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Chapter Seventeen

There was no sentry outside Giscard's quarters as there would have been on a Manticoran vessel. That was one of the "elitist" privileges the PN's officer corps had been required to surrender under the New Order, but at this particular moment, Javier Giscard was actually quite pleased by his loss. It meant there was one less pair of eyes to watch his comings and goings, although he supposed most people would have considered that having Salamis' chief spy and political dictator personally accompanying him more than compensated for the sentry's absence.

They would have been wrong, however. Or, rather, they would have been entirely correct, simply not in any way they might have imagined, for Giscard and his keeper had a rather different relationship from the one most people assumed they had. Now the two of them stepped through the hatch into his day cabin, and Pritchart drew a slim hand remote from her pocket and pressed a button as the hatch slid shut behind them.

"Thank God that's over," she sighed, dropping the remote which controlled the surveillance devices in Giscard's cabin on the corner of his desk, and then turned and opened her arms to him.

"Amen," he said fervently, and their lips met in a hungry kiss whose power still astounded him. Or perhaps simply astounded him even more than it had, for the fire between his people's commissioner and himself had grown only brighter in the two T-years since the disastrous collapse of Republican operations in Silesia, as if the flame were expending its power in a prodigal effort to drive back the ever- darker shadows closing in upon them.

Had anyone at StateSec suspected even for a moment that Pritchart and he had become lovers, the consequences would have been lethal . . . and widely publicized. Probably. It might have been a hard call for Oscar Saint-Just, though, when all was said. Would it be better to make their executions a crushing example of the price the People would exact from any StateSec agent who let himself or herself be seduced from the cold performance of StateSec's duty to ferret out and destroy any smallest independence among the Navy's officers? Or better to make both of them simply disappear, lest the very fact that they had kept their secret for almost four T-years now tempt still other people's commissioners into apostasy?

Giscard had no idea how Saint-Just would answer that question . . . and he never, ever wanted to learn. And so he and Pritchart played their deadly game, acting out the roles chance had assigned them with a skill which would have shamed any thespian, in a play where simple survival comprised a rave review. It was hard on both of them, especially the need to project exactly the right balance of distrust, leashed animosity, and wary cooperation, yet they'd had no choice but to learn to play their assumed characters well.

"Ummm. . . ." She broke the kiss at last and leaned back in his arms, looking up at him with a blinding smile which would have stunned anyone who had ever seen her in her people's commissioner's guise, with those topaz executioner's eyes watching every move with chill dispassion. Indeed, it still surprised Giscard at times, for when they'd first met three and a half T-years before, he'd been as deceived by her mask as anyone.

"I'm so glad to be back into space," she sighed, wrapping one arm around him and leaning her head against his shoulder. He hugged her tightly to his side, and then they moved together to the small couch which faced his desk. They sank onto it, and he pressed a kiss to the part of her sweet-smelling hair, nostrils flaring as he inhaled the scent of her.

"Me, too," he told her, "and not just because it means we're officially off the shit list." He kissed her again, and she giggled. The sound was sharp and silvery as a bell, and just as musical, and it always astounded him. It sounded so bright and infectious coming from someone with her record and formidable acting skills, and its spontaneity was deeply and uniquely precious to him.

"It does help to be the chief spy and admiral-watcher again," she agreed, and they both sobered. The drafting of Pritchart's official StateSec evaluations of Giscard had become an even more ticklish and delicate task following their return from Silesia. Striking exactly the right note to deflect blame for the commerce raiding operation's failure from him by emphasizing his military skill while simultaneously remaining in character as his distrustful guardian had been excruciatingly hard. As far as they had been able to tell, Oscar Saint-Just and his senior analysts had continued to rely solely on her reports, but there'd been no way for them to be positive of that, and it had certainly been possible that Saint-Just had someone else watching both of them to provide an independent check on her version of events.

Now, at last, however, they could breathe a sigh of at least tentative relief, for they would never have been given their current orders if Pritchart's superiors had cherished even a shred of suspicion as to their actual relationship. That didn't mean they could let their guards down or be one whit less convincing in their public roles, for StateSec routinely placed lower level informers aboard Navy ships. At the moment, all of those informers were reporting to Pritchart—they thought. But it was possible, perhaps even probable, that there were at least one or two independent observers she knew nothing about, and even those she did know about might bypass her with a report if they came to suspect how close to Giscard she actually was.

