House of Steel The Honorverse Companion
Author:David Weber

April 1867 PD

“YOUR MAJESTY,” the Duke of Cromarty’s tone was a bit more formal than it was in his private working sessions with King Roger, “the Liberals and the Conservatives will pitch three kinds of fit if you force the issue at this point. You know they will.”

“Then they’ll just have to get over it,” Roger said flatly. “This sh—” He paused, glancing at Dame Rachel Nageswar, the Foreign Secretary. “This crap,” he continued after a moment, “has dragged on too long already, Allen. I want it settled. We need it settled.”

“I don’t disagree, Your Majesty. I’m just saying that it’s going to be one hell of a fight, one we may not win in the end, and that there are going to be potential costs down the road. As your Prime Minister, it’s my responsibility to point all of that out before I go out and fight like hell to get it done, anyway.”

Cromarty smiled faintly, and Roger snorted and sat back in his chair, feeling Monroe’s familiar, comforting, warmth against the back of his neck. He reached up over his shoulder, opening his hand, and the treecat bumped his head affectionately against it. Then the King looked back at the two-footed people in the Mount Royal Palace conference room.

Cromarty sat across the table in his usual place. Jacob Wundt, Roger’s Lord Chamberlain and one of his closest advisers, as he’d been Queen Samantha’s, sat to the King’s left; Dame Rachel sat to Cromarty’s left; and Dame Elisa Paderweski, Roger’s tough as nails ex-Marine chief of staff, sat to the King’s right. It was a small group, all of its members drawn from Roger’s most trusted inner circle, and every single one of them was looking back at him.

And I don’t blame them, he thought grumpily. If I had the choice, I’d be looking at someone else, too!

The problem ought to have been an absurdly simple no-brainer, but could the Liberals and the Conservatives see it that way? No, of course they couldn’t!

The math on the Manticoran Wormhole Junction had always insisted it had additional termini which had not yet been discovered. The fact that it was already the biggest junction in known space actually made finding those additional termini more difficult, not less, however, because the ones already discovered masked their undiscovered fellows’ much fainter signatures. Some hyper-physicists had even claimed the math was wrong—that the real reason none of those hypothetical additional termini had never been found was because they simply didn’t exist. Other hyper-physicists pointed out that over seventy T-years had elapsed between the rapid-fire discovery of the Junction’s first three termini in Beowulf, Trevor’s Star, and Hennesy and the discovery of the Gregor Terminus in 1662 . . . and that the Matapan Terminus hadn’t been discovered until 1796, a hundred and thirty T-years after that! Those hyper-physicists had been confident in the existing math and, shortly after Roger had assumed the throne, their confidence had been justified by the discovery of a sixth terminus, associated with the G5 star Basilisk, two hundred and ten light-years from the Manticore Binary System.

At the moment, there wasn’t much human settlement out that direction, but warp bridges had a tendency to change things like that, and Basilisk’s position offered some very interesting possibilities where trade with Silesia and the Andermani was concerned. In fact, those possibilities were already in a fair way to being realized as what the economists had dubbed “the Triangle Route” gathered speed. Ships could now depart Manticore to the Gregor System, move normally through hyper-space from Gregor throughout the Silesian Confederacy or the Andermani Empire, then swing “north” to Basilisk and return directly to Manticore. The savings in time—and thus overhead—loomed large, the reduction in turnaround time meant a ship could make more voyages in a given time window, and the extra reach was opening still more markets.

But there was a kicker in Basilisk’s case. The Basilisk System had an inhabitable planet . . . and that planet, Medusa, was already inhabited. Worse, it was inhabited by an alien species, not colonized by humans, and the aliens in question were decidedly pre-space. That minor fact had created a furor in the ranks of the Manticoran Liberal Party, and it had also spawned a bizarre alliance between the Liberals, the Conservative Association, the Progressive Party, and Sir Sheridan Wallace’s so-called “New Men.” In the Liberals’ case, he was at least tentatively willing to admit that something remotely like principle played a part. The Conservatives and the Progressives, however, wouldn’t have recognized a genuine principle if it jumped out of the underbrush and bit them . . . and the “New Men’s” principle quotient was somewhere south of there.

