* * *
"Thank you, Madam President," Gazi said the better part of an hour later. "You've been speaking for some time now. Would you like to take a short recess before we proceed?"
"No, thank you, Mr. Chairman." She smiled again, a bit more impishly this time. "I've spent sufficient time in Parliament myself to develop my endurance as a speaker," she added demurely.
A general chuckle ran around the hearing room, and several committee members actually allowed themselves to laugh. Gazi rationed himself to a decorous, appreciative chuckle and shook his head at her with an answering smile.
"Very well then, Madam President. In that case, we'll proceed to the members' allocated time. Deputy Ranjina?"
"Thank you, Mr. Chairman," Tamara Ranjina said. "And thank you, Madam President, for that thorough presentation."
Tonkovic inclined her head in a gracious nod. Anything more would have been too effusive, given that Ranjina was the ranking Reconciliation Party member of the Special Committee. Under Parliament's rules, that made her Gazi's Vice Chairwoman, although it was extremely unlikely Andrija had maintained anything closer than a politely frosty relationship with her. Personally, Tonkovic considered Ranjina a nonentity. It had always puzzled her why someone who'd once enjoyed a secure niche within the Social Moderate Party should have shifted her allegiance to the Reconciliationists.
"Madam President," Ranjina continued now, her tone pleasant, "I listened with considerable interest to your account of your representation of Kornati at the Constitutional Convention. There are, however, one or two points upon which I still remain just a little bit confused. Perhaps you could illuminate my confusion for me?"
"I'll certainly be happy to attempt to, Madam Vice Chairwoman."
"Thank you. There was one minor element about your other-wise comprehensive report which struck me as a little odd, Madam President. I refer to the fact that Baroness Medusa, Queen Elizabeth's Provisional Governor, repeatedly and specifically informed you that your delaying tactics at the Convention were threatening to derail not simply the Convention but the entire annexation effort and that you didn't see fit to report that information to this committee. Could you possibly explain why that was?"
Ranjina's pleasant voice never changed. The smile never left her face. Yet her question hit the hearing room like a hand grenade. Gazi's face turned an alarming shade of puce. Two of the other committee members appeared as dumbfounded-and enraged-as their chairman, and a single heartbeat of silence hovered in the question's wake. Then the stunned silence vanished into a rising turmoil of whispered agitation among the staffers sitting behind the committee members and those sitting behind Tonkovic herself.
For her own part, Tonkovic felt herself staring in sheer, incredulous shock at the woman on the other side of the horseshoe. She couldn't believe Ranjina had possessed the unadulterated gall to make such an outrageous statement in an open committee hearing. It simply wasn't done. One didn't seek to ambush and humiliate the Planetary President! It was obvious from Gazi's reaction that Ranjina had given him no hint of what she intended to say. Clearly the treacherous bitch had realized the chairman would have muzzled her-or, at the very least, warned Tonkovic-if he'd dreamed she was about to launch such a crude, bare-knuckled assault on the dignity of Tonkovic's office.
It took the President several seconds to be certain she had control of her own temper. She bitterly begrudged the delay, the way it made her look unprepared and caught off guard, but she knew the one thing she couldn't afford to do in front of the news services' cameras was to give the impertinent bitch the tongue-lashing she so abundantly deserved.
"Madam Vice Chairwoman," she said then, coldly, "Spindle is seven and a half days away from Split, even by dispatch boat. Given that communications delay-fifteen days, I would remind you, for two-way message transmission-it was my responsibility as Kornati's representative to the Convention, and as Planetary President, to determine how best to proceed in negotiations with the other delegates and with Baroness Medusa. It wasn't possible for me to confer with this committee or with Parliament as a whole before deciding upon my responses to specific situations as they arose. That, if you will recall, was one of the primary reasons it was decided to send the Planetary President herself to head our delegation."