Yet for all that, shipboard duty offered a degree of control over their exposure which had been completely and nerve-wrackingly lacking since their return from Silesia.

"That Joubert is an even scarier piece of work than I expected," Giscard remarked after a moment, and Pritchart smiled thinly.

"Oh, he is that," she agreed. "But he's also the best insurance policy we've got. Your objections to him were a work of art, too—exactly the right blend of 'professional reservations' and unspoken suspicion. Saint-Just loved them, and you should have seen his eyes just glow when I 'insisted' on nominating Joubert for your chief of staff, anyway. And he does seem to know his business."

"In technical terms, yes," Giscard said. He leaned back, his arm still around her, and she rested her head on his chest. "I'm more than a little concerned over how he's going to impact on the staff's chemistry, though. MacIntosh, at least, already figures him for an informer, I think. And Franny . . . she doesn't trust him, either."

"I'll say!" Pritchart snorted. "She watches her mouth around him almost as carefully as she watches it around me!"

"Which is only prudent of her," Giscard agreed soberly, and she nodded with more than a trace of unhappiness.

"I realize he's going to be a problem for you, Javier," she said after a moment, "but I'll put pressure on him from my side to 'avoid friction' if I have to. And at least he'll be making any reports to me. Knowing who the informer is is half the battle; surely controlling where his information goes is the other! And picking him over your 'protests' can't have hurt my credibility with StateSec."

"I know, I know." He sighed. "And don't think for a moment that I'm ungrateful, either. But if we're going to make this work—and I think McQueen is right; Icarus does have the potential to exercise a major effect on the war—then I've got to be able to rely on my command team. I'm not too worried about my ability to work around Joubert if I have to, but everyone else on the staff is junior to him. He could turn into a choke point we can't afford once the shooting starts."

"If he does, I'll remove him," Pritchart told him after a moment. "I can't possibly do it yet, though. You have to be reasonable and—"

"Oh, hush!" Giscard kissed her hair again and made his voice determinedly light. "I'm not asking you to do a thing about him yet, silly woman! You know me. I fret about things ahead of time so they don't sneak up on me when the moment comes. And you're absolutely right about one thing; he's a marvelous bit of cover for both of us."

"And especially for me," she agreed quietly, and his arm tightened around her in an automatic fear reaction.

How odd, a corner of his mind thought. Here I am, subject to removal at StateSec's whim, knowing dozens of other admirals have already been shot for "treason against the people"—mainly because "the People's" rulers gave them orders no one could have carried out successfully—and I'm worried to death over the safety of the woman StateSec chose to spy on me!

There were times when Javier Giscard wondered if learning that Eloise Pritchart was a most unusual people's commissioner had been a blessing or a curse, for his life had been so much simpler when he could regard any minion of StateSec as an automatic enemy. Not that he would ever shed any tears for the old regime. The Legislaturalists had brought their doom upon themselves, and Giscard had been better placed than many to see and recognize the damage their monopoly on power had inflicted upon the Republic and the Navy. More than that, he'd supported many of the Committee of Public Safety's publicly avowed purposes enthusiastically—and still did, for that matter. Oh, not the rot Ransom and PubIn had spewed to mobilize the Dolists, but the real, fundamental reforms the PRH had desperately needed.

But the excesses committed in the name of "the People's security," and the reign of terror which had followed—the disappearances and executions of men and women he had known, whose only crimes had been to fail in the impossible tasks assigned to them—those things had taught him a colder, uglier lesson. They'd taught him about the gulf which yawned between the Committee's promised land and where he was right now . . . and about the savagery of the Mob once the shackles were loosened. Worst of all, they'd shown him what he dared not say aloud to a single living soul: that the members of the Committee themselves were terrified of what they had unleashed and prepared to embrace any extremism in the name of their own survival. And so he'd confronted the supreme irony of it all. Under the old regime, he'd been that rare creature: a patriot who loved and served his country despite all the many things he knew were wrong with it . . . and under the new regime, he was exactly the same thing. Only the nature of that country's problems—and the virulence of its excesses—had changed.

But at least he'd known what he had to do to survive. It was simple, really. Obey his orders, succeed however impossible the mission, and never, ever trust anyone from StateSec, for a single mistake—just one hastily spoken or poorly chosen word—to one of Oscar Saint-Just's spies would be more dangerous than any Manticoran superdreadnought.