Well south.

“I appreciate that it’s going to be a problem,” he said now, meeting Cromarty’s eyes across the table. “I also think we’ve only made it worse by pussyfooting around it up till now, though. And I think it may be time to remind the Star Kingdom in general about some ancient history and Axelrod. You know damned well that things haven’t changed that much where human greed is concerned over the last three hundred T-years!”

Cromarty smiled in unhappy agreement. The Axelrod Corporation had been one of the very first Solarian transtellers to recognize the true significance of warp bridges after their discovery in 1447 PD, and its Astro Survey Division had gone back and systematically recrunched the numbers on every surveyed star, looking for the gravitic markers no one had previously known to watch for. Axelrod’s management had been willing to spend the manhours because it had believed those markers might well be buried in the old data if it was reexamined, and that belief had proved well founded. The various termini the search had uncovered within the territory of the Solarian League had, of course, been recognized as the League’s property and duly reported to Old Terra for lucrative finder’s fees, but those outside the League had enjoyed rather a different status in Axelrod’s opinion—especially in cases where the recrunched data suggested the possibility of true junctions, with multiple termini.

Cases like, oh, the Manticore Binary System, for example.

Axelrod’s boldfaced attempt to use its mercenary-manned fleet to seize the Manticoran Wormhole Junction by naked force before the then-Star Kingdom even realized it might exist could well have changed galactic history, and—given the typical Solarian transstellar’s modus operandi—not for the better. Only courage, an officer named Carlton Locatelli, and a lot of luck had prevented the attempt from succeeding, although very few Manticorans seemed to think about that very much today. Not too surprisingly, perhaps. Looking around at the prosperity and the commercial and economic power the Junction had bestowed upon them, it was difficult to remember the sleepy, peaceful, isolated star nation Manticore had once been.

And life would probably be simpler if we still were sleepy, peaceful, and isolated, the Prime Minister reflected. Unfortunately, we’re not. Roger’s right about that. And he’s also right that what almost happened to us then can still happen to us now if the people opposed to his buildup don’t realize our neighborhood isn’t sleepy, peaceful, or isolated any longer.

“Your Majesty,” Nageswar said after a moment, “like Allen, I support your policy. But I’m not sure this is the best time to push.”

She met Roger’s gaze unflinchingly, with the confidence of the lifelong, career diplomat she’d been before rising to her present post in the latest Cabinet reorganization. One of the things he most valued about her, almost more than her indisputable expertise as the Star Kingdom’s chief diplomat, was her willingness to disagree with him when she thought he was wrong, and he sat back with a courteous nod for her to continue.

Nageswar was a Crown Loyalist, part of Roger’s ongoing—and frustratingly gradual—remaking of his Cabinet. Cromarty’s Centrists, unfortunately, still couldn’t command a majority in the House of Lords, even with Crown Loyalist support. That meant sharing out cabinet posts among the major political parties . . . and that Cromarty’s premiership hung in perpetual jeopardy, at least in theory. Officially, with both Conservatives and Liberals in the Cabinet, there was no Opposition in Manticore at the present time; in fact, the restiveness of the other parties meant that political analysts routinely spoke of the Conservatives and Liberals as being in opposition even while they sat in a “coalition” Cabinet.

Unfortunately for them, the monarch was head of government in the Star Kingdom, not simply head of state. In theory, Roger didn’t need the Cabinet at all, although God only knew what sort of political crisis he could provoke by deciding to rule by decree! But while he couldn’t compel the House of Lords to support a prime minister not of its choosing, neither could the House of Lords compel him to accept a prime minister not of his choosing. That sort of standoff would lead to effective paralysis of government in the Star Kingdom, of course, but the Opposition had realized early on that Roger, unlike his mother, was perfectly prepared to accept that paralysis in the short term if he had to. There was a steeliness behind those calm brown eyes of his that was already reminding some historians of Queen Adrienne, and he had the traditional weapon of the House of Winton—the powerful support of his subjects—tucked away in his hip pocket.

