By PsiDraconis

Chapter 12

The soft knock at the door just barely distracted Claire's attention from the spectacle that had her enthralled. Still more than half-mesmerised, she edged towards the door to the nearly deserted gymnasium. She managed to get there after tripping over a bench only once, but it still took another discreet knock to draw her focus enough to actually manipulate the door handle.

"Ah… yes?" she asked distractedly through the crack she had opened the door.

Corporal Te'Inti Li-He looked back at her with slight surprise. "Good afternoon, Ma'am. I'm sorry to disturb you and Her Ladyship, but Her Highness should be returning within the half-hour."

Despite her distraction, Claire smiled. She and Te'Inti had somehow struck up an easy nascent rapport since her return from the States. Perhaps it was the fact that they were close in age, or perhaps that each in her own way was uncertain and possessed less than full confidence in her new position. Te'Inti had been a Guard for four years already, since just after her twentieth birthday, but in a more conventional situation it would have been at least ten years before she even began to consider making the transition from Common to Personal Guard. She was adapting amazingly well, considering the circumstances, but the ease and self-confidence that marked Colonel Nixon or Sir Arthur, or even most of the rest of her unit, had not had nearly enough time to take root. She was also a solidly muscled woman, with the almost exaggerated carefulness in her interactions with other people that was common in the very strong.

"Oh, thank you," Claire replied. Evelynne had been off to the capital city of Jamaz for the day for consultations with the Queen and a few of the Nobles. Strictly speaking, as the Page to the Princess, Claire should have accompanied her "mistress"—and didn't that title bring strange and wonderful images to Claire's mind—but Evelynne had asked her to remain behind and keep an eye on Ally for the day. For her part, Claire was more than happy to acquiesce. Not only was she nowhere near confident enough to try practicing her very real duties among Atlantl's aristocracy, but the show that she had been privy to when Ally had announced her desire to "work out" was something she was not about to pass up for any reason.

"Thank you," she said again. "I'll let Ally—" She broke off when she realised that Corporal Li-He was no longer paying even the slightest attention to her. Instead the Guard's gaze was riveted on the small slice of gym visible through the space between door and frame, and even before she looked over her shoulder Claire had some inkling of what had caught Li-He's attention. "Ah… come on in," she urged, and it was a measure of the young Guard's rapture that she allowed herself to be ushered in with a hand to the elbow. It was possible that a far more experienced Guard, like Colonel Nixon or Sir Arthur, would have been able to shrug off that fascination, but Te'Inti Li-He youthfulness gave her all the appearance of a child gawking at a fireworks display, and Claire couldn't help a wry smile of complete understanding.

With the Corporal now inside the gym, Claire turned back to the scene which had both of them staring.

Ally was performing acrobatics. However, the young woman's version of acrobatics was one for which Mary Lou Retton would have instantly given her left eye, at least four fingers of her right hand, a kidney, and a large chunk of large intestine.

It really puts the "acro" in acrobatics when the gymnast can treat certain laws of physics, like gravity, as mere suggestions, Claire thought to herself.

Ally's "routine" had just launched her from a pommel-horse—the gymnasium at the Winter House was equipped with enough hardware to hold its very own Olympics—to leap three metres and land lightly on the top of the higher of a set of uneven bars. Without a hint that she was unbalanced, Ally ran across the bar with short steps and then leapt again. This time she twisted as she jumped, her entire body spinning with her arms directly outwards like the blades of a helicopter. Spinning so fast Claire imagined she could hear a whir, she seemed to float across another seven or eight metres. Her course took her directly towards a floor-to-ceiling rope used for climbing practice, and Te'Inti sucked in a quick breath when it looked like Ally was about to collide directly with the rope. Claire couldn't entirely blame the Guard, but she herself had long since given up worrying about Ally's impossible manoeuvres. Sure enough, before she could tangle herself dangerously in the rope, one of Ally's outstretched spinning hands smacked into the rough surface and gripped it. Momentum—another of the principles of physics Ally could take or leave as she chose—spun her around the thick cable. Twisting her body, she got another hand on the rope and pulled her feet up sharply so that she was effectively crouching horizontally on the cord. Even as she did so, the momentum she had allowed through had the rope stretching like a bowstring, and as it snapped back Ally used it to fire herself almost the way she had come like an arrow. This time her flight was over ten metres, ten metres of soaring through the air before she dropped, directly on target for the balance beam in the centre of the gym. There was another indrawn hiss from Te'Inti as Ally's hands, outstretched above her head, found purchase on the smooth wood. For an instant she was in a perfect handstand before her legs and body arched over and she pushed off, continuing through a forward flip. Her bare feet hit the beam, absorbing all forward momentum and she bounced up. And instant later she had shot straight up, heading for the angled glass ceiling more than fifteen metres overhead. On the way she turned in the air—That violates conservation of angular momentum, Claire thought—so that her feet, rather than her hands, pushed off the window far overhead.

