World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 3 Omake

GIFT OF THE MAEGI

A Solace of Manticore Omake

Previously: Fox Hunt Chapter 5

Timestamp: Winter Solstice, 1902 PD

Queen Elspeth of Jewel stretched her back until it popped and groaned. “Are you certain this is entirely necessary?” she asked her erstwhile tormentor. The queen, only four months into her reign, had spent most of the time since her disastrous coronation party visiting the major cities of her realm and speaking to the people, assuring them of her dedication to them and (of course) showing off her ‘magical’ powers.

Much of that was an attempt to distract the media and citizenry from the quiet removal of all Bellweather partisans, and to assure the people that the former regent’s plans for the nation were not supported by the royal family. Interviews and interrogations of Sophia’s people (the difference being determined by whether or not criminal charges were likely) had revealed that even as the Storting and Prime Minister had been building up the system’s defenses, the Regent and her cabal had been planning to buy Jewel’s independence by not only giving Haven free use of the junction but paying the Legislaturalists what amounted to little more than Danegeld. That the amount needed to ‘assure the liberty of Jewel’ would have reduced most of the system’s sixteen billion commoners to crushing poverty or virtual serfdom was apparently something she’d been willing to accept in the name of ‘freedom from tyranny’.

Despite what had happened, and despite the invaluable assistance of the Manticorans (or Andermani, the media and government were of differing opinion on that front) the Storting was still firmly in the neutrality camp, believing that a large enough defensive fleet would keep Havenite aggression away from the system. Elsa’s personal opinion had, unfortunately, remained just that, since her reign was, by no means secure enough to push her own favored agenda over that of her uncle and his peace at all costs followers.

Her relationship with the young Manticoran woman who’d saved her life was part of that. Too many of the hardliners saw Gillian Andros-Smythe as a Manticoran Agent at court, and many of the tradition minded old-timers (who were fine with their monarch being secretly gay) were deeply upset by Elspeth’s very public dalliance with someone who couldn’t help provide an heir the traditional way. Never mind the ease with which a child could be produced with bioengineering techniques so old they predated the diaspora by roughly a century. Never mind that marital equality was enshrined in the Jewelian Declaration of Fundamental Rights. If Elspeth wanted a mistress, that was fine… but for Goddesses’ sake, couldn’t they have a little discretion!? And a Prince Consort who didn’t have breasts?

The not even yet engaged to the Queen subject of that debate laughed, and tossed Elsa a towel. “Yes. It is. You didn’t just inherit mental powers and a kingdom. You also inherited a perfectly good set of combat augments. The fact that you seem to think throwing a punch with your fingers wrapped ‘round your thumb is appropriate shows just how shockingly lax your education has been.”

“I did that once!” Elspeth sighed, mopping her brow with a hand that felt like it weighed three times normal. Which it did. As the Yule season approached, the grand tour had wound down and the court had returned to Kronorberg, where a variable gravity exercise room had been installed in their absence. Sapphire’s 1.12 G gravity had been boosted to 1.5 G for the workout and the horrible wench had insisted that Elspeth wear a weighted bodysuit that covered everything besides her face and fingers.

The room was also swelteringly hot, which meant that the queen had to maintain concentration to keep herself chilled even as the woman who was officially just her good friend tossed her around the room as if she weighed no more than the towel did. All this was in service of making certain that, should the need arise again, Jewel’s monarch would have an ace in the hole, as it were.

“Yes, yes,” Gilly said, giving Elsa a hug from behind and pressing her cheek against that of the older woman. “You’re very good at making mistakes only once or twice… but you’ve got a lifetime of bad habits to unlearn. And you!” she glared at Anna who was getting a drink, “You’re even worse!”

“What did I do?” the Jewelian Heir demanded, looking confused. “I’ve actually landed blows on you!”

“By accident, and never ones you could capitalize on!” Gilly retorted, not letting Elsa escape. The feeling of physical contact with the cryokinetic was delicious… and not only because she was significantly cooler than the rest of the room. Both she and Anna were wearing chiller units in their exercise gear, but it could only do so much. “You’ve got great instincts, kiddo,” she said, shifting into instructor mode and ignoring the tongue the princess (who was a year older, technically, than Gilly… and a year younger legally, than Gillian Andros-Smythe) stuck out at her. “But you need to focus. Your attacks are still too haphazard, too aggressive.”

“I thought aggression was good!?” Elsa said, then gnawed playfully at Gilly’s bicep. The graceful bunching of muscles beneath the other woman’s skin was always a bit distracting, more so because they hadn’t even been together… not in a biblical sense anyway.

“Only in a very limited sense,” Gilly said. “You only want to be aggressive enough to overcome timidity. Every action you take should be deliberate, even when you’re responding reflexively.”

