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Emergence (Concertverse)
- Chapter 27

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Fortress-class DropShip Markesan Pride
Docked with JumpShip FSS Empire of Liberty
Dyev System, Dieron Military District
Draconis Combine
1st January, 3143

“Down ladder! Make a hole!”

At the familiar call - a spacer’s courtesy, when moving at speed - Sandra Fenlon shifted herself, pressing to the right of the corridor and hooking an arm through a safety bar. The techs guiding a heavyweight replacement circuit-breaker for one of the Pride’s pulse laser turrets down the corridor gave her polite nods; something that had been happening more and more, lately, as she transitioned from unwanted civilian hanger-on to whatever the Guards defined as “valuable member of the unit”.

She caught a muttered comment from one of them as well; one that Sandra was fairly sure she hadn’t been meant to hear, a quiet, “... wish Messer Julian was here to help with this.”

Interesting. Potentially troublesome, as well, depending on what it meant; because that hadn’t been how a subordinate in the AFFS referred to a superior. It was more like how an old retainer on the family estates might refer to the young lord or lady. Definitely not something to tell Julian about; he’d overreact, investment in the idea of the AFFS as apolitical ran deep in him, and the First Guards acting like a noble’s personal guard would be something that set him off.

Pulling herself forward, Sandra frowned at the thought of Julian. Around her, and all across the Guards flotilla - hanging in empty space at Dyev’s Zenith point; the Combine naval picket had shown some association with good sense, and declined to match a pair of decrepit Leopard CVs against the Guards’ naval escorts - there were the sounds of laughter, merriment and amusement, if in a subdued state, at a combination of the New Year and mail from home catching up. And yet, Julian is nowhere to be found.

Leopard CV (Underway in Space)

Leopard CV Class Fighter-Carrier DropShip

He wasn’t in his quarters - the first place she’d checked, in what was either absolute faith in the Fortress-class’s armor or a pointed comment on what the design team had thought of senior officers tucked in barely a deck below the magazine for the Long Tom - or, where Sandra had expected to find him, in the vehicle and ‘Mech bays, helping the tech teams with maintenance and repairs.

“Ah, Captain,” she called, spotting the mechwarrior officer ahead; a tall, muscular young woman, standing out thanks to the - almost, but not quite, in violation of uniform regulations - stripes of red and green - House Hasek’s colours - dyed into her hair, a sharp contrast to her ebon skin and naturally red-brown hair coloring, “A moment of your time, please?”

“Not a problem, Your Grace,” Captain Robyn duChaine - commander of Zulu Company, Third Battalion, Sandra’s practised memory supplied; not really a friend to New Avalon, but that was normal for Capellan March nobles, myself exempted, and reliable enough to get in the Guards in the first place - flipped herself around and arrested the motion with effortless, balletic grace. “What do you need?”

“Have you see Marshal Davion?” Sandra asked. “I’ve been looking for him all morning.” A slight exaggeration, but she was still having trouble navigating the DropShip’s interior.

“Um. Last time I saw him, he was on the TOC - Tactical Ops Center,” duChaine replied, looking unsure - or, more likely, worried. “It’s two levels up that way and left,” she pointed, “just under the bridge. But I only saw the Marshal there last night; don’t know if he’s still there.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Sandra kept her voice carefully at politely neutral as she swung her way upwards, suppressing the ignoble urge to swear - or comm Callandre to get up here with a roll of kroner tucked into her glove. All-nighters were not a good idea; and definitely weren’t needed now. I swear, I will get Julian to take proper care of himself if I have to hit him over the head with a wrench to do it!

The TOC was quiet when Sandra arrived, slipping the velcro soles of her shipboots onto the strips running along the floor - well, technically a wall right now, but a floor was what it was supposed to be. And you’re woolgathering, Sandra; stop it. Strange how the voice jabbing her forward sounded very much like Amanda Hasek’s - with only two of the stations manned. One was - she remembered from the brief tour back on Terra - the comms board, with a very young-looking Ensign seated at it; the other was one of the main tactical boards, its screens lit up and outlining Julian Davion in pale blue.

“You can just leave the noteputer there, Todd,” Julian commented, not looking away from the screens as Sandra walked up, and indicating a row of velcro strips, most of which were occupied. “I’ll deal with those readiness reports soon.”

“I’m not sure,” Sandra commented, trying her best to copy Callandre’s default of sardonic irritation, “whether I ought to be annoyed that you don’t recognize me, or worried that you’re carrying on with Captain Dawkins behind my back.”