So how do we explain the footprints on the inside of the windows to the people who clean them? Claire asked herself.

"Ma'at sen, det ma'at rennet ka sen. Pelet to sen da ma'at…"

The constant muttering drew Claire's attention, and she looked to the side to see Corporal Li-He murmuring under her breath as the Guard watched the superhuman display raptly. Currently, Ally was engaged in a series of manoeuvres among the ceiling beams overhead that would have made an orang-utan give up the jungle and decide to try its hand at an ocean-going existence instead. Claire couldn't understand the words, but the tone was very familiar from her own reactions to her friend's blatant flaunting of universal laws.

"Amen, sister," she murmured.

Te'Inti looked at her, apparently startled that there really was anyone else in the room. "Excuse me, Ma'am?" The sheepish, but still stunned look on her face was endearing, and Claire felt a flicker of surprise at the thought.

Mentally shaking her head, Claire jerked a thumb to the woman above them. "I said I understand completely. You don't want to know what I said the first time she… well…"

"Uh, yes, Ma'am. It's rather…"

"It is, isn't it?" Claire kept her eyes aimed at the ceiling. "By the way, Ally's said something to you about how she doesn't want to be called 'Ma'am?'"

"Yes, Ma'am. As I recall, she threatened to have me beheaded."

Claire nodded. "Sounds about right. Just so you know, she and I are like that." She held up her hand, first and second fingers intertwined. "Well, maybe not. Only she and Evy are like that. I'm like this." She managed to touch her first and third fingers together. "So…"

"Ah. I understand, Ma—Mis—Claire."

"Good." Claire smiled at the young Guard. "Now, do you prefer Corporal, or...?"

“Ah, while on duty I think Corporal or Guard would be most appropriate, Ma—Claire.” The other woman smiled shyly. “When I'm off duty I'd be honoured if you'd call me Te'Inti.”

“Deal.” Claire was silent for a moment, distracted from the sights above her, impossible as that might seem. “Te'inti. Does that mean something? In Lantlan, I mean.”

“Not in Lantlan, but in Ysan it means 'Diamond Star'.” The Guard blushed. “It's another name for the Dog Star.”

“Ysan? What-- Oh, that's the language they speak on Ys, isn't it?”

“Yes, M—Claire. I'm from there originally.”

Claire smiled wryly. “You know, maybe I should let you call me 'Ma'am' after all. I wouldn't want you to sprain your tongue on my account.”

The expression of relief on Te'Inti's face was almost comical. “If you don't mind... Ma'am.” She hesitated. “Off duty I'd be happy to address you by your given name.”

“Deal,” Claire said again, smiling. It was amazing how un-selfconscious she felt. “You know, I'd really like to--”


The shout had both Claire's and Te'Inti's gazed moving upwards. Somehow, Ally had missed a grab on her intended beam and was plummeting floorwards. Claire froze for an instant, but Li-He was already moving towards her charge's point of impact.

Theoretical point of impact, at any rate. Before she could hit the floor with enough force to seriously injure herself at the very least, Ally's destructive plunge had halted a meter from the ground. For all that the fact that she was floating in the air without any support other than her own mind should have been awe-inspiring, she looked anything but elegant. Her arms and legs were akimbo, and one track suit leg had ridden up to bare a calf, and her T-shirt was likewise exposing a fair amount of smooth back. Smooth, at any rate, except for the starburst scar in the middle of her lower spine.

Li-He had halted the instant it became clear that she would not be scraping her charge off the floor with a spatula, but it was clear that the reality hadn't sunk in. Nobody in the world would blame her. It was a frozen tableau for several seconds as all three of them stared at each other, and then Ally spoke.

"If you laugh, I will kill you."