“That’s not possible!” Anna pouted. “Reflexive actions aren’t conscious… by definition!”

“I didn’t say conscious. I said deliberate,” Gilly said, flicking a drop of sweat across the sall at the princess. “You have to train yourself to take the appropriate action, and to not hesitate when the time for action comes… but you have to recognize when that time, that moment, has come. When do you throw a block?”

“Uh… when someone tries to punch me?” Anna said, confused.

“No. Not specific enough. First, you’re forgetting that you only can throw a block when you realize that a blow is coming. So you have to be able to read an enemy’s body language to know when they are winding up to throw that punch. If you’re good at it, like Solace is, you can probably see the blow coming almost as soon as your enemy thinks of throwing it… or even goad your enemy into throwing the punch in the first place… but for now, you’ve got to learn to recognize the moment of musculature since neither of you are empaths.”

“What’s the moment of musculature?” Elsa asked, tilting her head back to brush her lips across the edge of Gilly’s Jaw. Anna pointedly ignored her sister’s flirtations, well aware that she and Kristoff were just as bad.

“It’s the twitch that signals that a nerve has delivered a specific impulse to a muscle. The grosser the motion, the greater the twitch, and physical blows are fairly gross motions. Lots of force behind them… stop giggling, El. Not that kind of gross.” Elsa squeaked as Gilly pinched her someplace tender and Anna stifled a giggle of her own as the Manticoran raised an eyebrow at her. “But even when you recognize the moment, you’re not going to throw your block right then, right?”

Anna considered, then ahhed, “I get it. You mean that I shouldn’t block until I can do so with the least effort. Right?”

“Close. Least effort, greatest result. The specific point in time when those two lines meet is optimal. If you can block with almost no effort, but it doesn’t give you an advantage… or worse, leaves you open, it’s not a good trade off. If you can find an instant to act in which you’ll both protect yourself and gain an edge, you should act then. That’s when you want to be aggressive. You need to be willing to act in that instant, to recognize your chance and to take it.”

“Don’t forget that that lesson applies to more than combat,” said a new voice as the intercom crackled to life.

“Hi Mom,” Gilly said, releasing Elsa. “I assume you’ve come to fetch us?”

Minerva Andros-Brandyne’s chuckle filled the practice room, and she said, “This is my first chance to play mom for Christmas for more than just Gilly and Barnabie.” With Solace back in Manticore and Chanukah over, Minerva had decided to spend Yule with Gilly and the Jewelian royals. “I’ve been slaving away.”

“We’ll be right out,” Gilly called.

“Shower first!” Minerva snapped, “I don’t want you spoiling my cooking by showing up to dinner smelling like a gymnasium. Kristoff is setting the table like a nice young man and Barnabie has been told that if he snitches any of the food before we sit down to eat, he gets no dessert for a week. Also, I have armed guards stationed to watch the turkey.”

“I can’t believe your mother is making such a big deal about this,” Anna whispered to Gilly as the trio headed into the locker room to take off the heavy suits. “Don’t you have more servants than we do?”

Gilly laughed. “Only if you count the staff of all our properties. We don’t have a giant palace… well, not since Solace gave up her place on Midgard… the house in Jason Bay would fit in your courtyard. But yes, we do have a couple of chefs… okay, four of them… not counting all the ones who work in our restaurants… and you guys have like fifteen, but this is a holiday meal. She wants this to be special.”

“But why?” Elsa said, “I mean… is this normal? I’ve never dated before.”

“I think part of it is because we’re all orphans,” Gilly said, tapping the Queen’s nose. “I’m adopted, Solace is adopted, Kristoff’s parents are dead, your parents are dead… even your grandma’s adopted.” The Queen-Grandmother was, of course, adopted for much the same reason that Solace and Gilly were, and was the only other member of the royal family living in the collosal castle at the heart of Kronorberg Palace. There were hundreds of rooms… and only seven royals.

“Well, I think it’s nice… but weird. Why is she doing the cooking herself?” Anna said, stepping under the hot water.

“Not entirely by herself,” Gilly pointed out, then oofed as Elsa elbowed her.

“Stop staring at my sister’s butt,” the Queen humphed.

“It’s a perfectly nice butt,” Anna giggled, giving a little shimmy. “She can stare as much as she likes.”

“Anyway, I’m pretty certain that your brother and Kristoff were helping her,” Gilly said, ignoring the teasing as she stepped under the spray herself.

====

Elsewhere in the castle, a crime was being perpetrated. “Bleek. Bleek-Bleek,” whispered one of the criminals as he pried the slats of the vent cover back just enough to allow his partner to squeeze through.