It was, in the end, a good thing for his dignity that Julian didn't try and jump out of his seat in shock; being securely strapped in, it would have looked very silly indeed. He was wearing an expression of surprise as he turned around; a gentle, boyish expression that, for a moment, took years off Julian's features and made him look, briefly, like the easy-going, unselfconsciously friendly boy Sandra had first met the better part of two decades ago. But those are people who we can never be again, she reflected; even leaving aside everything else, back then Julian had practically worshipped Caleb. While now …

“Ah, Sandra, good morning.” Julian started, and Sandra - in another technique she’d picked up from Callandre - raised one eyebrow pointedly. Comprehension dawned. “Ah. Would it help if I said I didn’t mean to pull an all-nighter?”

“Only if you tell me why you did,” Sandra responded curtly. “Faith defend, Julian, I know there's a lot of work to do, but that’s what you have a staff for!”

Julian’s expression shifted momentarily - to something that reminded Sandra of what she’d seen of Harrison during his darkest moments; at the arrival of confirmation of the Blackout - before he spoke, “Ensign Dalhouse, clear and lock the room.”

As the Ensign did just that, Julian unbuckled from his chair, activating the TOC’s counter-intrusion systems before - as the hatch sealed and locked - returning to the main tactical board. His hands flickered over the control panel, bringing up dozens of separate files and images.

“Aaron Sandoval provided me with - in addition to the usual intelligence updates, plus some things I’m not sure I’m still supposed to be getting - some extra information that I think Riccard Streng put him onto,” Julian explained, before indicating the array of data. “Now, Sandra, before I say anything else, what do these look like to you?”

Sandra frowned as she studied the files. Most of them looked like - were - AFFS readiness reports, but off, somehow. Doubled, she realized after a moment; the reports were double columns, each for the same unit, but there were differences in the two sets of numbers, at least for most of them. The other files were … defense papers of some kind, strategic defence reviews from the titles, but with classification markers that meant that exactly two people could have seen them - based on the dates, Harrison Davion and Athena Davion-Ross.

“These are … discrepancies in readiness reports?” Sandra hazarded a guess, not sure if Julian could answer that. Not sure if I want him to answer; because the potential implications were dangerous to know.

“They are.” Any trace of boyish good humor had vanished from Julian’s voice “The figures on the left,” he indicated, most of them the higher numbers, “are the reports that I got as Prince’s Champion. The ones on the right, are the reports that were sent to New Avalon in the first place. As you can see,” he smiled, without any kind of humor and barely any warmth, “there are numerous discrepancies.”

“That would -” Sandra stopped aware of what that meant, what she was about to say, but Julian knows that as well as I do, he wouldn’t show me this if he didn’t. “That would mean that someone in the Watchtower was falsifying status reports for the entire AFFS.” Short of what she thought was indicated, but saying that could be construed as treason.

"Thanks for the diplomacy, Sandra," this time there was a trace of warmth in Julian's expression. "But you can't say anything I haven't already figured out. There are exactly two people who could have done this and classified it well enough that I wouldn't find out; and Athena never had the guts to do something this major without Harrison putting her up to it."

The implications of what Julian had just said took a moment to sink in; when they had, Sandra felt sick - not illness, but a clinging horror at just what the consequences were going to be. “But,” her voice shook, and she forced herself to calm, to focus on the practicalities, “why would he do that?”

“I don’t know.” The admission left Julian looking drained, almost lost, and Sandra placed a - hopefully - reassuring hand on one shoulder. “Maybe deception, to try and keep the Capellans and Combine thinking we were stronger than we were long enough for the rearmament programs to take effect. Maybe,” bitterness, now, “maybe because it was just easier to lie,” Julian practically spat the word, “than to actually deal with the problem.” He sighed, drawing back a little. “Maybe Harrison thought I could deal with it better without knowing everything ahead of time - that would explain some of the things I saw, was allowed to see. But I don’t know, and the only people who could tell me are dead.”

A thought came to Sandra; a worrying one, but no moreso than this whole conversation was. “Julian,” she began carefully, “is it possible that Lord Sandoval faked this information?” Not that she really believed that, but it was at least more comforting than what certificate seemed to be the truth.

“We both know that isn’t his style, Sandra; Aaron isn’t one for lying like this. And besides,” Julian indicated the report for the Kestrel Grenadiers, “if he can match Duke Cunningham’s tone and style well enough that I can’t tell if it’s a fake or not - and I’ve met the man - Aaron could parley that into whatever he wanted with Caleb. Rather than, say,” a lighter, self-deprecating smile, “trying to set up a disgraced former champion for the throne.”

