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Chapter Fifty-One

"No, Samiha, the news from Split doesn't sound very good, does it?" Andrieaux Yvernau agreed. His tone was grave, but he couldn't quite hide the gleam in his eye assuming he'd made the effort in the first place. He seemed poised on a needlepoint of strange excitement and defiance, midway between exhilaration and bitterness.

"I'm worried about what this may mean for the CLP, Andrieaux," Lababibi said with a concern that was only partly feigned. "Aleksandra's been the heart and soul of the Liberals from the very beginning. Now that she's been recalled, even her own delegation is beginning to slip away. And I don't think the example has been lost on a couple of the other delegation heads."

"The more fools they for not having secured the full, informed approval of their own governments," Yvernau said scornfully. "Did they think the respectable classes wouldn't understand? Ptahhhh! " He actually spat on the expensive carpet, his features twisted with disdain. "Now look what they've done to themselves! Every one of them, sitting in his expensive office every night, wondering when the hounds baying at his heels will drag him down. And it'll happen to more than a few of them, Samiha. You mark my words! When the implications of Medusa's insolent time limit sink home, the fact that the idiots didn't get clear, unequivocal approval for their positions will give their opponents-and possibly their 'friends,' as well-back home the excuse to make the entire delay their fault. They'll find themselves sacrificed by the gutless wonders who can't wait to scramble onto Alquezar's wagon and fawn all over Medusa, whining 'It wasn't our fault! We didn't know what they were doing !'"

Lababibi frowned ever so slightly. Even that was more expression than she'd intended to show, but the scalding venom of Yvernau's angry contempt surprised her. The New Tuscan had always prided himself on his self-control, his detached amusement at the inept maneuvers of the lesser mortals around him. He'd known he was far superior to any of them, that it was only a matter of biding his time until destiny inevitably handed him the opportunity for which he waited.

Unfortunately, the idiot never counted on Elizabeth losing her patience with all the irritating pygmies-like him-buzzing around the Convention like so many gnats. And my own Cabinet wants me to go on cooperating with this fool? She shook her head mentally. Talk about riding the ship down in flames!

Lababibi's problem was, in many ways, the opposite of Aleksandra Tonkovic's. Since the Convention was being held on her own homeworld, every single member of the Spindle System -government-not to mention every semi-literate in the street-knew every detail of what was happening. Well, every public detail, at any rate. There were still some things which were thankfully confidential. God bless smoke-filled rooms and their spiritual descendants!

But more than enough was known to prevent Lababibi from exercising anything remotely resembling the freedom Tonkovic had enjoyed until she was yanked back to Split. Which had its upside, of course. At least no one could drag her home and accuse her of concealing critical information or formulating her own policies. The bad news was that she had no choice but to execute the policies dictated to her, whether she thought they were insane or not.

"If you think so many of the Liberal delegates are going to be recalled, what do you propose we do about it?" she asked Yvernau.

"I propose that we see how many of the stupid sheep are still willing to stand up like men-at least until they get dragged home by the scruff of their fleece."

"That sounds very poetic," she said tartly. "Now, would you care to be just a bit more specific?"

"The basic situation is very simple, Samiha." Yvernau's voice took on the lecturing note Lababibi most detested. "In essence, Medusa's informed all of us that we're under the gun. That we face a time limit, imposed by Manticore, within which we must yield to the Star Kingdom's demand for a complete surrender of our sovereignty. If we decline to lick Queen Elizabeth's hand like proper little lap dogs, then she'll kick us aside and leave us to languish in the outer dark. Where, as the final element of her threat runs, we'll undoubtedly be devoured by Frontier Security."

He paused, and while Lababibi would have disputed the tone and purpose of the Manticorans' statement, he'd certainly summed up the consequences accurately enough in his own, viciously angry way.

"However," he continued, "the truth isn't quite that cut and dried, because Aleksandra had a point. If they carry their threat through, and if Frontier Security does scoop us up, Manticore's prestige and diplomatic reliability will suffer severe damage. Possibly even irreparable damage, given how much dispute there is over the Manties' and Haven's versions of their prewar diplomatic exchanges. They're in a worse position to afford damage to their credibility than anyone else I can possibly think of."