"Forgive me, Madam President," Ranjina said calmly, apparently totally unaffected by the icy precision and coldly focused fury of Tonkovic's reply, "but I didn't ask you about responses to specific situations at the Convention . I inquired as to why you hadn't seen fit to inform us of Baroness Medusa's communications to you."
"As I have just explained," Tonkovic said, aware that she was biting off the edges of her words but unable to completely stop herself, "it requires fifteen days for a message to travel from Split to Spindle and back again. It wasn't practical to, nor, I submit, would anyone have expected me to attempt to, communicate to Parliament every exchange between myself and members of other delegations or the Provisional Governor herself."
"Madam President, I'm afraid you're either missing my point or deliberately seeking to evade it." This time Ranjina's own voice had become the blade of a frozen knife. "You were informed over four T-months ago by Baroness Medusa that the continued deadlock in the Constitutional Convention-which all reports available to me suggest stemmed primarily from the deliberate efforts of the Constitutional Liberal Party, which you organized in Spindle-was threatening the annexation effort. You were informed by Baroness Medusa three T-months ago that the Star Kingdom of Manticore would no longer consider itself bound to honor its agreement to annex the Talbott Cluster if a draft constitution wasn't voted out of the Convention within a reasonable time. And you were informed two T-months ago that a hard and fast time limit of one hundred fifty standard days existed, after which, in the absence of a draft Constitution, Queen Elizabeth's Government would either withdraw the offer of annexation in its entirety or else submit a list of star systems which the Star Kingdom would exclude from any future annexation, and that the Split System would appear on that list."
The whispered exchanges which had been provoked by Ranjina's initial assault had vanished into a rising tide of consternation as the Vice Chairwoman's ice-cold voice rolled on. Tonkovic's expression was mottled with the ivory-white of shock and the deep crimson of rage. She couldn't believe it. She could not believe that even a Reconciliation Party hack like Ranjina would do something like this! It violated every aspect of the code against washing political dirty laundry in public. Even the most bitter partisan conflicts between the established parties had some rules, some limits. The reaction of the reporters behind her made it all too clear the substance of Ranjina's coldly enumerated accusations had never been made public, and the Planetary President ground her teeth together in mingled humiliation and fury.
She glared at Gazi, her blazing green eyes demanding that he call Ranjina to heel, but the committee chairman appeared as stunned as Tonkovic herself. He was dazed, trying to think of a way to derail Ranjina, but obviously without success. He didn't know how to deal with it, because this sort of brutal frontal attack simply wasn't done by a member of the Kornatian political establishment. He reached for his gavel, yet he hesitated, trying to find an acceptable pretext for shutting her up. But there wasn't one. However crude, however vicious, her attack, she'd remained totally within her right to use her allocated time in any fashion she chose. And she wasn't finished yet
"It's all very well to talk about delegated authority and communications delays, Madam President. But by your own admission, the maximum delay for an exchange of views was only fifteen days. Not one hundred forty days, not ninety-two days, not even sixty-one days- fifteen days. I submit to you that it's one thing to speak of the need to deal with immediate crises as they arise, but that it's quite another to knowingly commit your entire government to a policy of your own creation without so much as warning a single soul on this planet that you were doing so. A policy you've been specifically warned may very well end in the exclusion of our star system from the annexation which over seventy percent of our registered voters approved. That isn't simply arrogance, Madam President. It verges upon the assumption on your part of dictatorial powers and the patent abuse of your office."
Tonkovic's jaw dropped in sheer disbelief. That wasn't a question, wasn't even a disguised policy position statement on Ranjina's part. It was an indictment. One delivered in an ambush such as no Planetary President of Kornati had walked into in well over two hundred T-years.
The hubbub behind her rose to a confused roar, and Gazi's gavel was finally hammering, pounding thunderously. But it was too late. The damage was done, and Aleksandra Tonkovic watched the solemn hearing disintegrate into a shouting match between her allies and her enemies within the Special Committee while the cameras watched every detail of the fiasco.