That connection of the Winton Dynasty with the Star Kingdom’s commoners had been renewed with his marriage to Queen Consort Angelique, who’d won Manticore’s collective heart by her beauty and obvious love for their King . . . and it had been underscored afresh by the birth of Crown Princess Elizabeth Adrienne Samantha Annette Winton, exactly one T-year ago next month. If the Opposition pushed him to it, if its leaders provoked a government shutdown, there wasn’t much question what would happen in the House of Commons in the next general election. It might take a year or two, but the outcome would be the decimation of the Opposition parties’ representation in the lower house. And while that might not much concern the Conservative Association, which was overwhelmingly a party of the aristocracy, it definitely loomed large in the thinking of Sir Orwell Lebrun’s Liberals and Janice MacMillan’s Progressives.

Roger didn’t much like to contemplate that sort of constitutional crisis, either, although part of him was tempted to go ahead and embrace it, even provoke it. At the moment, the People’s Republic of Haven was still the better part of two hundred light years away from the Manticore Binary System. There were moments—and this was one of them—when it seemed to him that taking on the Opposition and breaking it once and for all now, however bloody the political infighting, would be preferable to finding himself hamstrung at some more critical moment farther down the road, with the Peeps close at hand and the situation too critical for facing down domestic opposition. But that was the nasty, bloody-minded side of him talking, he told himself. Far better to continue gradually nibbling away at the Opposition parties’ power without risking a constitutional fight he might not, after all, win.

Not that he intended to back away from that fight if it came, he reminded himself grimly.

“We’re just about to wrap up our current negotiations with Beowulf, and everybody in Parliament knows it,” Nageswar reminded him now. “If we add this to the mix, it might throw a spanner into those talks, as well. Or at least into the Lords’ willingness to ratify whatever treaty modification we emerge with.”

“That’s a valid point, Rachel,” Roger acknowledged. Obviously she’d been thinking the same thing he had.

“At the moment, Beowulf’s going to agree to everything we’ve requested,” she continued, “and Hennesy actually welcomes the changes. Gregor’s going to be less enthusiastic, but it’s also not going to have much choice when we get around to the Republic. But it would be a public relations debacle if after getting Beowulf to agree, the Lords rejected the treaty, and you know the Conservatives are opposed to it anyway, whatever Summercross may have to say.”

Matthäus Routhier, the Earl of Summercross, was the current leader of the Conservative Association, and a more xenophobic isolationist would have been difficult to imagine. The only good thing about his paranoia, from Roger’s perspective, was that he was at least marginally willing to support a Navy powerful enough to protect his isolationism.

“The Beowulf Planetary Board of Directors is going out of its way to meet our requests,” Nageswar pointed out. “In some respects, they’re courting the risk of a significant backlash from their own voters, and the League government’s not going to be delighted when it hears about it, either. I don’t think the Directors need—or deserve—to be kicked in the teeth because someone decides to mount a domestic resistance to the treaty modifications from our side. We could burn a lot of goodwill that way.”

Roger nodded again. Once upon a time, the Beowulf System had enjoyed excellent relations with both the Star Kingdom and the Republic of Haven. The three of them had always been the strongest supporters of the Cherwell Convention to suppress the interstellar genetic slave trade, among other things, and Beowulfers worshiped at the shrine of meritocracy. The original Republic’s emphasis on individual freedoms and opportunities had been a good fit with that Beowulfan attitude, but the PRH was something else entirely. The Technical Conservation Act had been a direct slap in the face, as far as Beowulf was concerned, and Manticore—with whom relations had been even closer, given the Junction’s direct connection to the Beowulf System—had profited by the cooling of the Beowulf-Haven relationship over the last T-century. That was a major part of Beowulf’s willingness to revisit the Junction Treaty of 1590, but there were limits in everything. However willing the Board of Directors might be to work with Manticore, Beowulfers in general were just as capable as anyone of getting pissed off at a star nation which had insulted their star nation.

