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State of the Union (Chapter Cover)

Chapter 32[]

State of the Union - Book 3[]


The Triad, Tharkad
Donegal Province, Federated Commonwealth
January 27th, 3068


Peter Steiner-Davion watched from a window as the dropship carrying Yvonne and Tancred took off from the Triad’s private drop-port. “I feel rotten for sending them off so suddenly.”

“It’s not entirely your fault." Caesar Steiner rumbled from the armchair he was sitting on, a plate of tart in front of him. “Someone has to keep the other half of the FedCom in line. Who else do you want to appoint? George Hasek? We’d be at war with the Capellans within a week.”

“Not something we want right now." the Archon-Prince conceded.

“Maybe three or four years from now." his cousin agreed. “Serve out your term as First Lord, then leave him in charge while you take a month’s vacation. When you’re back we can sort out the Liaos and put all the blame on Hasek.”

Peter looked at the older man, snorted and then went back to his desk. “Don’t tempt me. We’re still not sure he wasn’t involved in what happened to Catherine.”

There was an awkward silence between them at the name. Catherine had survived being captured and being tortured. But the fact that she’d fought back and, after a fashion, triumphed didn’t make the aftermath easier for her. Peter had been forced to recognize that she couldn’t be sent back to New Avalon as regent, for her own sake and that of those she’d be governing.

His sister rambled, more than she had since - since Addicks, he thought. Worse were fits of anger and tears that came easily to her eyes on unpredictable provocations. She had been broken once, clawed her way back and then, Peter thought, used. He had put pressure on her, the weight of duty they were born to… and for all that she’d borne up under burden, she had not healed as he had thought. She had not completely recovered from whatever ordeal had brought her back into his life, an enigma wrapped in mystery and a call to arms that he had jumped heedless at.

“Karla Holstein was right." he murmured.

“Oh?”

“Yes. Catherine needs more help than I can give, and perhaps more than the therapists we’ve cleared previously. I need to be more honest about that.”

“You realize that if you bring in more people then the better the chances that she’ll be outed as… unwell.” The old man gazed at him without judgement as he delivered that warning. “An eccentric princess is one thing. Missing one finger doesn’t matter much.” Surgical reconstruction had saved all but one finger on Catherine’s right hand - she’d be missing the middle finger unless she elected to have a cybernetic replacement fitted. “But long term psychiatric care is still stigmatized. I’m not saying it’s fair, but realistically, it’s the sort of detail that muckrakers love to find.”

“I owe her better than to use her harder than I already have. And don’t tell me that I should give her the choice. She went from barely recognizing a ‘Mech’s cockpit to piloting one competently in six bloody months. We both know what she’ll choose, given the chance. Someone has to keep her from self-destructing.”

Caesar gazed at him for a moment and then nodded sharply. “Just remember that you’re her brother, not her gaoler. It’s a fine line to walk.”

“And if you feel I’m off that line, will you tell me?”

The Generalfeldmarschall huffed and picked up his fork. “Ah, an excuse to keep raiding the palace kitchens here? My goal is accomplished, now to withdraw with the spoils of victory.” He broke off a section of tart and forked it into his mouth, then met Peter’s eyes with a paternal twinkle in his gaze.

How his cousin managed to still meet the physical requirements to keep serving was a mystery for the ages, Peter mused. Caesar drank like a fish, smoked like a chimney and ate so much that you’d think he’d be the size of a whale. And yet he managed to look no more than a little on the chubby side, despite a job that had him behind a desk more often than not.

“We were talking about the Ghost Bears." the younger man said at last. “You said something about why we’ve not heard from them as much as we hoped.”

Caesar finished chewing on his current mouthful. “Ah. Yes." he mumbled and then swallowed. “I still have friends in the SLDF, some at the Focht War College, which puts them near enough to the Kungsarme to have some back-channels. It seems that the Ghost Bears’ Clan Council have agreed to funnel their contact with the rest of the Star League through the Rikstag on Orestes. To act as a buffer, you understand.”

Peter nodded. “That makes sense.” The Rikstag was the legislature of what remained of the Free Rasalhague Republic. Exactly what their role would be within the Rasalhague Dominion was as yet undecided but it seemed very likely that they would replace the civilian councils of Clan Ghost Bear, since by votes and voices the Rasalhague natives still vastly outnumbered immigrants from the Clan homeworlds.

