in Honor's tone, but there was a certain sternness in her eyes as her gaze locked ever so briefly with Henke's. The countess looked back almost defiantly for a few heartbeats, but then her eyes fell, and she nodded in unhappy agreement.


"I know," she admitted in a lower voice. "It's just—Well, I suppose when it comes right down to it, I never really liked politics much more than you did. And since Dad and Cal were killed and that slimy bastard managed to steal the premiership from Willie Alexander, the very thought of sitting down in the same chamber as him is enough to turn my stomach."


"And you the one who was just criticizing the Queen for her temper!" Honor scolded gently.


"Guilty as charged," Henke acknowledged. "But you were saying?"


"I was saying that a majority of the House of Lords is backing High Ridge for reasons of its own. Which is probably what your mother meant when she mentioned San Martin. That same majority is afraid of what will happen when the San Martino peers are finally seated."


"Why?" Henke asked with such genuine incomprehension that Honor, despite herself, sighed.


"Mike," she said patiently, "this is basic Political History 101. What's the one thing the Crown has been trying to take away from the Lords ever since there's been a Star Kingdom?"


"The power of the purse," Henke replied.


"Very good," Honor said. "But the Founders, who were otherwise a fairly decent lot, were virtually unanimous in their determination to see to it that they and their descendants hung onto the real political power in the Star Kingdom. That's why the Constitution specifically requires that the Prime Minister come from the House of Lords and specifies that any finance bill must be introduced in the Lords. I happen to think there's something to be said for placing substantial political power in the hands of a legislative chamber which can be . . . insulated from the political and ideological hysteria du jour, but the Founders set up too much of a good thing. The fact that they never have to stand for election means that too many of the peers—present company excluded, of course—have . . . questionable contact with reality, let's say. Worse, it's even easier for someone who inherits her title to become an empire builder within the Parliament. Trust me," she added dryly. "I've seen how that works on two different planets now, and with a considerably better vantage point than I ever wanted."


She gazed useeingly out the window at the port escort for several seconds, her long fingers gently caressing both 'cats' soft, silky fur. Nimitz looked up at her speculatively as he tasted her emotions through their empathic link. For a moment, Henke half-expected him to sink his claws, however gently, into Honor's kneecap. He was quite capable of making his displeasure evident when it was time to scold his person for brooding over past events no one could change, anyway. But this time he decided against it, and left Honor alone until she shook herself and turned back to their guest.


"Anyway, I think that over all the Crown would be just as happy to leave the premiership where it is. Much as I like and respect your cousin, honesty compels me to point out that she does have a vested interest in maintaining an hereditary aristocratic system. And I suppose that while I'm in honest mode, I should probably point out that you and I do, too. Now, at least.


"But for generations, the Crown has wanted to see a better balance between the powers of the Commons and the Lords, and the best way to accomplish that would be to give the Commons control of the purse as a counterweight to leaving the premiership permanently lodged in the Lords. Except that the Crown has never been able to assemble the required majority in the Lords to amend the Constitution to transfer that power to the lower house."


"Of course not," Henke snorted with the rich contempt for aristocratic defense of privilege possible only for one born to that same aristocracy. "What? You really think that anyone who has as good a thing going for them as the peers do is going to vote to give half of her power to someone else?"


"Actually," Honor said seriously, "that's exactly what High Ridge is afraid of, and a lot of the Independents agree with him."


"That's what Mom said," Henke said in an exasperated voice, "but I just can't see it happening, somehow."


"High Ridge can. And so can Elizabeth and Willie Alexander. It's all a matter of numbers, Mike, and the San Martino peers could very well shift the balance in the Lords to a point that makes it possible for the Queen to pull it off at last. But the joker in the deck is the combination of the Constitution's limit on the creation of new peerages and the terms of the Act of Annexation which admitted Trevor's Star to the Star Kingdom. The Constitution limits increases in the total membership of the House of Lords to no more than ten percent between any two general elections, and the Act of Annexation specifies that none of the new peers from San Martin will be confirmed or seated until after the next general election.


"So what the Government and its supporters in the Lords are trying to do is to postpone that election as long as possible. At the moment, there's not much question that the San Martinos are very solidly behind the Queen and the Centrists. After all, it was our Navy, under Elizabeth and the Cromarty Government, which kicked the Peeps out of the Trevor's Star System and liberated them, and it was Cromarty and your father, as Foreign Secretary, who negotiated the actual terms of their admission to the Star Kingdom. Not only that, but San Martin had no hereditary aristocracy before its annexation, so it's not likely that the San Martinos are going to have the same . . . devoted attachment to the status quo in Parliament. Gratitude to the people they see as responsible for their liberation, coupled with that lack of aristocratic tradition, means the new peers would be likely—almost certain, in fact—to support a motion by Lord Alexander, as the leader of the Centrist Party, to transfer that power of the purse to the House of Commons.