Twenty minutes later, Claire was wandering the gymnasium, idly inspecting the equipment, while she waited for Ally to finish her shower. She shook her head bemusedly as she ran her fingers over the climbing rope, remembering when Ally had used it as a bowstring with such casual ease. It takes a bit of getting used to, having a superhero for a best friend, she mused. Of course, Evelynne and I would probably also be considered superheroes. I think we're more the “information broker in the shadows” type, though. Ally would go out and do the actual ass-kicking, and we'd be in the Batcave giving her directions.

As if on cue, Ally emerged from the gym's changing area, finger-combing her hair, which had grown even more in the past months. “You know, I never really appreciated how easy short hair was,” she commented. She pulled a still-wet, shoulder-length handful of tresses around and glared at it balefully. “Maybe I should cut it again.”

“Don't do that,” Claire said quickly. “It looks good.”

Ally sighed. “That's what Evy said.” She smiled. “She should be back any moment now.”

Claire nodded, and the two of them stepped out of the gym, Claire with a last glance back at the now mundane equipment, and headed down the corridor.

“Te'Inti is nice,” Ally said suddenly, and Claire looked over in surprise. “I like her.”

“So do I,” Claire replied, smiling. “So do I. She terrified of you, by the way.”

“What? Because of that beheading thing? Well... okay, maybe I was a little... emphatic when I said it, but...”

“No, not that, although I'm not sure how certain she is about how serious you were. It's more from what you did during the Invasion.” Claire had heard the various perspectives about that day, from Ally's expected self-deprecation to Chorus' enthusiastic tale-telling, and half of her would have given anything to be present, while the other half was unimaginably happy to have missed the incident. “And then this little demonstration just now in the gym...”

“Oh.” Ally flushed lightly. “Heh. Oops.” She was quiet for a few more moments. “She likes you, too, you know.”

Again Claire smiled, slightly embarrassed. “She told you?”

Ally shook her head. “No. And I don't just mean she likes you, I mean she's attracted to you.” There was something a little uncertain in her tone.

That made Claire slam to a halt in the middle of the hallway. “What?! How do you know?” Her tone was accusing.

“I wasn't scanning her, I promise,” Ally hurried to reassure her friend. “I've just caught a few flashes. I really can't help it.” She smirked wryly. “What do you think distracted me back in there?” The mind-reader's face fell. “I shouldn't have said anything. I try not to say anything about things I pick up... you know.”

“No... no,” Claire said, shaking her head slowly while she forced her legs to begin moving again. “That's okay. Although, maybe you shouldn't have, because... awkward! But then, she is rather pretty, even I noticed--” Once more Claire screeched to a stop, bicoloured eyes widening. Whatever Te'Inti's emotions at the time, they had been strong enough to penetrate Ally's mind and concentration to such an extent that the Adept had nearly plunged from the ceiling, which meant that they had to go far beyond simple aesthetic appreciation. “OH!”

To nobody's surprise, the courtroom was packed. Perhaps not as crowded as a similar court in another country, but that was only because Atlantlan law stipulated that no court of law was permitted to have more spectators than available seats. Standing while court was in session for any reason, other than to immediately and quietly leave the room, was forbidden. Likewise, Atlantl was among several countries which banned television cameras—in fact, unofficial electronic recording of any kind—from the courtroom.

Nevertheless, this courtroom was filled to utter capacity with spectators who were stretching the definition of "available seating" to the limit. It was quite possible that some of the benches were so tightly packed that their occupants would remain stuck long after the trial had ended.

Like sheep. Major Allen Wright carefully kept the sneer off his face, maintaining a bland expression. Ghouls awaiting their chance to watch the wolf in their midst be taken down by the dogs.

At one point Major Wright had actually been a real military officer. He had solemnly sworn to defend the United Kingdom of Great Britain, and had risen to a rank comparable to the one he now styled himself through perseverance and an undeniable confidence. However, when the chance came to utilise that confidence in more active roles than insipid peacekeeping, and for an infinitely larger reward, he had simply disappeared from his post. Ten years later, with successfully fulfilled contracts with a number of South American businessmen and at least two East African despots, he was completely convinced he had found his true calling.

Then the opportunity had arisen to undertake a contract far more challenging than protecting drug shipments, training enforcers, or pacifying poorly armed and untrained villages. It had come through a middleman, as such things always did. An actual, full-strength military invasion of a nation known for producing some of the best soldiers in the world, an attack designed to decapitate that country's government in a stroke.