“We could burn a lot of goodwill,” Roger acknowledged, “but only if the Opposition’s stupid enough to pick a fight over the treaty negotiations, and I don’t think even Summercross is that dumb. If he is, someone like North Hollow or High Ridge will sit on him in this instance, I think.”

Nageswar looked faintly dubious and glanced at Cromarty.

“I think His Majesty has a point, Rachel,” the Prime Minister said. “Mind you, I’d rather not push it so far we find out whether or not he does, but even the Conservatives would realize they’d have trouble convincing anyone else to agree with them.”

The foreign secretary looked at him for a moment longer, then sat back. She still didn’t seem convinced, but Roger agreed with Cromarty.

The Junction Treaty had been negotiated by Queen Elizabeth II’s government shortly after the initial discovery of the Junction and its first three known termini, associated with Beowulf, San Martin, and Hennesy. There were times Roger wished his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother had been just a little more ruthless when that treaty was signed, but he supposed he really couldn’t complain about how well it had served the Star Kingdom’s interests for the last three hundred T-years.

The problem was that Manticore had ceded shared sovereignty over the termini to Beowulf, San Martin, and Hennesy. There’d been no legal requirement for Elizabeth to do that. While any star system was free to claim sovreignty over anything within a six light-hour radius of its primary, claims to anything more than twelve light-minutes from the primary were conditional. In order to establish sovereignty, the system’s claim was subject to challenge under international law unless it could demonstrate its ability to maintain “a real and persistent police power” over it. All known warp termini lay well outside the twelve-minute limit (some, like the Junction itself, lay outside the six-hour limit, but they were rare), which meant they belonged to whoever could maintain that “real and persistent” police power. Essentially, whoever had the military wherewithal to hold it got to keep it, and if that whoever happened not to be the local star system, that was simply too bad.

The Beowulf System, as a member of the Solarian League, would probably have been in a position to produce that wherewithal. Neither Trevor’s Star nor Hennesy, which had only recently been colonized at the time, would have, yet Elizabeth’s government had opted to grant all three star systems an identical share of the Junction revenues, the same discounted transit fees, and the same shared sovereignty over the terminus. Roger had always suspected that Manticore’s own experience with Axelrod had played a part in her decision, although there’d never been any formal mention of that in the negotiations. And given the smallness of the Royal Manticoran Navy at that time, it had undoubtedly made lots of sense not to go around heaping additional missions on it. Now, when the Star Kingdom’s economic power absolutely depended upon the Junction, and when Roger’s ability to prepare his kingdom against the Havenite threat absolutely depended upon that economic power, it didn’t. His mother had quietly amended the RMN’s strategic mission requirements to include providing for the Junction’s secondary termini even before general commerce protection as long ago as 1850, but no one had gone out of the way to underscore that to the rest of the galaxy at the time, given the state of the Star Kingdom’s wall of battle. For that matter, Roger had no desire to pick fights over the issue with anyone even now, yet times had changed (and not for the better) over the last seventeen years. Now he needed the authority—the recognized authority, domestically as well as abroad—to act unilaterally, in whatever fashion seemed necessary, to ensure the Junction’s security, and that included ensuring the security of those secondary termini of it, as well.