“Dooook,” agreed the other as he squirmed through the gap, wings folded tight to his slightly pudgy frame. Anyone looking at the crook would have been astounded to see so much fluff slide through such a tiny hole, but the crook made it look easy. Once out into the room beyond he flared his wings and gave a little squeak to confirm he was clear. His partner began to lower him down towards the waiting prize.

“What do you two think you’re doing?” asked Prince Felix, setting down a platter of cheddar-broccoli squares. He booped the Flygia named Sven on the nose, then looked up at the Treecat named Barnabie. The smaller of the two was dangling from a drop harness twenty centimeters over a pineapple and clove studded ham that was resting on a sideboard. The fifteen year old brother of Jewel’s monarch had just come into the dining room to deposit the last of the food. “And where are the guards?”

“We were distracted,” Ariel and Beatrice explained from the otherside of the room where they were pulling O.L.A.F. out of the tinsel and popcorn covered pine-tree in the corner. “He got stuck.”

“It was a trap,” the robot said, “Several of her majesty’s pets were trying to eat the candy hooks.”

“Canes,” Ariel said, “Candy Canes.” She was holding five of grandma’s flying weasels, all of whom were squirming to try and get away. Thankfully, all of them were smaller than Sven, who, at five kilos, was twice the size of his more domesticated male cousins. The females were even smaller… which made them all the better at causing mischief. The wild Flygia had quickly established a kind of pack-leader position for himself among the Queen-Grandmother’s flock, and if Arto or Kristoff weren’t around to discipline him, Sven usually could convince the others to assist him in whatever foolishness he was up to that day.

The Sjora in question, now the official representative of her people at the court, was curled up in front of the fireplace, covered in the limp forms of nearly two dozen bat-weasels (who were only behaving themselves because they were sleeping). She was watching a holiday drama on a dataslate and giving the rumbling purr that was her people’s version of a belly laugh. Sjora and human comedy weren’t even close to being the same thing. “A cane is a stilt-slithering aid, yes?” she asked.

“Walking,” Ariel said pedantically, “It’s called walking. Not stilt-slithering. And yes, a cane is a walking aid. But candy canes are simply called that because they are shaped like canes.”

“Negative,” Olaf said. “They are shaped like hooks. Thus, candy hooks.”

“But that doesn’t have the same wordflow,” Beatrice pointed out as Felix pulled the cord tethering Sven to the vent free and used it to leash the little pest to the post that had been set up to try and keep the wild Flygia from divebombing meals to scoop up tasty treats. Unfortunately, it seemed as if Barnabie had untethered him and literally roped him into some fuzzbrained scheme.

“It does if you speak with an Emeraldian accent,” Grandma Patrice said from her easy chair. “Hkandy ‘hook,” she said, by way of demonstrating, using the guttural Emeraldian pronunciation of C and the glottal-stop that preceded the almost swallowed H to almost make the two words have the same initial sound.

“Grandmaaaa,” Beatrice sighed. “Nothing in Emeraldian has wordflow.”

“Yes yes… now put those children down and go wash your hands,” the matriarch said, climbing to her feet as the Manticoran businesswoman returned from fetching the older girls.

“Bird’s coming out,” Kristoff called from the kitchen, manhandling the massive turkey backwards through the swinging door.

=====

“Joyous Yuletide,” Elsa said, raising a glass of spiced wine in a toast, and the rest of her family (either by birth or choice) raised their own, echoing her words. “To those we love, be they present in flesh or merely in spirit. On this, the symbolic longest night, we come together to celebrate all that we have and honor those who came before. Times may have been tough, but we’ve survived another trip around the sun… and for that, we are profoundly grateful.”

“Hear, hear,” said Minerva from the far end of the table. “Now, everyone dig in… yes, even you, you little beast,” she said, grinning at the ‘cat in the highchair.

Barnabie bleeked sadly and shook his head. Everyone looked at him in stunned silence.

“B? You okay?” Gilly asked, ruffling his ears.

He twisted in his chair, bleeking and pointing with a true-hand and a hand-foot at where Sven was perched atop the post, watching them.

“You’re not going to eat unless we invite your friend over?” she guessed.

“Bleek!” Barnabie insisted, pointing more and leaning over so much that his highchair nearly toppled over.

“Mom?” Gilly asked, and everyone looked to Minerva.

“Only if the little monster agrees to behave himself… and that means only eating off his own plate and not scampering all over the table,” the industrialist said in her boardroom voice.

“We can shorten his teather and hook it to the back of Barnabie’s chair,” Felix suggested. “Then they can sit together and Sven won’t be on the table at all.”