“The problem." Caesar speared the last of the tart on his fork, “Is that the Rikstag is none too fond of you right now.”

“What have I ever done to them?” he protested.

“Feltre. Hyperion. Several other worlds.” Caesar put the morsel in his mouth and then stared at the empty plate in a betrayed fashion as he chewed.

Peter scowled. “It’s not as if they had a hope of ever taking them back. What should I do, let the Wolves regroup in safety there?”

His cousin swallowed. “That first part just makes it worse for the firebrands. And no, of course not. But when this shakes out, do you intend to give them all those worlds back? Meaning to the Ghost Bears, of course.”

“...maybe some of them." he admitted. Tamar had been an important world for centuries and for decades it had been almost surrounded, first by Combine conquests and then by the Free Rasalhague Republic. The chance to have some breathing space around it now was irresistible. And of course, most of those worlds had been Lyran worlds once… until the Succession Wars had steadily pushed back that border.

“I was senior enough to hear something of it when Kelswa mucked up our one good chance at bringing them back." Caesar told him. “The chance to remind them that before the Dragon added them to Rasalhague district, they’d been Lyrans. That for all Tyr stood against House Kurita, that the Princes of Rasalhague had ruled a vest pocket corner of the district. And of course, Selwin Kelswa wrecked everything.” He shook his head. “You’ll need to be cleverer than that. And that includes paying attention to what other people think about what you’re doing, however much sense it makes to you.”

“I suppose you have a point.” Peter rubbed at his jaw. “I promise not to mention their failure to protect them eighteen years ago, when I write a message to the Rikstag about coordination with the Ghost Bears. And at least then I’ll be sending my messages to the right world!”

“That may help." began the rotund General of Armies.

He might have said more but there was a knock on the door. “Your highness, Count Allard is here to see you.” Last month, Quintus Allard the elder had formally resigned his title in favor of his grandson; apparently settling into happy retirement.

Peter glanced at Caesar, saw the older man looking at his empty plate and shook his head. “Please send him in.” He wasn’t ordering more food. He could hardly expect to make any impact on the man’s diet when parents, wife and children had all failed to, but there was no use enabling bad habits either.

Unfortunately, when Quintus Allard slipped in through the doors, he had papers in one hand and a plate of cake in the other. The one landed on Peter’s desk, the other in the gourmand’s greedy hands.

“I don’t get cake?” asked Peter plaintively.

“It’s your castle." Caesar told him. “You can have as much cake as you ask for.”

“Good news." Allard - that dastardly traitor - declared. “Kali Liao’s attempt on the life of Naomi Centrella has failed. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it failed miserably - it was close enough to be known and identified. But it failed nonetheless.”

“Wait, what?” The General of Armies looked up from his plate. “She did what?”

Allard raised an eyebrow - the one that Caesar couldn’t see but that Peter could.

The Archon-Prince gave him a tired look. “Kali Liao is not a great admirer of the Canopians. However useful they are as allies, Naomi Centrella’s position alongside the Chancellor seems to have rubbed at her nerves for a while. Assassination is a step up though.”

“It appears to have been a contingency laid quite some time ago. The agent involved attempted to deliver a chemical weapon to Lady Centrella’s apartments. Fortunately, one of her staff had a pet dog that sniffed out something wrong with it and alerted her security. Five more minutes and the Magestrix might have lacked an heir." Allard added.

Peter could have lived with that. He’d never met Naomi Centrella, for she’d not yet attended a Whitting Conference, but she represented a fairly strong pro-Capellan sentiment within the Magistracy of Canopus. Her elder sister Danai had been more inclined towards military affairs and less enamored with the alliance, but unfortunately she’d accompanied Victor to the Clan homeworlds and died bravely on the battlefield. Which daughter would have succeeded Emma Centrella had been an open question - the position was elective, but Danai’s death had made it a more or less closed book: the Magestrix’s only surviving daughter was almost certain to have a plurality of electors on her side. On the other hand, Naomi having a near brush with death was just about as good politically so her survival cost him little.

“I trust that her security is being improved." he said, rather than expounding on that.