Beowulf and Hennesy had recognized that, and both of them had specifically recognized Manticore’s undivided sovereignty over their associated termini. Roger had sweetened the deal by increasing their percentage of transit fees and adding a secret clause which amounted to a mutual defense treaty, but in return he had the right to deploy Manticoran warships to protect either of those termini by force if he felt it was necessary. He doubted very much that it ever was going to be necessary in Beowulf’s case, but Hennesy was another matter. That system had already required Manticoran assistance once, in the Ingeborg incident which had cost the RMN the life of Admiral Ellen D’Orville in 1710 PD, after all. But whether either of them ever actually needed Manticoran assistance to defend their termini, the precedent was important to establish, since he fully intended to extend it to Basilisk and any of those other as-yet-undiscovered termini the math predicted. And as Nageswar had just pointed out, the Republic of Gregor wasn’t going to make much of a stink when he “requested” the same terms from it. It had far too many internal domestic problems to court a confrontation with a major trading partner. And the Matapan System, thank God, had neither habitable planets nor inhabitants, so there’d never been any question over who that terminus belonged to, lock, stock, and barrel.

Trevor’s Star was another matter, of course. Already half-surrounded by Havenite conquests or proxies, San Martin wasn’t about to risk pissing off the PRH, despite its traditional friendship with Manticore—or perhaps because of that friendship—by signing an agreement which would give the Star Kingdom the unilateral right to forward deploy battle squadrons to the Trevor’s Star Terminus whenever it felt like it. The San Martinos were working hard to build a navy which would hopefully be big enough to at least give the People’s Republic pause, but not even the contacts Baron Big Sky had managed to cultivate in the SMN were optimistic about their ability to do so. And there was no way in the universe San Martin was going to look like it was cozying up to Manticore when that was likely to convince the PRH to go ahead and nip the potential threat of its military in the bud.

“With all due respect, Dame Rachel,” Jacob Wundt said in his calm, quiet voice, “I agree with His Majesty in this instance, as well. I think Summercross, at least, would prefer for the Junction Treaty to remain unaltered. I really don’t think he’s going to complain too much about the Beowulf or Hennesy aspect of it, but he’s going to resent its precedent, especially when we press Gregor to concede the same status to the terminus there. He’s going to see it as the first step down that ‘slippery slope to imperialism’ he’s been whining about for as long as even I can remember!”

The Lord Chamberlain grimaced, and Nageswar’s lips twitched. Not that it was really all that humorous. The Conservative Association was opposed to anything that might draw the Star Kingdom into territorial expansion. Its members had nothing at all against Manticore’s burgeoning economic reach, the steady growth of its merchant marine, or its enormously active financial sector, but anything which might entangle the Star Kingdom in interstellar power rivalries was anathema to the Conservatives. Even worse from their perspective, Roger suspected, would be the possibility of actually adding additional voters to the Star Kingdom. The constitutional mechanisms which had been crafted to conserve political power in the House of Lords when the Star Kingdom was created were beginning to wear uncomfortably thin, in their opinion. The last thing they wanted was to open the door to “outsiders and foreigners who don’t understand how our system works” . . . and who might have the effrontery to side with the Commons against them. That was the real reason they’d never raised a stink about Manticoran sovereignty in Matapan; no people meant no voters to screw up their treasured status quo.

“But however he feels about Gregor—and even Basilisk—too many of his fellow Conservatives are making too much money out of their business relationships with Beowulf for him to risk alienating the Planetary Directors” Wundt continued, “and he can’t really make much of a stink about Hennesy, given how enthusiastically President O’Flaherty’s embraced the idea. No,” the Lord Chamberlain shook his head, “he’ll reserve any open opposition for Gregor and Basilisk, exactly the way he’s been doing.”

“Jacob’s put his finger on it, Rachel,” Roger said. “Which rather brings us back to my original point, I suppose.”

“And leaves us with the problem of Lebrun,” Cromarty pointed out sourly.