The details of just what was supposed to happen after this strike had always been rather vague, but the one-time "Major" hadn't particularly cared. To kill not just another man, or even a dozen other men; to kill an entire nation! That was a feat worthy of a war-god of his stature.

And it had almost succeeded, too. It had been swift, sure, completely unexpected. Nearly every Lannie Noble killed within a half-hour of fighting, a stroke that had nearly severed the head. It had been the battle he had been waiting for all his life, and there had been surprises as well. Prior to the attack, Wright's image of the Nobility was a bunch of fat, arrogant popinjays, the very definition of blasphemy as the weak ruling over the strong. However, far more Nobles than he had ever even begun to consider had fought directly beside their bodyguards, exacting a grim ferryman's toll from the men who had killed them. Women, too! One of Wright's most vivid memories was of a small old woman firing back at his squad with a submachine gun that was almost as large as she was, taken off one of her fallen protectors. She had died, but her aggression, and that of her compatriots, had held off the attackers long enough for reinforcements from the Army and Guard to catch them from behind.

Worthy enemies, in Wright's opinion, and even then they had earned his grudging respect. He had been fully prepared, eager even, to go down fighting, his teeth at the throat of his foes, and when he felt the breath knocked out of him by the three bullets to the chest he had been satisfied.

What they did next was something for which he would hate them with every fibre of his being for the rest of his life.

They had saved him. He had awoken some weeks later in a prison hospital, strapped to the bed, his wounds treated, a predator robbed of his great death. No war-god's end to usher him into Olympus. No, his end was to be killed like a sheep, executed for his "crimes" like a common murderer. But at least he could make them kill him in the end.

The three red-robed Justicars at the bench at the front of the room finished their little discussion, and one tapped the small gong before her.

"Allen William Wright, you are called to answer before the Realm's justice, here in the bodies of these Justicars," the hawk-faced woman intoned. "Stand and be known."

Wright didn't move. There was no way he was going to dignify this farce.

"Allen William Wright, stand and be known," the woman repeated. Still no movement. "Allen William Wright, be aware that failure to follow the lawful directions of any member of this Tribunal will result in further charges laid against your person." She waited another moment, and then shrugged, and Wright bristled at the gesture, one of total indifference to his lack of actions. "Watcher of the Court, is Allen William Wright present?"

The Watcher—the equivalent of the bailiff in other nations—was a massively muscled man, and his voice was equally solid. "He is, Your Justice. Allen William Wright sits at the Defendant's Table."

The female Justicar nodded. "Very well." She looked down at the stack of papers in front of her and frowned. "Allen William Wright, you stand charged before the Realm with the following crimes, as summarised: one count of unlawful immigration; one count of the unlawful importation of illegal weapons; two counts of conspiracy to regicide; nineteen counts of murder; and twenty four thousand eight hundred fifty seven counts of conspiracy to commit murder." There was a mixed gasp of surprise and low growl of anger from the spectators, and even Wright couldn't help but feel surprise at that huge number. "The specific counts of these charges being far too numerous to mention, these summaries will stand in their stead, unless you specifically request their recitation. Do you so wish?"

It took a moment for Wright to understand what the woman was saying, and when he did he felt a moment of temptation for the court to be forced to read out the names of all twenty four thousand eight hundred fifty seven people who had been killed in the explosions which had accompanied his attack, but it passed quickly. However satisfying it might have been, none of them had actually died by his hand. There was no way he was going to take credit for any kill he had not performed himself. "No."

Another nod, and Wright was irritated that none of the Justicars were reacting with the kind of awe, horror or revulsion he felt was appropriate. Instead it was as though he was in court on a rather minor traffic violation, and that was maddening.

"Very well. You are entitled to legal counsel from the Realm as well as your nation of citizenship, and have been informed of this right. Throughout these proceedings you have consistently rejected any and all legal counsel, and have said nothing in you own defence. Is this correct?"


"Do you wish to reverse your decision at this time?"

Wright sneered. "I don't need anyone to hold my hand."

Frustratingly, his stab at their precious dignity just seemed to be swallowed up without the flicker of an eyelid. "The court will consider the defendant's statement to be a negative response, and Allen William Wright is hereby acknowledged to be acting without counsel through his own free choice. In that case, Allen William Wright, on the charges here brought before you, how do you plead?"