“Julian Davion,” Sandra put as much of Amanda Hasek’s withering scorn as she could manage into her voice, “you do not believe that idiotic line. You are far more than that, and you know it; if you didn’t, you wouldn’t be here. Okay, you doubt Harrison’s judgement now, fine.” A hard edge pushed into her tone, but Sandra couldn’t stop speaking. “Jonah Levin trusted you; Aaron and Corwin Sandoval still do. The Guards would follow you to Hell or Sian if you asked them to; and if Callandre heard you talking about yourself like that, we’re both well aware she’d take you down to the engine spaces and beat some sense into you. You’re the best soldier I’ve ever met, and a good man. If you don’t trust your own, or Harrison’s, judgement any more, then at least trust ours.”

“That’s just it; what if you’re wrong - what if I’m not up to it?” Sandra had to strain to hear Julian’s words over the hum of the TOC’s electronics. “I know how to command in battle, but this - I don’t know if I can handle it. It’s too big.”

"So share the weight. I know, you can't give this data out generally," she cut off Julian's incipient protest, "but there's got to be people in the Guards' intelligence staff you can trust to analyse it; plus Callandre, since the next time she betrays your trust it'll be the first. And me," Sandra smiled softly. "If we're to marry, be partners, we have to support each other. And we've been doing that for long enough anyway; it’s hardly out of our way." Maybe that’s why Aaron suggested marriage, she thought suddenly, that he saw what we - I - missed; that playing a role for Aunt Amanda for so long meant it stopped being a role.

“True.” Julian’s shoulders tensed for a second, then relaxed fully. “You’re right, I’m ignoring people trying to help me and being an idiot. Again.”

“Well, I wasn’t going to say that,” Sandra demurred, “not in so many words. Although I was getting ready to imply that you had your head shoved up your -”

“You’ve made your point.” That was followed by a brief chuckle. “Right. I’ll have to get with Captain Dawkins, see about spreading this out to people we know can keep quiet -”

“Good, for the future. But first, you are going to go back to your quarters and get some sleep, Julian. You won’t do anyone any good if you pass out mid-briefing.”

The exhaustion in his wan smile was reply enough.  "By your command, my Lady.  And a 'Happy New Year' to you, Sandra, before I forget."

"Happy New Year, Julian," she answered.  "And let's make sure this one is happier than the last."

Setting Up Legal Procedings against Mad Woman[]

Government Office of Justice, Laughlin Capital District
Roslyn, Eastern Islay
Arcadia, Arcadia Royal March
Royal Federation

Nearly two centuries old now, the Laughlin Capital District was a section of Roslyn set aside for the business of interstellar government.  The home of the Free March Assembly and Ducal Council when the original Arcadian Free March was founded, it now contained all of the major offices of the Royal Federation in its borders, with the Palace of Parliament the dominant feature in the center of the District, adjoined by the Esplanade with the bistros and restaurants and shops that provided services to those working in the District.  Rebuilt following the devastation of the Terran invasion of 3050-51, the District was home to all of the Great Offices of State in the Royal Federation, with Parliament's two Houses serving as the beating heart of the area.

Today that heart wasn't beating quite so vigorously.  The famed traffic of aircars, wheeled vehicles, and even the occasional private VTOL was down to a trickle, making it easy for John Albright to navigate his motor pool-provided car through the boulevards and promenades of the District to the Government Office of Justice.  The skyscraper, with a front facade facing Ferrier Square that included thick square columns and a mural depicting the scales of Justice aloft in glowing clouds, was home to the Royal Federation's Office of Justice; the Attorney-General and Solicitor-General offices were both found in this complex, as were some of the connecting administrative offices for the law enforcement authorities of the Federation and the Royal Comptroller-General's Office, responsible for internal government oversight.

Albright's identification was already in the system, allowing him a parking space in the adjoining garage.  The doors into the building led him into the central foyer from the side instead of the street-facing doors, changing his perspective slightly from that of someone coming in the front door.  Nevertheless it was an inspiring sight; the circular information desk, and an adjoining security desk, on fine tiled floors, while the alabaster columns came with statuary or paintings depicting an assortment of historical moments celebrating everything from Hammurabi's Code to the Ten Commandments, a stylization of the Hadiths of Muhammed, Magna Carta, and on.

Today the building was very quiet, such that he could even wonder if maybe he got the date wrong.  He approved the reception desk, aware he was somewhat out of place in his formal AFRF uniform, and introduced himself.  "I'm here for Lord Cassel's meeting."  He provided his personal ID as he spoke.