The Conservatives’ opposition to annexing Basilisk reflected their basic isolationism, but despite Summercross’ personal rabidness on that particular issue, it didn’t rally enormous amounts of resistance among their rank-and-file in Basilisk’s case. The Liberals’ opposition, on the other hand, was ideology and emotion-driven, and Sir Orwell Lebrun’s followers were far more adamantly opposed to “imperialism” because that sort of “jingoistic aggression against weaker star nations” affronted their principles. That was especially true, unfortunately, in the case of the Medusans, who were somewhere in the equivalent of the early Bronze Age. That automatically made them “noble savages” and made it the Star Kingdom’s moral responsibility to ensure their independence and guarantee the security of their natural resources—like the Basilisk terminus—rather than using an iron fist to despoil the native sentients itself.

Never mind the fact that neither Roger nor anyone else on Manticore had the least interest in “despoiling” the Medusans. Never mind the fact that interstellar law granted Manticore prima facie sovereignty over the terminus as its discoverer . . . or that there was no way in the universe the Medusans could have utilized, managed, or protected that terminus.

“We could settle for simply claiming the terminus,” Nageswar suggested. “I know that would be less than ideal, but it would give us the authority we needed to develop it and—if necessary—defend it without interfering with the Medusans at all.”

“If we don’t claim sovereignty over the entire star system, then someone else is going to,” Roger said flatly. “That’s the whole reason we claimed the Matapan System as well as the Terminus. It’s not as if we really needed an M-4 without a single planet of its own, after all! But we couldn’t leave the system just hanging, either, and that’s what that idiot Lebrun is systematically ignoring. It’s all very well for him to proclaim that the Medusans must be left alone in undisputed possession of their planet and their star system, but even if I agreed with him, someone like Gustav Anderman or Hereditary President Harris wouldn’t lose a minute’s sleep over trampling all over a planet full of aborigines. Gustav would claim the system to use as leverage against us in Silesia and as a base to harass us—and anyone using the terminus—in order to get a bigger piece of the trade moving through the Triangle Route. And Harris would claim the system because he’s a Peep who’s damned well figured out we’re going to be the biggest long-term threat to his expansion, and because when—not if, as far as he’s concerned—he takes out Trevor’s Star, that would allow him to threaten us militarily through two of the Junction’s termini simultaneously.”

“I agree that’s probably how he’d think about it, Your Majesty,” Paderweski said, “but I hope you’ll forgive an ex-jarhead for pointing out that it would be a really, really stupid thing for them to try.”

“Of course it would, Elisa,” Roger agreed. “That doesn’t mean they won’t try it, though. Have any of you noted any particular signs of restraint on the Peeps’ part?”

He looked around, answered only by silence, and snorted.

“That’s what I think, too. And the problem is that whether an assault through the Junction worked or not, it would still be an act of war, and we’d still find ourselves fighting the Peoples Navy. At the moment, we’re not in a position to do that, and we can’t afford a situation in which Harris and his admirals screw us all over by starting a war neither side’s really ready for. Besides, there’s still that matter of future precedents to worry about. I want it established right now that if we do manage to locate, survey, and open any additional Junction warp bridges, both ends of them belong to us, no matter what’s at the other end.”

“All right, Your Majesty,” Cromarty said, “as long as you understand that this could get really ugly.”

“Oh, believe me, I understand that! But I’ve got an ace up my sleeve.”

Roger smiled thinly, and Cromarty experienced a distinct sinking sensation. He’d seen that smile before.

“An ace up your sleeve?” he repeated carefully.

“Oh, yes. She’s called Elizabeth.”

“Your Majesty?” Cromarty blinked at the total non sequitur, and Roger chuckled. But then the King’s expression turned hard.

“You tell Lebrun that if he wants a fight over this, he can have one,” he said coldly. “And you tell Summercross that if he really wants to piss off the House of Winton, he should have at it. We’re close to having the votes we need in the Lords with just your Centrists and Rachel’s Crown Loyalists, and Janice Macmillan and Sheridan Wallace are for sale to the highest bidder. We can outbid Summercross or Lebrun, and just this once, I’m willing to do it if I have to. And if we bring the Progressives—or even just the ‘New Men,’ probably—on board, we’ll have the votes.”