"So you still think, despite the formal communique from Prime Minister Alexander in the Queen's name, that it's really a bluff?" Lababibi managed to keep the incredulity out of her voice somehow.

"More than a bluff, but far short of an irrevocable policy statement. They may be threatening to do it, but it's the last thing they really want to do."

You flaming idiot. Just what, Lababibi thought scathingly, makes you think this Cluster is important enough to Manticore for them to waste time trying to bluff us? About the only thing I can say for you, Andrieaux Yvernau, is that you're not a whole lot stupider than my own political lords and masters.

"If that's the case, what do we do about it?" she asked, rounding her eyes and giving him her best "troubled-but-trusting" expression.

"We treat it as a bluff," he said decisively.

"I beg your pardon? Didn't you just say it was more than that?"

"Of course. But if we stand fast, tell them we're prepared to reject their demands even at the risk of their abandoning the entire process, we'll be able to use Medusa's own policy against Alquezar and his so-called 'moderate' cronies. They're already terrified we're going to pull the house down around their ears. I say we convince them that's exactly what we'll do unless they meet us at least half way. And once they're convinced of that, we offer them the compromise platform I've been working on all along. They'll be so scared, so desperate to do anything to save the annexation, that they'll accept the compromise rather than call our bluff and risk losing everything."

"And if they do decide to 'call our bluff' and count on the portion of the Alexander statement that says Manticore will pick and choose which of the Cluster's systems it will annex and which it will exclude?"

"There are two possibilities, assuming-which I, for one, don't-that these frightened little minds have the fortitude to go eyeball-to-eyeball with us. One is that Manticore's genuinely willing to exclude and abandon our star systems, despite the diplomatic fallout of such an action. The second is that our governments back home will disavow our positions and cave in, making the best deals they can with Alquezar after removing us from our delegations.

"Personally, I don't think the Manticorans have the balls to go through with the exclusion. And, even if they do, I don't see them allowing Frontier Security to snap us up. The Manties couldn't afford to see their new systems here in the Cluster invaded by cysts of the League. So whether it's what they want to do or not, they'll have to include us under the same security umbrella as their possessions here. That's why I'll recommend to my government that even if everyone else signs up like good little peasants, we refuse."

"And if they don't?"

"If they don't, then they disavow my actions," Yvernau said unflinchingly.

Lababibi rather doubted he could really visualize a situation in which his government might actually do that. His personality was too fundamentally arrogant for him to believe on any emotional level that even the universe itself could ultimately fail to do his bidding. And there was probably an element of desperation in his disbelief, as well. His final refuge was to deny the reality of the threat bearing down upon him. Yet whether or not he could fully accept the possibility of his political demise, he was at least intellectually aware of the possibility. And so, in his own way, he was showing considerable political courage. Of a nasty, contemptuous sort, perhaps, but still courage.

Which was quite possibly the single virtue he possessed.

"Have you discussed this with the other CLP delegates?"

"With the majority of them."

"And they said-?"

"I got a generally positive response."

Meaning at least a quarter of them told you to take a hike , she thought. The problem was, her fellow Spindalian oligarchs were unlikely to agree with that sane quarter. They'd undoubtedly be willing to take Yvernau's second option when his bluff failed, but Lababibi felt no particular desire to obey their instructions to refuse to surrender only to have them disavow her when it didn't work.

My God. He may actually be able to produce the votes he needs to try this insanity simply because people are too frightened to face their home political establishments without trying it!

"So when do you plan on laying this strategy before the Convention?"

"Tomorrow or the next day. I still have one or two people I need to talk to, first."

"I see."

"And do you think the Spindle System will stand with us?"

"I'll certainly discuss it with my Cabinet and the legislature's leadership this afternoon," she assured him. "Frankly, at this point, I wouldn't venture to predict what they're likely to say. All I can tell you at the moment is that so far they've been very firm about supporting the CLP position ever since Nordbrandt started killing people."

"Then I'll take that as a good sign," Yvernau told her. "And now, if you'll forgive me, I have to go. I have an appointment with the Rembrandt delegation." He smiled thinly. "I don't think Van Dort's control is quite as firm as he believes. And since he's off running errands for Medusa like a good little brown-noser, he's not exactly around to keep them in line anyway, is he?"

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