"Of course."  The speaker was a local, with that soft Islay burr Albright was getting used to.  She made a check of his ID and handed it back, along with a badge.  "Take the lift to the sixth floor, go down the hall to the right, door 624.  This will open it for you."

"Thank you."

The lift played a gentle symphony, much to Albright's pleasure.  He'd held back in his New Year's Eve celebration knowing this meeting was coming, and the irritation at losing a chance to unwind given the recent tenor of his sessions with Malvina was palpable.  But Lord Cassel was a believer in work, reportedly, and seemingly had the view that if he was willing to work on a holiday, so should others.

Albright arrived at the office in question.  The metal plaque beside the door said everything that needed to be known of the nature of this meeting.

"Royal Law Commission on the Prevention and Prosecution of War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity"

To think we need such an institution…  He sighed at the thought and, finding the door unlocked, entered.  A young woman in a dark blue hijab and full-sleeved gray blouse and barnous was seated at a desk.  "Doctor Albright?  His Lordship is waiting with the others," she said, her English thickly accented with Thermpolitan tones.  "Through the main doors please."

The main doors were the big set of wooden double doors with the brass handles, he imagined.  Albright walked up and opened the door, gaining admittance to the room within.  His eyes swept over the attendees.  A number of suited figures, civilian lawyers or experts undoubtedly, with a few AFRF uniforms in their number, were at the main table.  Lord Cassel was visible given the cut of his medium-collared suit, a Court fashion, and the serious weight showing in his dark brown eyes, rather darker than the shade of his tanned, wrinkled skin.

Yet it was for the woman near his side that Albright's hand snapped up to his forehead, his spine going straight. Vice Admiral Dame Diana Sirtis was the head of the AFRF Medical Department's Military Psychiatry Division, responsible for Albright and every other military psychiatrist in the AFRF.  He had even greater reason to salute as his eyes spied the wolf-haired man between her and Lord Cassel, with a four star rank and uniform and the green trim color of an Army officer.  They acknowledged his salute with quick nods.  "At ease, Doctor," the General beside Lord Cassel said.

"Doctor Albright."  Lord Cassel's voice was reserved, measured, and spoken with a fine Star League English.  "Good to have you."  He motioned to a seat somewhat split off from any of the others.  "Happy New Year, of course."

"Happy New Year to you as well, Your Lordship."  Albright took the seat.  A young aide, perhaps a lawyer in his own right, provided a glass of water.

"Coffee and tea are available, if you need stronger refreshment from whatever New Year festivities you indulged in last night," Cassel added.

"A coffee will be fine, a dash of milk with it, if possible."

The aide went to get the requested drink while Albright quietly appraised his superiors and the other attendees.  One with a rank insignia and green trim marking him a Major had the Military Psychiatry pin.  The others were all JAG officers like the General, whose name tag read "Penton-MacIntyre".

"As you might imagine, Doctor, your current patient is our subject matter," Lord Cassel said.  "I invited General Penton-MacIntyre, as Chief of Staff of the Judge Advocate General's Office, to join myself and Vice Admiral Sirtis and the Crown prosecutors under my authority to make an important determination."

The silence that followed told Albright he was to fill in the blanks, so to speak.  "You wish to determine if Malvina Hazen can be put on trial, if she's fit to be a defendant."

"Yes, Doctor.  We have read your reports, and those of another of your peers, Major Pardi over here."  He gestured to the man Albright already noted as being in his field.  "But I would like to hear what you have to offer before finalizing my decision."

"So you already have a decision in mind, my Lord?"

"I do, but I wish to ensure I know everything before proceeding.  Your reports posit interesting theories as to a variety of psychoses she may suffer from, butu you've yet to put onto paper whether she is mentally fit to stand trial.  I would like to know why."

"I wished to have a chance to build some more rapport and learn more about her thinking, my Lord," he answered.  "Much of what she's done stems from childhood trauma, in my view.  By experience she was taught from an early age that everything was a threat, and the only way to survive was to kill anything threatening her."

"How absolute is this, though?" Pardi asked.  "Going by the material there's no sign the culture she is from is unable to grasp the concept of her conduct being wrong.  By her own testimony she had to kill her former leader and many others of her Clan to secure power, given their opposition to her means."

"Whatever culture she was intended to follow, her upbringing nevertheless created powerful impulses in the directions cited."  Albright stopped long enough to accept a mug of coffee, which he took a testing sip from before indulging in a longer drink.  "Do you have any disagreement, Doctor?"