Wright smirked again. "Guilty." He basked in the renewed anger from the gallery.

"Allen William Wright, do you understand the consequences of entering this guilty plea, including the penalties which this court may apply?"

Wright barked a laugh. Weeks before, when the sheep had been urging him to retain counsel, some Lannie pencil-fucker had tried to explain to him the possible punishments to which he could be sentenced. The erstwhile Major had ignored the bleating. He would be executed; there was no doubt of that. The manner of his death… He gave a mental shrug. They were pretty much the same around the world. Hanging, the chair, lethal injection, firing squad, beheading. In every one of them he could look his killers in the eye as he died. "I was told."

"Allen William Wright, are you sure of your answer?" This time the Justicar on the woman's right, a short, balding man, spoke. "Will you willingly submit to the judgement of this court in the matter of your punishment?"

"I submit to nothing. Do what you want. Enjoy it while it lasts."

The three Justicars glanced at each other. "The court recognises and acknowledges the plea of Guilty on all charges by Allen William Wright, and notes that the defendant has knowledge of the potential consequences by his own admission. This plea is accepted, and this court judges Allen William Wright to be guilty on all counts. This Tribunal will now recess and consider sentencing." The chief Justicar tapped her chime again and the trio filed out through a door at the side of the room.

Behind them, Allen William Wright sat back in his chair and fed on the rage and hatred flowing from the gallery.

"Oh, Mary, Mother of Christ, I need a drink." Jeremiah Atkinson, Justicar Second, crossed himself before scrubbing his hands over his face.

"No alcohol on duty, I afraid, Jerry," Maureen al-Nar, Justicar First of the trial said. "Soda?"

"Bless you," Atkinson breathed. "And as many antacids as you can find."

The chief Justicar tried to smile at him reassuringly, but her own hands were somewhat shaky as she poured the drink before handing it to Atkinson, along with an entire bottle of antacid tablets from the bottom drawer of her desk.

Atkinson cocked an eyebrow. "Use these yourself, do you?"

"Like candy," al-Nar confirmed. "Save me half the bottle, will you?" She turned to Mbebe So, the most junior and, by far, the youngest of this Tribunal. "Mbebe?"

So's normally night-black skin was grey. "I don't suppose you have a shower in here, do you?"

"I wish."

"In that case, just water. And if you could spare me a third of those tablets I'd appreciate it."

The Justicar First nodded and handed the glass over before pouring herself her own tumbler of lime and tonic water. She sank into her own deep chair, rubbing her forehead. "So what do we do with Mr Wright?"

"Personally, I see only one option," Atkinson replied after a moment. "You know I believe that God forgives all things, but I think even He will have a challenge with this one."

"Amen," al-Nar breathed. "I've seen a lot of things in my years on the Tripod, and Wright easily ranks up there with the worst. I'll second your judgement." She glanced at So. The younger man's agreement wasn't guaranteed, as he shown a distinct aversion to the death penalty in the past.

"I kept hoping the Prosecutor's statement was exaggerated," the Justicar Third murmured. "I read the report and I thought, 'Nobody can be this… evil.'" He shuddered and took a long drink of water. "I hoped that there was some chance that he could be rehabilitated, made into a… a human being again." So sighed. "I was wrong." He looked up again. "I'll confirm the sentence. Do you think your God will forgive me, Jeremiah?"

Atkinson looked at his colleague sadly. "That, I think, He will find no challenge at all."

The Justicars' deliberations didn't take long, and Wright wasn't surprised. There wasn't much for them to decide after all. Whether to hang me or fry me. What fun!

The woman and two men filed back in and took their places at the bench in silence, and the entire courtroom seemed to be holding its breath. The Justicar First looked at her two colleagues, receiving subtle nods from both.

"Allen William Wright," she said, looking down at him with an impassive expression, "you have pleaded Guilty to the charges previously read to you by this court. We hereby confirm that plea, and judge you Guilty. You will thereby be punished according to the Laws of the Realm of Atlantl. Do you wish to make a statement before the court proclaims your sentence?"

Wright smiled up at her, showing all his teeth. "Baaaa."