And then Eloise had been assigned as his commissioner. At first, he'd assumed she was like the others, but she wasn't. Like him, she believed in the things the original Committee had said it was going to do. He'd been unable to accept that for months, been certain it was all a mask to entrap him into lowering his own guard, but it hadn't been.

"I wish to hell you were less visible," he said now, fretting, knowing it was useless to say and would only demonstrate his anxiety, and yet unable not to say it. "People's commissioner for an entire fleet and an Aprilist . . . they're going to be watching you like hawks."

"An ex-Aprilist," she corrected him, much more lightly than she could possibly feel, and reached over to pat his hand. "Don't spend your time and energy fretting about me, Javier! You just pull Icarus off. No one's going to question my support for you as long as you deliver the goods and don't say or do something totally against the party line, especially not with McQueen running the War Office. And as long as the two of us keep up appearances in public and perform effectively in the field, no one's going to worry about my previous affiliations."

"I know," he said penitently. Not because he agreed with her, but because he shouldn't have brought the subject up. There was nothing either of them could do about it, and now she was likely to spend the next hour or so of their precious privacy trying to reassure him that she was completely safe when both of them knew she was nothing of the sort . . . even without her relationship with him.

It was all part and parcel of the madness, he thought bitterly. Eloise had been a cell leader in the action teams of the Citizen's Rights Union, just as Cordelia Ransom had, but the similarities between her and the late Secretary of Public Information ended there. The term "terrorist" had been a pale description for most of the people in the CRU's strike forces, and many of their members—like Ransom—had accepted the label willingly, even proudly. Indeed, Giscard suspected people like Ransom had seen it almost as an excuse, seen the "struggle against the elitist oppressors" primarily as an opportunity to unleash the violence and destruction they craved with at least a twisted aura of ideological justification.

But Eloise's cell had belonged to the April Tribunal, a small but influential (and dangerously efficient) CRU splinter faction which derived its name from an InSec massacre of Dolist protest marchers in April of 1861 P.D. Not even the Aprilists had believed the "April Massacre" was part of a deliberate Legislaturalist policy; it was simply an accident, a botched operation which had gotten out of hand. But the old regime had treated it as an accident—and a minor one—as if it regarded the deaths of forty-seven hundred human beings who'd been someone's mothers and fathers or sons or daughters or sisters or brothers or husbands or wives as no more than the trivial price of doing business. Certainly no one had ever suggested that the people responsible for those deaths should be held responsible or punished for them!

Except for the April Tribunal, and that was what had made them fundamentally different from most of the CRU's membership. Whereas the mainstream CRU often attacked civilian Legislaturalist targets—they were, after all, waging a terror campaign—Aprilist attacks had been directed solely against InSec, the military, and official government offices. Their demand had been for justice—which had, by the nature of things, admittedly slipped over into naked vengeance all too often—not power. It was a sometimes subtle distinction, but an important one, and like most Aprilists, Eloise Pritchart had joined the CRU only after suffering a cruel and bitterly personal loss.

But the Aprilists had found themselves in a delicate position following the Harris Assassination. On the one hand, they had enjoyed a reputation, even among people who disapproved of the CRU's violence, as a faction which had fought a "clean" war as urban guerrillas, not terrorists. From that perspective, their inclusion among the Committee of Public Safety's supporters had been invaluable to Rob Pierre and his fellows, for it had brought with it an element of moderation and reason. One might almost say respectability.

Yet the Aprilists had also been suspect in the eyes of people like Cordelia Ransom precisely because of their reputation for moderation, and that had been dangerous, especially as the promises to the Dolists grew more extreme and the pogroms and purges of the "enemies of the People" mounted in intensity.

Fortunately for Pritchart, her pre-Coup prominence had put her in a position to be coopted by Saint-Just's new Office of State Security very early, and she'd been too intelligent to refuse the honor she'd been offered and make StateSec suspicious of her. Which meant that by the time many of the other Aprilist leaders had been made to quietly disappear in favor of more . . . vigorous defenders of the People, she had been firmly ensconced as a people's commissioner.

Her years as an underground fighter had served her well in terms of learning to assume protective coloration, and unlike some of her less wary (and since vanished) companions in arms, she had refused to succumb to the heady euphoria of the Committee's early days. And when the Committee moved to consolidate the cold iron of its power and those less wary companions found themselves quietly detained and "disappeared" by those they had thought were their allies, Pritchart's carefully crafted public persona had already made the transition from apolitical guerrilla fighter to committed guardian of the New Order in the People's name. It had been a dangerous tightrope to walk, but Saint-Just had been deeply impressed by her insightful reports on the relatively junior officers she had initially been assigned to watchdog. Indeed, if the truth be told, he valued her moderation even more because it had been so rare among the people's commissioners. And so she'd been tapped for ever more sensitive duties, rising higher and higher in StateSec without the people who ran that agency's ever realizing what actually went on in the privacy of her own thoughts.