"But until they're actually seated, they can't support anything. And what High Ridge and his cronies are up to right now is building a sufficiently strong majority among the members of the existing peerage to resist any such action. According to the latest figures I've seen, the number of current peers opposed to the required constitutional amendment gives them at least a fifteen-percent edge, but that number could erode. And even if it doesn't, two general elections will put enough San Martinos into the Lords to overcome it, assuming their support for the amendment is solid.


"So in addition to trying to increase their own margin of support among the peers, High Ridge and his allies are trying to cut into the Centrist majority in the Commons, as well. Since it's the Commons who vote to confirm the creation of any new peerages, High Ridge hopes that if he can increase his clout in the lower house, he may be able to influence the approval process in a way that confirms peers he figures can be co-opted to support of the continued dominance of the Lords.


"The fact that San Martino MPs are going to be card-carrying Centrists or Crown Loyalists lends that particular concern added point. Technically, San Martin still doesn't have any MPs, either, but their 'special representatives' in the Commons are serving a lot of the same functions, even if they can't actually vote yet. And there's no question where their loyalties lie. Nor have any of the peers failed to take note of that little fact.


"And that, Mike, is why otherwise reasonably decent members of the House of Lords are actively supporting a piece of work like High Ridge and let him get away with his damage control on the Manpower Scandal. None of them really like him, very few of them have any illusions about the 'thoroughness' of his investigation of Countess Tor's charges, and most of them wouldn't trust him or any of his allies to look after their dogs, much less their children. But their general position is that even if the present Constitution is imperfect, the system it's created has served the Star Kingdom well, and at the moment, he's the one defending the status quo. I doubt that many of them are blind to the degree of self-interest inherent in their opposition to changing it, but that doesn't make their opposition any less genuine."


"I see." Henke leaned back in her own seat, facing Honor across the passenger compartment of the luxurious vehicle. It still startled her whenever she heard Honor Harrington, of all people, analyzing politics so clearly and concisely. It shouldn't, she supposed, given how acutely Honor had always been able to analyze military problems, but for almost forty T-years, it had always been Henke who understood the Star Kingdom's internal politics better than Honor did. Of course, Henke's understanding had been based on her own family connections. As the Queen's first cousin, she'd absorbed that understanding almost by osmosis, without ever really having to think very much about it. Which, she admitted now, might be part of the reason Honor saw the current situation so much more clearly than she did, for Honor hadn't been born into those rarified circles. She'd come to them with a lack of instinctive insider awareness which had forced her to really think about her new environment.


But the fact that her friend hadn't been born to power and nurtured within the ranks of the Star Kingdom's hereditary elite also created some dangerous blind spots, Henke reflected with carefully hidden anxiety. Blind spots that left her unaware of dangers someone like Henke herself would have recognized instantly, despite any distaste for politics. In spite of all that had happened to place Honor at the very pivot of political power in two separate star nations, she continued to think of herself—and her private life—as the yeoman's daughter she had always been.


Michelle Henke faced her friend and wondered yet again if she should say something to her, remind her of how her private life could and would be used against her by her political foes if she gave them an opening. If she should ask Honor if there were any truth to the rumors beginning to be whispered ever so quietly.


"That sounds like it makes sense," she said instead, after a moment. "It still surprises me to hear it coming from you, though, I guess. May I ask if Lord Alexander shares your analysis?"


"Of course he does. You don't think I haven't discussed it with him—at length—do you?" Honor snorted. "Between my own position in the Lords and my role as Benjamin's friend at court, I've spent more hours than I care to think about in skull sessions with the man who ought to be Prime Minister!"


"Yes, I suppose you'd have to," Henke agreed slowly, and cocked her head ever so slightly. "And has Earl White Haven been able to add anything to your perspective, as well?"


"Yes," Honor replied, reaching down to stroke Nimitz's spine. Her eyes, Henke noticed, dropped to watch her own hand on the treecat's silken pelt rather than meet her guest's gaze, and the brevity of her one-word response struck Henke as . . . ominous.


For one moment, the countess considered pressing further, making the question explicit. After all, if she couldn't ask Honor, who could? But the problem was that she couldn't, and so she only leaned back in her own chair and nodded.


"That tallies with what Mom was saying, too," she said then. "And I guess she figured I should have known enough about what was going on to understand it without her drawing a detailed map for me the way you just did." She shrugged. "Sometimes I think she never realized how much I left all that sort of thing to Cal. I was too busy with the Navy."


A fresh memory of sorrow flowed across her face, but she banished it quickly and produced a lopsided smile.


"Now that you have explained it, though, I see what you meant about historical imperatives. I still say Beth's temper didn't help things any, though."


"No, it didn't," Honor agreed, looking up from her lapful of 'cat once more with a slight air of what might have been relief. "If nothing else, it made the stakes personal for High Ridge, New Kiev, and Descroix. But from the moment the Duke of Cromarty and your father were killed, it was almost inevitable that we'd wind up where we are. Except, of course, that no one on either side could have realized what was going to happen in the People's Republic while we were tending to our domestic squabbles."


"You can say that again," Henke agreed somberly, and cocked her head. "Do you think Pritchart and Theisman understand what's happening any better than I did?"


"I certainly hope so," Honor said dryly.


 


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