Once again he was frustrated as his insult evinced nothing more than a raised eyebrow. "We will assume that concludes your statement. Very well." The Justicar sat up straighter. "Allen William Wright, you have shown not the slightest hint of remorse for your crimes. Not a touch of humanity, morality or conscience has been demonstrated in any of your actions or statements. Furthermore, three registered psychiatric professionals have submitted that you are fully cognisant and aware of the consequences of your actions. Therefore, the court has unanimously proclaimed the following sentence: you will be transported to a medical facility to be chosen at the convenience of the Realm. You will be placed into a medically induced coma. Upon confirmation of brain-death, those organs of your body which give you life will be removed at need for the benefit of those who require them, until such time as your body can no longer sustain life. This sentence will be carried out within ninety days of this date. In this way it may be possible that you will give life for that you have taken away. May the Universal have mercy on your being."

Wright was stunned, awash in a sea of rage and terror. No! They couldn't do this! Not to be shot, not to be hung, not to be electrocuted. No, these sheep were condemning him to die in his sleep, sliced up like some pig!

"No!" he tried to shout, but his voice was almost drowned out in the satisfied growl from the gallery behind him. A very predatory growl, he suddenly realised with a shiver.

The Justicar First didn't even try to subdue the noise, only raising her own voice. "This is the Realm's judgement. This case is concluded."

"Once again I must state my Government's objection to these proceedings, Your Majesty. Many of those you plan to put on trial are American citizens, and they deserve the right to the legal protections provided by the Constitution of the United States. I have to renew my request to have all our citizens extradited to the American authorities. In addition, my government protests and condemns in the strongest terms the sentences which have so far been passed on three of those whom you have convicted of their alleged crimes."

The American Ambassador's words held just the right balance of forcefulness and respect, and Queen Cleo couldn't help but admire the man. It helped that The Honourable Nicholas Holt, United States Ambassador to the Realm of Atlantl, was at heart a truly honourable man. In fact, the Queen had her suspicions that his personal views were far more similar to those held by most Atlantlans in this matter, but it was his responsibility to speak for the American government, whatever those personal opinions might be, and he discharged those responsibilities with the utmost seriousness. For that matter, he was far more honourable than his deputy, who had been suborned by Guard Intelligence with surprising ease, and not for the first time Cleo regretted the fact that her nation was being assisted at times by the unscrupulous and opposed by the honest.

"I understand your concerns, Mr Ambassador, but once again I have to refuse your request. Your citizens were arrested while on Atlantlan soil for crimes committed against the Realm, and are being charged as such, with the benefit of all the rights and privileges given to foreign nationals tried in Atlantlan courts. As for the punishment of those found guilty, so far only three of the thirty-eight sentences handed down have included the death penalty, for actions that would be considered so unconscionably egregious that no lesser punishment would suffice. The remaining thirty-five have been assigned far lesser sentences, which are, in fact, unquestionably lenient considering the crimes for which they were found guilty."

"Yet you have permitted several nations to reclaim their citizens for trial in their own courts, Ma'am," Holt pointed out.

"We have," the Queen admitted. "However, Germany, Nigeria, Congo, Brazil, Cuba, India, and South Africa have all given guarantees that the accused we have handed over will be prosecuted rigorously, fully, and fairly. They have also submitted to our requests—let us be blunt and call them demands—for oversight, consultation and scrutiny by members of our foreign office. Britain, France, Canada, Israel, China, and a vast number of the rest have all agreed to completely surrender all right to prosecution and punishment into our hands, and it is the one-time citizens of those countries whom we are trying first. Most of the remainder we are still negotiating with over either oversight by their officials of the trials here, or the details of prosecution in their own countries."

"I'd like to point out that many of the countries you've listed are close allies of your own nation."

Cleo laughed. "I'm sorry, but it's quite amusing to hear that China, Sudan, Israel, and Turkey are our allies. Or any of a half-dozen other countries who have recognised our right to prosecute criminals who have attempted to destroy our Realm. Israel is far further inside your sphere than ours, and even your diplomatic relations with China are more positive."

Holt nodded in acknowledgement. "True, Your Majesty. But whatever other nations decide, the United States must act in its own best interest. And we feel that our sovereignty is threatened by allowing a large number of American citizens to be tried by a undemocratic government over whose legitimacy we still have grave concerns."

The Queen's eyes went hard. "I would advise you, Mr Ambassador, not to cast aspersions on our own democratic processes when your own voter turnout is consistently less than forty per cent."

The Ambassador nodded his head. "I apologise, Your Majesty. I was just expressing the viewpoint of the American leadership."