And so it was done. The family ate and ate and ate until everyone, human, sjora, flygia, and treecat, were stuffed. There were, of course, plenty of leftovers for midnight snacks and lunch the next day… that was the best part, as everyone knows. One by one the dishes were carried into the kitchen where the household robots (who wouldn’t have known what to do with the night off if it had been offered) would pack up the rest of the food and clean the dishes, and everyone retired to the sitting area, wrapping themselves in blankets and each other’s arms, and accepting mugs of hot (and lightly spiked) cocoa (except Felix, who prefered eggnog), and they sat, listening to gentle strains of holiday music written more than two thousand years earlier on the only inhabited planet in human space where this truly was the longest night of the year (baring the quirk of timing that meant that Beta Trianguli Secundus just happened to line up this year).

As the humans fell asleep one by one, a small furry face rolled a small bronze sphere across the rug until it bumped up against the semi-comatose bulk of a larger furry creature. Barnabie opened his eye and regarded the bell, then bleeked softly and rolled onto his paws. Stealthily, he ooched his bulk under one of the divans, then (after a moment) slid back out, clutching a vacuum sealed container. Being ever so careful to open it silently, he reached inside and withdrew a slender chunk of brownness, then sealed it back up and slid the container back into its hiding spot. Picking up the bauble, he flumped down in front of Sven and offered the Flygia one of his prized pieces of rabbit jerky.

Silently, Sven sniffed at it, whiskers fluttering, then he chittered quietly and took it in his forepaws. Gnawing on the meat, he curled up against his friend and soon, the only sound in the room was the gentle snoring of Kristoff and the crackling of the fire.

Next: Cat and Mouse

Author’s Note: Thank you all for reading this. You’ve given me the best gift a writer can get (aside from, you know, a publishing contract and a five movie deal) and I just want you to know that this story literally would not exist without you. I appreciate you all and hope you’ve had a wonderful year. If you haven’t, I’m sorry, and hope that next year will be better, for all of us. From Me, EssJay, Solace, Gilly, and all the rest, from Barnabie and Sven to my real life ferrets who are sleeping the sleep of the truly naughty but utterly clueless… Happy Holidays, Chappy Chanukah, Joyous Yuletide, Sweet Solstice, Merry Christmas, and Kickin Kwanzaa. All the best, SJ-Chan.

World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 3.05

CROWN OF STARS, Solace of Manticore Book 2

Part 5: The Pride of Lions

Previously: Basilisk on Station, Chapter 5

Timestamp: Late June 1905

Solace looked down at the pair of monarchs and sighed, “You two are having far too much fun at my expense.”

It had been seven weeks since Solace had arrived in Jewel, and the queens of Manticore and Jewel had come together to sign a mutual accord that would pledge solidarity in the face of unwarranted, unprovoked, and unconscionable Havenite aggression… and to reward Solace, Oksana, and their entire joint command on the quick thinking that had managed to pluck victory from the jaws of disaster. Jewel’s battleship fleet had been all but obliterated, and if they hadn’t been drawing down the ship complements to bulk out their new wallers, the loss of personnel would have crippled Jewel’s ability to defend itself. As it was, they had lost nearly a hundred battle cruisers, the terminus forts in Atropos, the junction forts in Jewel, and all existing defensive platforms surrounding the planets of Sapphire, Emerald, and Crown, plus Crown’s moon, Tiara. All told, the kingdom of Jewel had lost more than 750,000 men and women, and three and a half trillion manticoran dollars in defensive emplacements and ships.

But for all that, and even though the victories in what were being called ‘Second Atropos’, ‘Second Jewel’, ‘Third Jewel’, ‘Fourth Jewel’, and ‘Second Corona’ had retaken everything that had been seized by the Havenites, it had been a savage wake-up call for the people of Jewel. They’d lost family and friends, they’d seen how fragile their peace was, and though they rejoiced now, they knew the victory had been more of a reprieve than the end of the crisis, knew in their hearts that further sacrifice could not bring back all the defensive infrastructure that had been demolished, the civilian ships caught in the crossfire, and the lives that had been cut short in the fighting. They could, however, perhaps guarantee that, in the end, Jewel still shone and her people still thrived.

In trade for all their losses, they had gained fourteen ex-Havenite SDs, three DNs, and twenty-one BCs… plus another thirty smaller ships… most of them taken intact or with only minor damage. And that was hardly all of Haven’s losses in the opening round of what the Solarians were already calling the Barbary Wars. Haven’s forces had been blooded at Hancock, crushed at Seafort, hammered at Yeltsin, and obliterated at Atropos and Jewel.

Faced with such a testament to how poorly led the Havenite forces were, it was hard not to rejoice just a little. Indeed, it was all that was keeping the general public from descending into despair at the prospect of facing the largest military outside of the Solarian League with what amounted to half a baker’s dozen one-and-two system polities. If only they’d been able to convince the Andermani to join them… but Gustav, as much as his family had made their fame in the mercenary realm, had been reticent. His people had spent too much time at war of late and were still rebuilding from the Civil War and the Midgardian War. He also pointed out that, so far, Haven had not yet offered him insult. He was sympathetic with the Alliance, but could not justify entering the war simply out of sympathy.