"I do not dispute your official diagnoses so far.  PTSD signs are obvious, as are a form of violent sociopathy.  My point is that there is nothing in your reports to confirm why you have refrained from a determination on her fitness to stand trial."

"As I said, I wished more data to be certain of my findings."

Instead of Pardi speaking again, Cassel went next.  "I admire thoroughness, Doctor.  That said, if I were to ask your determination today, what reply do you think you'd give?"

Albright noted the way the others were looking at him.  His suspicions of Cassel's decision were all but confirmed to him at this point; this was a meeting to prepare for Malvina's formal tribunal and prosecution.  "I am not comfortable giving such a judgement for the same reason I've committed no finding or recommendation to writing, Your Lordship," he replied, keeping his voice even and unchallenging.  "As I am on the spot, however, in my judgement, I would have to decide against a finding of mental competency at this time."

That won him hard looks and a few sets of rolled eyes.  It seems I am to play the part of the 'overly caring psychologist who resists trying the criminal' role in this drama.

Cassel gave no such reaction save what looked like mild curiosity.  "You do consider her unfit, then, Doctor Albright?"

"At this juncture that would have to be my choice, yes," Albright replied. "By all indications the subject is unable to conceive of the world in any rational way.  Her crippling and the fact she has not yet been fitted for prosthetics, leaving her unable to perform any task and with nothing to occupy her physically, only intensifies this problem.  At this point all she has, emotionally and mentally, is to relive her traumas, and that has left her even less equipped to participate in a court proceeding, especially her own defense."

Cassel nodded.  When Pardi's hand rose slightly he nodded in his direction.  "Doctor?"

"Doctor Albright, by your own reports, Hazen has none of the usual signs of lack of competency used to determine inability to stand trial." Pardi said.  "She does not experience hallucinations, she does not have a voice in her head demanding she kill, or any other indications of not mentally comprehending reality.  By all metrics, while her traumas and the resulting psychoses are undoubtedly fascinating case studies, there is no psychiatric justification to declare her unfit to stand trial."

Albright's eyes met his opposite's and did not flinch away.  "I don't deny any of that.  She does not have the usual failure to perceive reality that determines competency.  What she does have is a life of such experiences that left her unfit to comprehend reality in any rational pattern.  She conceives the world in threats and non-threats, and threats must be killed before they can kill her, to the extent that any who resist her must be killed by her reckoning."

"That does not mean she does not understand that tormenting and killing civilians is wrong.  It means she considers it acceptable.  She is not mad, she merely has no appreciation for the value of life."  Pardi held a hand out.  "Otherwise every Kuritan war criminal we might ever face would likewise be said to be unfit for trial, as the reality of their society makes their atrocities appropriate."

"I think you understate the extent of Ms. Hazen's mental condition and perception, Doctor," Albright insisted.  "The Combine may be raising its people to venerate the Kuritas and find it acceptable to commit terrible things in their name, but they still conceive of such things as wrongs, they just see them as acceptable if performed in the name of Kuritan conquest."

"That's semantical hair-splitting."

"The childhood Malvina Hazen went through was more akin to stories you hear about post-collapse pirate bands who beat and tortured their own recruits to induct them.  There are case studies of people recovered from such groups, I recall, including determinations of legal responsibility for crimes committed due to traumatic upbringings."

"The Giacomo Lucenzo case, Doctor?" asked Admiral Sirtis.

Albright nodded briskly.  "Yes, Doctor, ma'am.  That is perhaps the primary example of this kind of scenario."

"The Lucenzo case?" one of the civilians asked.  "What are you referring to?"

Albright let Sirtis explain.  "Giacomo Lucenzo was kidnapped as a child during the Cutter Brigade's 3002 sack of Novara.  He was raised in the unit, abused, taught to enjoy murder, and operated with the infantry forces of the Brigade in the battle for Hollabrunn in 3019, where he was badly wounded and captured by Free March forces.  Like all the Brigade survivors he was charged with crimes against humanity for his role in the various atrocities committed by the Cutters, and psychiatrists questioned his competency due to his post-capture interviews and the recovered documentation of the Brigade about his origins."

"I think I remember that case," said Cassel.  "He was, in the end, ruled competent?"

"Only on some of the charges involving crimes against civilians," Albright said.  "And even that was disputed, but it was argued that he was old enough when taken to have understood what the Brigade was doing was wrong, even if he could not be ruled as understanding violations of military rules and custom to sustain charges of war crimes."

"Then the precedent favors ruling Hazen competent as well," one of the Crown prosecutors said.  "I'm satisfied."