Cleo relaxed. "I understand, Mr Ambassador." She noticed that he hadn't said he was representing the American people, or even his own opinion.

The calm tone had a surprising effect, and Holt suddenly sagged back into his chair showing every minute of his abruptly obvious exhaustion. He scrubbed his hands over his face and sighed. "Ma'am, may I be frank with you… off the record?"

Now this was interesting, and the Queen sat upright. "If you'd like… Nicholas."

That surprised him, but drew out a grateful smile at the same time. "Thank you. I really shouldn't be telling you this, but there are signs in Washington that the President is considering renewing the blockade and using Navy vessels to stop and search all shipping which has made or will make landfall with an Atlantlan port, and using military escorts for our shipping through the Triangle if you don't hand over the criminals you've captured."

The Queen was stunned by the statement. On one level, it was a complete break with the way in which Holt had always conducted diplomacy in the past, always careful to represent his lawful superiors rather than his own mind. This is what happens when you keep forcing an honourable man to act against his own personal honour. The second aspect was the sheer brashness of the move the American leadership was contemplating.

"Are they insane?" she blurted. "Do they know how we'll have to retaliate if they do something like that? They start harrassing our shipping, and that of our allies, and we'll be forced to send along ships from our own Navy to protect them, and if they start using warships to escort their ships through, and we'll have to send our own in an attempt to intercept them. You know your government's never dissolved the Atlantic Waters Act from 1971! Officially, they still don't recognise our unilateral claim to the Timaean Triangle, never mind that it runs right between all three of our Isles! Sending warships through there will be like us sending the entire Atlantlan Guard marching through Washington right across to San Francisco and expecting you to just watch us go by! We'd do our very best to keep confrontations to a minimum, and I know your ship captains would do the same, out of simple self-preservation if nothing else, but sooner or later someone will snap under stress and a shot will be fired, and at that point it won't matter whose side shot first. We'll be at war, and if your President thinks it'll just stay between us, he's… We'll have France, Portugal, Spain, Morocco—Hells, most of the Mediterranean!—on our side, but the rest of Europe will split like an orange. Even if they don't join in the actual fighting, the League of West African Nations will inevitably be strengthening their militaries, and they have more than enough instability along their eastern borders to cause an explosion somewhere, and that will send all of Africa up in smoke." The Queen slouched back in her chair, her eyes wide. "Do you know what that means?"

"World War Three," Holt murmured quietly.

"Damned straight, to use one of your own expressions, and damned is what we'd all be. Drop a nuke on Iran. It'll be quicker." Cleo leaned forward once more, staring at the Ambassador intently. "Just how likely is this?"

Holt sighed. "At the moment all I know is that it's a 'contingency plan,' and that 'nothing has been ruled out.' From what I can gather, he seems to believe that some conflict will actually raise his poll numbers." He shrugged. "There are some… concerned public servants who are doing all they can to keep it nothing more than a 'contingency.' I wish I could be certain how the House or Senate would vote on something like this, but things are crazy after all the, ah, unexpected police raids on some of our more isolated communities. Crazier than usual, anyway. What we need to do is just hold on eighteen months until the next Presidential election. The polls we get these days are just as unreliable, but the data we had before suggests that a change in administration is more than likely." Another shrug. "I can't promise our next President will be any more sympathetic to the Atlantlan cause, but… I am an American, Your Majesty, and I love my country, and I'll admit I don't agree with every policy your own nation espouses. Some of them trouble me deeply, and I will do everything in my power diplomatically to defend my nation's interests. I am a patriot, but no true patriot drops his country into a war unless there is no other possible alternative."

"Gods of the Duat," Cleo breathed, pressing her fingers to her forehead. She didn't know if she was more stunned by Holt's revelations, or the fact that he had revealed them in the first place. Taking a deep breath, she looked up at the Ambassador once more. "Thank you for telling me," she said, and held up a hand as he was about to speak. "And don't worry; to those outside this room you have said nothing beyond your government's official statements. I can promise you that I will be doing everything in my power to lessen the tensions between our two nations, but like you I am a patriot, and I have a responsibility to put Atlantl's citizens first."

"Thank you, Your Majesty," Holt said, standing as the Queen did and taking her hand without hesitation.

He was a tall man, and Cleo looked up at him with interest.

"You know," she said, "I think you might be someone I would feel comfortable with, sitting in your Oval Office." She smirked at his look of shock. "Think about it."


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