“Lady Centrella is making a sudden return to Canopus at her mother’s insistence." Allard advised him with a degree of glee. “Officially so she can renew her contacts with the Magestrix’ court and advisors since she’s been away for a while. Unofficially…” He spread his hands. “We know enough to be sure that there is an unofficial agenda, but not exactly what it is. It’s unlikely to be fatal to the alliance but Sun-Tzu will need to work very hard to patch things up.”

“He’s unfortunately quite good at that." Peter mused. “On the other hand, he’ll also have domestic concerns… Do we have any idea what triggered Kali giving the order?”

Quintus was quite smooth enough to pick up that Caesar Steiner was not currently to be brought into the loop on who exactly had originated the order to the agent in place - who was a perfectly genuine Kali-worshipping Thuggee. The agent just didn’t know that his chain of contacts back to Kali Liao’s home on Highspire had been compromised. “It’s not entirely clear but there were rumors that Lady Centrella might be close to the Chancellor personally rather than merely politically. Nothing I have seen suggests that there is an heir, but that would certainly be extremely damaging to Kali Liao’s prospects of ever sitting on the Celestial Throne.”

The fact that Catherine’s visions of the future included two or three such heirs was something that Peter had been worried about for a while. “I’m honestly not sure what would be more alarming: a Liao-Centrella on that throne or Sun-Tzu’s maniac of a sister.” Although at least the former was a long-term concern and not an immediate one.

“I’d lean towards Kali." Caesar muttered. “Sun-Tzu getting her an insanity plea over those attacks might have been more damaging to the Star League than Kathrine’s indifference to the entire St. Ives war.”

“Fortunately, that prospect is significantly diminished.” Quintus could in fact grin more broadly. “My delightful cousin has been removed from the Prefectorate. I don’t know yet how many favors Sun-Tzu had to call in with the House of Scions to get that done so quickly, but I’m willing to wager it’s cost him heavily. And that means she’s no longer eligible for the position of Chancellor without some kind of coup.”

Peter nodded. “That is good. Who does that leave if Sun-Tzu slips in the bath or something?”

Quintus arched an eyebrow and Peter shook his head slightly. That was not a hint. Assassinating a council lord would be a far more risky prospect than using a catspaw for an attack that didn’t even need to succeed in order to have the desired effect.

“My mother is technically eligible." the young Count admitted, “But she’s politically impossible after her secession back in ‘twenty-nine. That leaves the Duke of Capella and the Shonso of Liao as the primary candidates.”

“Gregory Liao and… Herthong?”, Peter asked

“Hurtong Liao." Quintus corrected with a pained expression. “He’s more or less in Sun-Tzu’s camp, since the Chancellor’s Xin Sheng policies more or less carried him to rule of a major world.” Shonso was more or less the Capellan title equivalent of a count, but the planet Liao held considerable political weight as the homeworld of the Liao dynasty and capital of the commonality carved out of the Chaos March.

“And Gregory?” asked Caesar.

“Old school politician. He has better connections in the Scions. It’d be an interesting conflict if it comes to that.”, Allard told older man

Peter nodded. “I’d better refresh myself on their profiles at some point. Do we know what will happen with Kali besides losing her office?”

“Not yet sir, but there may be more news on the way. It’s…”

Quintus’ comm bleeped, cutting him off.

“That was fast." the Archon-Prince noted.

The spymaster lifted the comm to his ear. “Allard speaking.”

There was a pause as whoever was on the other end reported. It must have been important, Peter thought. Normally using a comm within this office was something of a security hazard - only a handful of comm units anywhere had the codes to route something past his electronic security.

Quintus’ face didn’t pale dramatically but his expression was serious as he lowered the comm.

“Bad news?” asked Peter.

“It isn’t good.”, Quintus told him

“Out with it then." Caesar grunted, cutting another piece of cake for himself.

Quintus took a deep breath and faced the General of Armies. “Your grace, I regret to inform you that your mother passed away this morning.”

The out-of-place honorific had given the old soldier time to put his plate down. He hadn’t remembered to do the same with his fork and it bounced off the plate and onto the floor.

“The initial reports suggest natural causes." Quintus continued gently.

Peter stepped forwards to rest a hand on his cousin’s shoulder in sympathy, as the man began to shake with grief.


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