"Again, it was disputed," Albright said insistently.  "The Free March military psychiatrists who studied Lucenzo couldn't decide the extent of his ability to recognize what atrocities against civilians consisted of, since he was still young enough when taken that the Cutter Brigade's brutality would have been a part of life for him and impacted his ability to conceive of what was right and wrong.  One of the convictions was even overturned from the testimony of the attending psychiatrists.  And Hazen's case is even more pronounced than Lucenzo's.  He was eight when taken.  She was born into the Clan system and spent a lifetime being abused and threatened with starvation and death."

"And yet we still have the same issue as the Lucenzo case," Pardi spoke up. "There was no issue with disassociation with reality.  They didn't hear voices in their heads demanding they kill.  They didn't perceive their victims as monsters trying to slaughter them.  They knew they were killing human beings and shouldn't be.  And Lucenzo was at least a captured foot soldier, not the leader of the Brigade, nor the one who instituted its brutal behavior.  Malvina Hazen is the leader, and her entire doctrine came from her thinking.  Her callous disregard for human life and the laws of war.  You cannot say she is unfit to stand trial simply because she feels threatened by every other human being in existence."

Albright let out a sigh.  "This is why I want more data before I make an official determination.  Because I cannot, in good conscience, affirm her as capable of standing trial.  Not at this time.  My answer remains unchanged."

"Understood, Doctor," said Cassel.  "And I understand your reasoning."

"So what is your decision, Lordship?"  Albright already knew the answer, but wanted to hear it spoken.

"At the end of the day, the recommendations of Admiral Sirtis and the Commission's other analysts have swayed me," Cassel said.  "The Commission will be establishing a Royal Special Tribunal and charging Malvina Hazen as a war criminal."

"I see.  May I formally state, then, that as things stand, if called to testify on the matter, I will be testifying that I do not believe her mentally fit to stand trial."  With a glance he could see he'd be alone in that; a certain exasperation was showing on Admiral Sirtis that made him think she'd already signed off on Malvina's competency.

"I wouldn't expect anything less," said Lord Cassel.  "Doctor, thank you for your participation today, and your candid remarks.  They were appreciated."

Not appreciated enough, Albright thought bitterly before departing, his welcome clearly worn out.

He returned to the ground floor, handed in the provided visitor's badge, and walked outside, this time through the main doors.  The weather had turned a little warm, enough that the snows of Christmas were long melted and left the streets clear and a little wet.  It looked like rain would come later in the day, though not so soon that it would complicate the New Year's celebrations still ongoing in Roslyn proper.

Am I being a fool? he asked himself.  Am I exaggerating Malvina's condition because I'm still trying to grasp what she is?  Or maybe I'm on a zebra hunt, that Malvina is just a psychopath who rose in a culture where might makes right, and her skills let her triumph over all adversaries?  Am I just being the soft-hearted academic unwilling to face hard truths about human evil?

He felt a gentle gust of wind blow against his face, cold enough to bite a little, but not yet bitterly cold.  It was an invigorating sensation, in some respects, and prompted him to look out at the streets leading to the Esplanade.  The restaurants there would probably be closed, or on reduced hours, but he wondered if it might not be worth a walk to see if any of the cafes or bistros were available.  A chance to think further on what he'd just said to Admiral Sirtis and Lord Cassel.  I all but threatened to testify for Hazen's defense.

Yet he couldn't bring himself to just dismiss Malvina as a psychopath.  She was one, yes, but there was more to that than just the violent upbringing nurturing a sociopath into a mass murderer.  Her remaining affection for her dead mate Aleks, for instance, was too strong to simply be a sociopath's self-serving love for things they liked.  He'd anchored her, clearly, he'd meant something profound, and his loss was a trauma that she'd never recovered from.  And the whole business with that girl, Cynthy.  I should contact her caretakers and see what her interviews have revealed.

By the time he took one of the covered footbridges over the avenue and walked onto the Esplanade, Albright's mind was drifting back to the question.  Have I lost my objectivity?  Am I so determined to solve the riddle of Malvina Hazen's mind that I've lost sight of objective fact?  Or my duty?  Hazen wants the trial.  And she's plainly suffering in her current condition, what would her life be like if my judgement were upheld and she never faced trial?  How might that damage her?

He shook his head and sighed, both at the sight of a closed bistro and the thought in his head.  As his eyes took in the welcome sight of a cafe with customers - someone was open - he resolved to let the matter go for the moment.  There's more to this.  And they're doing this for political reasons, not justice.  I will not let their rush to judicial vengeance color my judgment.  Now, for one small New Year's resolution, I will enjoy the rest of my day.