As for the Alliance? There was arguments about whether it would remain the Manticoran Alliance with the addition of Jewel. The suggestion that it be called the Crown Alliance since all the members besides Erewhon were technically monarchies had been rejected, as had Noble Alliance and Regal Alliance. In fact, that was the subject at hand.

“You cannot call us ‘The Legion of Super Friends’,” Solace groaned, glaring at Beth, who really should know better. “And why am I even at this meeting? I’m not a monarch.”

“Once a Queen, always a queen,” Elsa said, smirking. “That’s the law.”

“Rule,” Beth corrected.

“Rule,” Elsa agreed.

“Bleek!” Ruth added, nodding sagely… as if she had any clue what was going on. Naomi and Ariel nodded as well, then went back to playing old maid… at least that’s what Solace was pretty certain they were playing.

“Ha… ha… ha…” Solace grunted. “But seriously. I was officially the Despot of Midgard, not Queen, not Empress. I never put on a crown… I mean, on myself, nor did anyone else ever crown me. My title as Grand Duchess Midgard is entirely an empty one and does not signify rulership.”

“True…” Beth said, a little sadly.

“Indeed, it is a great shame,” Elsa concurred. “If you were still sovereign of Midgard, you could bring them in on our side.”

“The astrographics are hardly ideal. I can’t think of a star nation less strategically placed than Midgard. Well, outside of the Verge that is,” Solace pointed out, meaning the worlds that were not technically part of the Solarian League but would probably become so once the league finished expanding in their direction. “So seriously… what am I doing here?”

Beth patted Solace’s hand and shrugged. “Well, first of all, we’ve asked you here to apologize.” She held up her hand to forestall the question. “We wanted to jump you to flag rank in recognition for the good work you did here… but aside from your youth, there was some debate… entirely behind closed doors, that your actions might not have been entirely legal, so the Progressives are being… themselves.” She grimaced. “While everyone’s pretty much united in waging the war, they can still make things difficult for us.”

Elsa harrumphed… it was not an impressive harrumph, but it was passionate. “She’s trying to tell you that they’re going to bump you up to Commodore instead of Rear Admiral…”

Beth nodded. “Though I’m personally appointing you Colonel of Marines, which is entirely at my discretion, and elevating you to Knight Captain Commander of the Order of the Golden Lion. And you’ll receive my thanks, of course.”

“There’s no need for all that,” Solace sputtered. “Though I’m gratified by the promotion… I’d have been perfectly happy remaining a simple Captain. I like Bessy; she’s a good ship.”

“She is. We’ll be awarding her crew the RMU,” the Manticoran monarch said. “We’re officially calling this Operation Highwater for the media… a counterpoint to show that even our improvised Operations are more successful than the Havenite’s planned ones.”

Solace shook her head, then grumbled, “And you’re trying to bury me in awards.”

Elspeth laughed at that, and Solace could tell she was planning something, but it was Beth who spoke next. “Everyone wants to honor the woman of the hour… that’s you, by the way. Parliament is almost certainly going to vote you the Manticore Cross. There was some push for a second Saganami, and even a few pushing for the PMV… but too many voices felt that service to Jewel is not the same as service to the Star Kingdom.” She shrugged, but Solace could feel both agreement and some sort of trick up the darker queen’s mindglow.

“But…” Solace began, before it was the light queen’s turn to wave her down.

“That’s Manticore’s side, and while I wouldn’t deign to call our kingdom’s newest… indeed first… ally a miser, we Jewellians are not so stingy in our thanks,” Elsa said, smirking and the grin that Elisabeth Winton returned let Solace know that she was being double teamed.

“I’m not going to like this, am I?” she muttered, but the duo ignored her.

“I’ve consulted with the Supreme Matriarch of the Maegi,” Elsa began, “And she’s agreed that the Maegi owe you a debt… as does the entire Kingdom of Jewel.”

Solace waved her hands frantically, “No… No debts. No one owes me anything. I was just doing my duty.”

“Well? What of it?” Beth said. “Honor was ‘just doing her duty’, and for her crimes the Protectorate of Grayson made her a Steadholder.”

Solace blinked, wondering what Honor had to do with this, then she gaped, open mouthed. “You can’t be serious. You’re not making me… I don’t want Elysium.”

Both queens laughed, then Elsa explained, “No. Not Elysium. The Maegi have a religious figure… their Manifest One… who is the equivalent of their Lord. She’s quite old and never leaves their capital. I’ve never even met her. The Supreme Matriarch is her voice in the council and the head of the Maegi Matriarchs who sit in the Storting. Contrary to the name, not all of them are female.”