“Assuming they’d stay bought, Your Majesty,” Cromarty said with a grimace of distaste, and Roger nodded.

“Oh, I wouldn’t expect them to stay bought forever, Allen. But I wouldn’t need them to, either—I’d just need them long enough to sign off on my solution to the problem. And, frankly, this time around I’d be willing to buy whatever shiny new toy we had to give Macmillan or Wallace.”

“And just what solution did you have in mind, Your Majesty?” Nageswar asked, her tone even more cautious than Cromarty’s had been.

“I’m willing to throw Lebrun a bone if that’s what it takes,” Roger replied. “So I’m willing to specifically not claim sovereignty over the planet Medusa itself, to recognize the Medusans as the original inhabitants and rightful owners of the star system, precisely as the Ninth Amendment recognizes the treecats on Sphinx, and to set aside, say, five percent of all revenues generated by traffic through the Basilisk Terminus for the benefit of the Medusans. At the same time, however, we’re going to assert sovereignty over the star system as a whole, and directly—officially—annex the terminus itself.”

“I’m . . . not certain how that would stand up under interstellar law, Your Majesty.” Nageswar’s eyes were half-slitted in intense thought. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone claiming a star system while specifically not claiming the only habitable planet in it. I doubt there’s any precedent to support it.”

“Then we’ll make precedent,” Roger told her.

“Lebrun will argue that it’s easy to promise not to take over the planet now,” Cromarty pointed out. “Then he’ll trot out that aphorism about power corrupting and suggest that while, of course you wouldn’t do any such thing, Your Majesty, that’s not to say some future Manticoran government wouldn’t.”

“He can suggest anything he damn well wants,” Roger said flatly. “We’re going to do this, and in case anyone thinks we’re not, I’m taking advantage of Beth’s birthday to make a statement . . . and apply a little pressure of my own.”

“I beg your pardon, Your Majesty?” Paderweski looked at him, one eyebrow raised. “Is this something that simply slipped your mind the last time you were discussing plans with, oh, your chief of staff?”

“I discussed it last night with the only person who’d actually have a veto right over it, Elisa.” Roger smiled crookedly at her. “Angel said it’s all right with her.”

“I see. And just what did you have in mind for Beth’s birthday, Sir?”

“Oh, it’s very simple.” Roger showed his teeth. “I’m going to exercise one of the Crown’s—and Commons’—prerogatives. We’re going to make Elizabeth Duchess of Basilisk.”

Despite decades of political experience, Cromarty’s jaw dropped, and Nageswar’s eyes widened. Roger tipped back in his chair, listening to the buzzing purr from the treecat draped over its back.

“Between the Centrists and the Crown Loyalists, we have a clear majority in the Commons,” he pointed out, “and patents of nobility are created by the Crown with the Commons’ approval, not the Lords. I intend to make Beth Duchess of Basilisk—not Medusa—and I intend to enfeoff her with a percentage of all transit fees through the terminus. Only a tiny one, just enough to give her a personal claim on the terminus. But when we draw the patent of nobility, we’ll include the entire star system except for Medusa. The Lords can’t reject the patent, although they might theoretically refuse to seat her as Duchess of Basilisk, I suppose, if they’re feeling really stupid. But since they can’t, as far as everyone here in the Star Kingdom is concerned, the baby princess they adore will be the rightful duchess of the star system in question. Now,” he looked around the conference room with that same, thin smile, “does anyone sitting around this table really think even Summercross would be stupid enough to buck that kind of public attitude? Lebrun might, but Summercross’ advisers will insist he drop the issue like a hot rock.” He shook his head. “I imagine we’ll still have to do some horse trading, make some concessions to assuage the Liberals’ concerns over the Medusans, but tell my daughter she can’t have her first-birthday present when everyone else in the Star Kingdom wants to give it to her?”

He shook his head again, his smile positively sharklike.

“Nobody’s going to want to come across like that kind of Scrooge, people. Nobody.”