Thoughts settled, he walked toward the cafe, the smell of garlic and honey already sparking his appetite.

The Royal Palace Roslyn, Eastern Islay

While a gentle rain pattered against the glass windows of the Palace's Grand Ballroom, an equally gentle serenade played from the band box, prompting the dancing of the attendees of the New Year's Honors Ball.

Trillian descended with certain members of her staff, joining the festivities as a royal guest.  She wore a custom gown for the occasion, fitted for her in the city, a sleeveless one-strap evening gown of glittering icy blue, a Steiner fist logo stitched into the design's strap on the left shoulder while the right shoulder was completely bare.  Her hair was carefully arranged into an elegant bun, of the like favored back on her Tharkad, and matching ice blue eyeshadow and cosmetics attenuated the color of her face.  The gown floated down to her shins, with splits on the side for ease of movement.  Heeled dress shoes - not high-heeled at least - rounded out her appearance.

The master of ceremonies announced her name and titles, as well as the presence of her entourage, as she finished descending into the ballroom.  It was a long, open chamber, flanked by tables bearing trays of finger foods and goblets.  This was no sitting state dinner but a social occasion, like many she'd seen on Tharkad.

She was greeted by the great and mighty who were in attendance.  Prince Roman Brewer-Steiner, CEO of Defiance Industries and Prince of Hesperus, offered her the appropriate kiss on the knuckles, wearing court dress not far different from the typical Brewer preferences she knew from her side of the Glass (including that damned usurper Vedet).  Prince Roman's company was less enjoyment than necessity, given his influence and the prospect of securing contracts with him for Defiance to provide war material through the Glass.

A more original experience, and preferable company, came with the distinguished Duke Edmund de Fortemps of Bondurant.  A middle-aged man with dark hair only starting to gray, he wore an elaborate gray overcoat with the insignia of a red unicorn head over his heart and a red dress shirt underneath, matched with elegant black dress trousers.  He performed the same courtly greeting as Prince Roman but with what Trillian thought of as a greater sincerity.  The same was done by the two young men with him, introduced as his sons Arthur and Emmanuel who wore similar coats.  "I have not the pleasure of meeting a member of your House," she admitted.

"I would not be certain House Fortemps has the same rank on your side of the Glass, my Lady, given we attained our title on Bondurant two hundred years ago," Duke Edmund replied.  His Star League English was impeccable.  "Our predecessors had the fortune of surviving a bitter civil conflict and gaining control of our world's network of Star League-era microwave satellites.  They were harsh men and women in taking power, I'll admit, but those were regrettably harsh times, and they relinquished some of their power in joining the Free March decades later."

"A story I've learned was replicated a thousand times over across this Inner Sphere."  She nodded.

"So it was."  He nodded politely.  "The Lord stand with you, Lady Trillian, and rest assured my representation on the Senate has been duly instructed to support your cause."

"You have my thanks, Your Grace, my thanks, that of the Archon's, and the whole of the Lyran people," she replied.

With that remark, he stepped away, sons in tow.

Bondurant is not a major world, but Duke Edmund's support may still help. Freed from that conversation, she had a chance to take in the other little groups and conversations going on.  Lord Arnold Proctor-Steiner, her assumed bete noire, was with a collection of stiff-backed men and women that included at least one woman Trillian was certain to be a Steiner as well.  Though they were in civilian dress, she had no doubt all were AFRF, and likely senior officers.  Senior parliamentary leaders were with ever-shifting groups as well, discussing all matter of topics… and more than a few referencing her mission.

The treaty remains unfinished, given the Privy Council's continued refusal to give concrete responses to my terms and questions.  The longer it lingers, the harder it'll be to sway Parliament.

She was preparing to strike up a conversation with a senator from Giausar when the ceremonial horn blow lifted all eyes to the second level.  The chamberlain appeared and announced Nathaniel's arrival, listing his titles in precedence of rank and age.  It was the long-form today, so it included baronial holdings on Tharkad, Donegal, Skye, Bolan, Rochelle, and New Earth.  There was some quiet surprise in the room when the chamberlain finished.  Trillian's eyes swept the crowd and she noted that among the sternest looks were Lord Arnold and his people.  Something was omitted then?

Duke Edmund's voice spoke beside her.  "His Majesty is aware that the diplomatic corps is here tonight," he said, having approached during the King's introduction.  "Including Her Excellency Mandrissa Cho Ming Na, the Ambassador of Emperor Robert Halas-Liao, newly returned to her post."

"So titles to worlds held by the Capellan Empire?" she murmured back, not letting her voice carry.