Solace relaxed. “Oh. Thank God. I don’t think I could stand visiting that place… I’m certain it’s lovely… really… but you’d have to be a madwoman to want to be responsible for those people.”

Elsa chuckled as Beth tried to keep a straight face. “Not Elysium… Outer Heaven.”

“Outer…? You mean their moon? What about… noooo!” she groaned.

“Duchess Outer Heaven. Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?” Beth said.

“Hertiginnan af Yttre Himlen,” Elsa corrected. “If one wants to be precise. But the translation is Duchess. Yes. Plus you’ll be granted the title Knight Companion of the Order of the Platinum Rose by the Storting… as well as getting a Chevron for your Medal of Freedom.” The chevron, also called a ‘V’ device, was the Jewelian equivalent to clusters on a Manticoran award or crossed swords to a Grayson or a whirlpool to an Erewhonian.

Solace banged her head on the table and made an incoherent flailing sound. “I’m going to look like a festival tree. This is ridiculous.”

“If you didn’t want the awards, you shouldn’t do great things,” Elsa said.

“You’re just doing this so that the people will ignore your fooling around with my daughter,” Solace griped, forehead resting on the table. Ruth patted the back of her head gently and chittered. Solace could feel the gentle mockery mixed in with the ‘cat’s compassion.

Elsa threw her head back and laughed. It was a bell-like laugh, and held nothing but mirth and affection. “Solace, dear, sweet, easily annoyed Solace… right now the people are practically baying for me to marry your daughter and make you part of the family. Gilly’s public approval is higher than mine right now.”

Solace raised her head, scooping up Ruth and tickling the ‘cat’s belly. “Really?”

Queen Elsa nodded. “Oh yes. Really.”

“Fine… fine… I guess that’s it? No more awards? Nothing else that’s going to make figuring out how many titles and honors I have and what order they go in even more impossible?”

Beth grinned, “Well, since we made Honor a Countess for Second Yeltsin, it seems only fair we make you one as well…”

“Do it and I’ll defect,” Solace snarled, only half joking.

“To where?” Elisabeth Winton said, calling her bluff. “To the star nation where you’re a Duchess? The one where you’re a Grand Duchess? The one where you’re a war criminal, or the one where you’re an ex-despot? Silesia? The League?”

“I could go to Erewhon?” Solace suggested, seeing a way out.

“I think they’re planning on giving you an award too… once they change their laws so that they allow giving awards to foreign service personnel.”

As Solace cringed, Elsa said, “Oh. that reminds me. As you’re now… or soon will be a subject and peer of the realm…” she pushed a box towards Solace.

“What’s this?” Solace asked, reaching for it, but it was pounced by Naomi, who scooped it up and peeked inside with a ‘bleek?’ of curiosity.

“Coronation Medal,” Elsa explained, then pulled out two more boxes, smaller than the first, and slid them over as well. “These are for the cats,” she added, leaving out the slight inflection that most Manticorans added to differentiate feline cats from the arboreal ‘cats.

Solace opened the smaller box that hadn’t been captured by Ruth and found inside a medal… and a rank tab of unfamiliar design. “What in the world?” she asked, holding the golden hexagonal snowflake.

“That,” Elsa explained, “is a Force Kommendor insignia. For the brand new Jewelian Fleet Commandos.”

Solace quirked an eyebrow at the queen. “Fleet Commandos? Your version of Marines?”

Elsa nodded. “We used to have them, before the term ‘Commando’ was deemed too aggressive. We… my ancestors… felt that the Defense Forces didn’t need Commandos, so they were rolled into the Navy as Shipboard Security. We didn’t carry out ‘Boarding Actions’, after all, merely ‘Security and Inspection Interventions’. Well, that’s changed. With the declaration of War, we’re officially shifting to Fleet and Commando separation again… something that the Maegi will, no doubt, approve of. They were less than thrilled with my ancestors’ low impact language.”

“And you’re appointing these two,” Solace gestured at where Naomi was trying to balance the larger medal box on her head and where Ruth was licking the smaller box as if trying to groom it, “To this new force?”

Chuckling, Elsa nodded. “Why not? Back on Old Terra, there was a Penguin… that’s a flightless seabird… who was a Brigadier in the Norwegian Army… he was colonel-in-chief of the Norwegian Royal Guard.”

Beth chimed in, “And Queen Elizabeth Windsor of England had a goat who was a lance corporal… officially a member of the royal household too. His name was William Windsor.”

Solace just stared at the two monarchs. “You have to be joking.”

“Oh no. quite true,” Liz said. “And one of the Roman Emperors appointed his favorite horse to the Roman Senate. One could say he was a true Equestrian.” No one laughed at the horrible pun.