Until she was assigned to Giscard. Had it really been less than four T-years ago? It seemed impossible whenever he thought about it. Surely it had to have been longer than that! The intensity of life on the edge, of finding oneself adrift in the fevered turbulence of Rob S. Pierre's new, improved People's Republic and locked in a war where one's own superiors were as likely to shoot one as the enemy, lent a surrealism to every aspect of existence, and especially to anything as insanely dangerous as a love affair between a Navy officer and his people's commissioner.

And yet, somehow, they'd managed to survive this long. Every day was yet another triumph against the odds in a game where the house always won, sooner or later, but deep inside, both of them knew no streak lasted forever. All they could do was go on as they had, walking their tightrope and dodging each day's bullet as it came at them, and hope that someday, somehow, things would change. . . .

The truly odd thing, though it never occurred to Javier Giscard to see it so, was that even now, neither of them had even once seriously considered defection. A handful of other officers had made that choice, including Alfredo Yu, Giscard's old mentor. Yet much as he respected Yu, that was one example he simply could not follow, and he wondered, sometimes, whether that was a virtue or the ultimate proof of his own idiocy.

"Do you really think McQueen can pull it off?" he asked after a moment. Pritchart drew back enough to look up at him and raise an eyebrow, and he shrugged. "Do you think she can actually reorganize the War Office enough to make a difference without getting herself purged?" he expanded.

"I think she has the ability to do it," Pritchart said thoughtfully. "And she's certainly been given a better opportunity to use that ability than anyone else has had. But whether or not she can make all the pieces come together—?" It was her turn to shrug.

"I'd feel a lot better if I hadn't heard so many stories about her ambition," he sighed.

"Saint-Just has heard them all, too, I assure you," she said much more grimly. "I haven't seen her dossier, of course; she's not my responsibility. But I've heard the scuttlebutt among the other commissioners, and there was a lot of nervousness when Pierre picked her to replace Kline."

"Even after she squashed the Levelers?" He tried to make it a jest, but the joking tone fell flat, and she grimaced.

"Maybe even especially after she squashed the Levelers," she replied. "She did it too well and displayed too much initiative and raw nerve—and ruthlessness. And picked up too much approval from the Mob. Besides, half of them figure she would have kept right on moving herself if her pinnace hadn't crashed. I happen to think they're wrong, and so does Fontein and, I'm pretty sure, Saint-Just himself. I think she recognized that her lack of a power base would have prevented her from supplanting the Committee, and I honestly believe she also would have refused to provoke the kind of anarchy that would have resulted from any failed putsch on her part. But that doesn't mean anyone else trusts her . . . or that even I think she might not make a try if she thought she'd managed to build a strong enough support base to have a shot at success."

"Surely she realizes that, though," Giscard thought aloud. "She has to be smart enough not to do anything that might seem to play into her opponents' hands."

"I'd like to think so, and to give her credit, she has been so far. But she's got some of the same problems we do, Javier. The better she does her job, and the more successful she becomes, the more dangerous she becomes."

"Wonderful," he sighed bitterly. "The goddamned lunatics are running the asylum!"

"They are," Pritchart agreed unflinchingly. "But there's nothing we can do about it except survive, and maybe accomplish a little something for the Republic along the way."

Their eyes met once more, and Giscard smiled crookedly. Like himself, she never spoke of "the People" when they were alone. Their loyalty was to the Republic, or at least to the tattered remnants of the ideal of the Republic, which Rob Pierre had promised to restore. And that, of course, would have been the final proof to StateSec that neither of them could be trusted.

He chuckled at the thought, and she raised an eyebrow again, as if asking him to share the joke. But he only shook his head, then bent to kiss her once more. Her lips warmed under his, clinging with desperate longing, and he felt the urgency rising within him. It had been months since they'd last been alone together, and he pulled back from the kiss, just far enough to look deep into her shining topaz eyes.

"Oh, I think there might be a little something else we might do, as well, Citizen Commissioner," he murmured, and stood, cradling her in his arms as he crossed to his sleeping cabin's hatch.


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