"Procyon and Sirius.  Yes," he replied as softly.  "A gesture of peace.  It will be seen as weakness in some quarters, alas."

Nathaniel was in fine dinner dress of his own, a white jacket of gold trim over a blue vest and white shirt with a red necktie.  A platinum circlet with a hawk over the forehead was on his brow.  He descended with measured steps while the crowd, Trillian included, bowed or curtsied at the midway point.  His feet touched the floor, a large space around him formed by the crowd.

One by one a collection of young men and women in formal wear were brought out and introduced.  Debutantes one and all, mostly of Arcadian and other local world nobility, in their first royal occasion.  Nathaniel smiled and returned their bows with head nods and little bows of his own.  One by one the rest of the crowd paid him homage, Trillian included, and he accepted it.

She found herself comparing the occasion to similar ones on Tharkad.  It was an intriguing combination of similarities and differences.  The High King's arrival and presentation of the debutantes had a certain gravity not seen on Tharkad, but the stuffiness of the Lyran court was not present here, as attendees returned to quiet conversation and mingling as soon as they'd made their proper homage to the royal personage.  There was no sorting by noble title or lack thereof, or the same deference shown by rank and privilege, and even Nathaniel was quickly intermingling as if he were just another invitee.

After enjoying a small fruit jam pastry and some conversation with Lord John Cunningham, the Federated Suns' ambassador to the Arcadian court, Trillian finally found her opening to approach Nathaniel.  He had his Royal Secretary and wife-to-be, Lady Sophia Marik, on his arm now, dressed in a full-sleeved dinner gown of white and purple with a Marik eagle where Trillian displayed the Steiner fist.  "Lady Trillian," she said, drawing Nathaniel's attention.  "I hope you have enjoyed yourself this evening."

"I have.  It's been a productive night, to be sure."

Nathaniel grinned at that.  Undoubtedly he was well aware she was mixing business with pleasure, expanding her contacts and promoting her cause to his subordinate nobles and other powers in the Federation.  "These gatherings are rarely for leisure only, that much I learned from a young age."

"It is the same in the Royal Court on Tharkad, my Tharkad."  She made the correction quickly.  "I've noticed Prince Peter is not attending.  Is he well?"

"As well as might be expected, but his husband's current condition didn't allow for him to attend," Nathaniel answered.  "So he is attending to Lord Kevin."

"I see.  I shall have to hope for the best, then."

"Sometimes that is all we can do," Sophia remarked.  "Have you any further word of developments from your side of the Glass?"

"Not yet," Trillian lamented.  "Though given distances, any renewal of the Wolves' attacks would not reach us yet.  Not for weeks more, at least.  There's no word of new Falcon attacks, at least, so we have breathing room on that front.  Though how much, I am not sure."

"I am still working Parliament on the matter of your proposed treaty, as I am sure you are." Nathaniel replied.  "I hope the loan has at least done well?"

"It has." she said, not adding it was already depleted.  From both surplus stores and military contractors she'd bought enough material to outfit an LCT or two, maybe even the better part of an RCT, and a couple surplus picket DropShips that on her side would be called Pocket WarShips, and furthermore arranged for a couple mercenary hires beyond the Brotherhood.  Yet it will take months for us to get those units, weapons and ships in place, not to mention the trained soldiers for the machines.  What I need, what the Commonwealth truly needs, is that treaty, and Arcadian troops fighting the Clans.

"With the Parliament resuming sessions I hope to get their support for a supplementary budget," said Nathaniel.  "I am completely committed to seeing this alliance formed.  Your side of the Glass must be secured, the Commonwealth saved from dissolution, and these Clans stopped."

"I'm grateful you are already our ally in spirit," she answered, truthfully.  If only we could get the rest of your court to agree.

The chamberlain came up and whispered in Nathaniel's ear.  Trillian noted with concern that the expression on his face froze.  "I see.  Tell Admiral Stewart I'm on my way, and have everyone gather in the audience chamber."

As the crisply-attired man departed to implement the instructions, Trillian asked, "Has something happened?"

"Yes.  I must go see the Admiral before the Honors ceremony begins."

Something was wrong, that much was certain.  Trillian couldn't decide what was worse; that his people were under attack from a neighbor, and what that would mean for her cause, or that the news was from her side of the Glass.

Her concern was evident enough that Nathaniel stopped and, after a moment's consideration, lowered his voice.  "I would ordinarily have waited, but… you should know."  He leaned close and barely spoke above a whisper.  "Die Falken greifen Timkovichi."

"Gott im Himmel," was all she could manage in reply.

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