Elsa nodded. “Anyway, Ruth is already a Naval Officer for the Andermani. We just thought you should have a Royal Jewelian bodyguard… but we’re cheap, so we figured it would be more cost effective to assign your cats to the post rather than employing anyone else.”

Beth laughed, “Plus… who would expect it?”

Solace, nonplussed, said, “Everybody. Giving these goofballs ranks does not change their combat effectiveness.” She hid a mental sigh as Ruth, not watching her footing as she pretended to march back and forth, accidentally stepped off the edge of the table. A moment later a flump came from the floor, followed by a bleek as if to say, ‘I’m Okay!’

“So? You’ll accept?” Elsa asked, sounding a little nervous.

As Ruth clambered up her leg and into her lap, Solace was reminded just how young the monarch was in that moment, so she nodded. “I suppose so. It will probably smooth things over and make the people happy. Not like nobles of old earth didn’t routinely have titles and lands in multiple kingdoms.” she grinned, then asked, “Soo… when are you asking Gilly?”

Else blinked, then tilted her head as she replied, “Asking her what? To marry me? We’ve talked about it, several times in fact. We were thinking we’d give it another couple of years, see how things are working out. Give her time to finish College.”

Solace snorted, “Terrible plan. That’s just nerves. You’re waiting for some perfect time when you’re both settled and ‘ready’… no-one’s ever completely ready. And we’re at war. The future has never been less certain. If you want my opinion, get it done sooner than later. It’ll make Minerva happy. It will make your grandmother happy. It will give the people something to celebrate. If you keep waiting for the stars to be in the proper alignment… they never will be.” She stood, then bowed lightly, hugging Ruth to her chest. “If you’ll forgive my impertinence for stating the obvious,” she said, then resumed her seat.

Elsa blushed a little, but considered. “I should get married before my little sister…”

Elizabeth nodded, “The succession is no joke. Right now, it’s Anna and Catherine and that’s it. Your family line isn’t exactly fruitful.”

“Actually, I do have some second and third cousins who would absolutely love to claim the throne, but I take your meaning well…” Elsa said, then trailed off, “Oh, and speaking of getting the future squared away, what is your Navy planning on doing with our Solace?”

“We’re not certain,” Beth admitted, “Moving from an anticipatory footing to a war footing isn’t exactly something one does every day. ONI is, no doubt, revising its list of targets in Havenite space and the Admiralty is just as assuredly putting together a fleet restructuring. If we want to win this, we’ll have to take the war to the Havenites… but we smashed their initial offense flat, and they can’t have been expecting that. If they had another fleet or fleets ready to go, they’d have come at us with more than they did… but they didn’t.”

“That’s what my reports are telling me,” Solace agreed. “The Havenites thought this would be a one and done. They thought they’d smash Hancock and Yeltsin to get things rolling, snap up Alizon, Zanzibar, Casca, Jewel, Endicott, and Grayson… then force Manticore, isolated, to surrender. Manticore isn’t really their primary target, you know?”

Elsa looked surprised at that. “No? I mean, I thought surely?”

“No. Jewel and Manticore are great for shipping, don’t get me wrong. But the wealth of your combined economies doesn’t spread particularly well across a couple hundred worlds. As best as we can figure, they want Silesia and the Andies… maybe even Midgard. Getting both wormholes would give them two routes to Andermani Space or three… and a half… to Silesia.”

“But they’re so far from Haven!” the younger queen exclaimed.

Elisabeth shook her head, “That doesn’t really matter for purposes of raiding their economies. With the two wormhole junctions, they can move freely around this half of the League’s periphery…” she paused as Solace’s communicator chimed. “Has the Caliph arrived?” she asked as Solace’s face twisted in confusion. The other members of the alliance had all sent representatives, but the Caliph of Zanzibar, who’d insisted on coming in person, was (despite having the shortest distance to travel) late.

Solace shook her head, reading as fast as she could. “I’m getting a report… oh… dear god,” she gasped.

“What’s happened? Is it bad?” Elsa asked.

“There’s been a coup…” Solace said, reading fast. “President Harris and… it looks like the heads of every major Legislaturalist house… they’re dead. The press is saying that Fleet Admiral Parnell, fresh from the disaster at Third Yeltsin, moved against the government and tried to seize power. Robert Pierre, The People’s Quorum’s Speaker, and Oscar Saint Just, the Deputy Head of Internal Security have mobilized the dolist action groups and the various internal security agencies to fight the military. It’s chaos in Nouveau Paris right now.”

As the two monarchs just stared in stunned amazement, Solace rose from the table. “Ladies… if you’ll excuse me?” she said, bowing slightly.

“Where are you going?” Elsa asked.

“I think I’d better go to Haven… someone should find out if this new Committee of Public Safety… that’s what Pierre is calling his faction… might be interested in some peace talks,” Solace said, face set.

“Okay…” Elsa hedged, “But why you?”

Elizabeth, looking deeply concerned, explained to her fellow head of state, “Solace has friends among the more… reactionary members of the Havenite under-class…” She looked to her friend, daughter of the head of her personal guards, and asked, “Are you certain this is wise? It won’t be safe… and we can’t provide you with cover this time. We don’t have an formal relationship with either the Havenite Military or the People’s Quorum. We don’t even have an Ambassador to Haven at the moment.” The entire diplomatic staff had been ordered off Haven along with the formal declaration of war the same day that First Hancock had occurred.

“Someone has to try,” Solace said. “We can’t just hope that the thought of peaceful coexistence occurs to whoever emerges victorious.”

“But you think it will be Saint-Just and Pierre, not Parnell?” Beth asked.

Solace considered that for a minute. She hadn’t even realized that she had come to that conclusion, but her bias had been clear from her initial statement. Why had… hmmm… “Yes… I think so. Parnell wouldn’t have nuked the palace. This has all the earmarks of Cordelia Ransom… I’ll bet you a brace of Super Destroyers that the CRU took out the government and are blaming the Navy… The question is, how much of that does Saint-Just or Pierre know? Were they in on it? If they were, this is has all the hallmarks of a brilliantly executed regime change. Let’s just hope that it’s one we can take advantage of.”

“But what about the ceremony!” Elsa complained.

Beth nodded. “Surely, your people will need at least an hour to prepare for this… and you technically need permission from Admiral Caparelli’s people.”

Solace sighed, considering. “Okay… I can spare fifteen hours. You’ve got that long for your pomp and ceremony… But you’re right… I’ll speak to Admiral Kuzak right away.” Kuzak was White Haven’s second, and officer in charge of the Manticoran forces in Jewel. While technically Solace was still assigned to Phoenix Station, her forthcoming promotion to Commodore hadn’t, yet, come with orders assigning her to any given admiral’s fleet.

Elsa looked to Beth and asked, “Do all your subordinates just tell you what they’re planning on doing instead of waiting for orders?”

Beth laughed. “Technically, I’m not allowed to order my military around. But usually no. Solace gets away with a lot because she gets things done.”

Elsa considered, then asked. “Any chance your navy can loan my navy Commodore Smythe? As a… tactical advisor? Just until we get our system defenses back in shape?”

Beth blinked, then grinned. “Why, your majesty… what a wonderful idea! I’m certain something can be arranged.”

“Goood, goood,” the junior queen said, rubbing her hands together. “Then, Solace… Commodore… Welcome to Jewelian service… Try not to get yourself killed… or worse, captured.”

Solace frowned. “Your faith in me is overwhelming,” she commented dryly. “Now, if you’ll excuse me… I guess I have to pack and get changed. Wait… do I wear my Manticoran Uniform or a Dress? Normally the awards and the title wouldn’t happen at the same time.”

The two monarchs shared a look, then Beth grinned. “Wear your uniform jacket over a dress. Then you can take it off for your entitlement.”

“That will look ridiculous,” Solace sighed, then shrugged. “Then again, all these awards already look silly enough as it is.”

Elsa giggled, “If it makes you feel any better… our awards are worn on a sash, not on the uniform itself.”

“Yes…” Solace said, “You gave me one already. It doesn’t make my outfit look any less…” she paused, at a loss for an adjective which could encompass just how ridiculous she looked wearing anything but the ribbons for all her awards and commendations. She looked like the despot of some third rate polity… and she’d deliberately resigned from exactly that position once already.

“Bleek?” Naomi asked.

“Noooo. You never look ridiculous,” Solace assured her, rubbing the treecat’s ears. “Looking ridiculous is Ruth’s job.”

The other treecat drew herself up as if affronted and gave a harrumph… then squeaked in outrage as Ariel started laughing at her. She pounced the bigger male and the two of them tumbled from the table amid a blizzard of cards.

“If either of you two ever want to entitle a treecat… may I recommend Nimitz?” Solace said, referring to Honor’s Treecat. “He at least knows what decorum means.”

Next: Crown of Stars – Part 6 or Undertale

If you like what I do, please consider supporting me on Patreon. I’d especially like to thank Deltoren, Parzival, and bearblue, but all of you who read my work and comment are wonderful. Really.

I also have an original Novel (it’s space opera) on hiatus here and a Divine Trials Story over on Questionable Question (account required). Please check it out. Let me know if I should create a Blog for it too. I also have begun a series of smaller jump-threads called EssJay’s Omake Theatre. The first, Big Box Isekai is about a Warehouse Store that’s reborn in another world. The second, Zed & The Walrus-Men, is a more lighthearted look at what might have been if I’d been made a jumper at age sixteen.