The Hall of Judgement was a towering structure, huge enough to hold a thousand witnesses comfortably as the accused made his long slow walk towards the judges seated in their thrones, right at the front of the chamber. It was almost empty now, Admiral Junayd discovered, as two Inquisitors shoved him through the heavy wooden door and onto the stone pathway. The only people in the room, save for him and his escorts, were the Speaker and two Clerics, waiting for him,
He rattled his chains mournfully as he started his walk, smiling inwardly at the cold glares levelled at him by the Inquisitors. They would have been happy to give him a good kicking, if they hadn’t had to keep him reasonably intact to face his judges. No doubt that was why they’d left half the chains off, even though procedure insisted the accused had to be weighed down with so many iron chains that walking at anything more than a staggering crawl was impossible. They wanted him to be able to answer the charges when they were levelled against him.
Not that there’s any hope of leaving this room alive, he thought, bitterly. Someone has to take the blame.
He ground his teeth together, silently. Who could have predicted that the Commonwealth, asleep for so long, would have woken up just in time to organise an effective defence? Who could have predicted that one of their junior officers – a woman, no less – would get enough ships out of the trap to render the First Battle of Cadiz a tactical success and a strategic failure? And who could have predicted that the Commonwealth would have enough reinforcements in the vicinity to launch a counter-attack that had severely embarrassed the Theocracy? Someone had to take the blame …
… And, as far as the Theocracy was concerned, failure was a sign of God’s displeasure.
The weeks he’d spent in captivity had been far from pleasant. His interrogators had alternatively rooted through his life, searching for the secret sin that needed to be punished to please God, and praying at him to repent and hurl himself into the fire, to sacrifice himself for the Theocracy. There had been no point, he was sure; he had committed no sin deserving of punishment … save, perhaps, for losing. And now … he knew the Speaker would need to make an example of him. The Theocracy had to be seen to deal with failure harshly or it would undermine its position.
He stopped in front of the thrones and bowed his head, feeling the weight of the chains pulling him towards the floor. It was all he could do to remain upright, but he forced himself to hold steady. Going to his death bravely, even willingly, would make up for his sins and convince the Inquisitors to spare his family. His wives might be returned to their families, his children might be distributed among his relatives, but at least they would be alive. The alternative was unthinkable. Sin was so prevalent and the Inquisition so determined to root it out that they would happily kill his children, if they felt he had not repented.
“Admiral,” the Speaker said. His voice was very cold. “You have failed God.”
“I served God willingly,” Junayd said, calmly. “If it was His will that the battle be lost, it was His will.”
The Speaker looked at him for a long moment. “You have served God well, over the years,” he said. “It is our considered judgement that your work was undermined by the presence of sinners within our fortress and our failure to weed them out cost us the opening battles.”
Junayd blinked in surprise. He’d expected to be made the scapegoat, not …
“But the opening battles have still left us in a strong position,” the Speaker continued, seemingly unaware of Junayd’s shock. “We will still win the war.”
If we can, Junayd thought. The Commonwealth’s long-term potential was far greater than the Theocracy’s. Assuming it survived the opening blows, there was a very strong prospect of it winning the war outright. Junayd had no illusions about just how few of the occupied worlds truly loved the Theocracy. Resistance movements might be hopelessly doomed, as long as the Theocracy controlled the high orbitals, but they would distract the Theocracy from focusing on the war. They may survive long enough to bring their greater strength into play.
He realised, suddenly, just how precarious the Speaker’s position was. It had been his daughter, a mere woman, who had defected, taking with her advance warning of the oncoming storm. Who would have thought that Princess Drusilla, the Speaker’s own daughter, would take such a chance? No one had given any thought to her at all, beyond the simple fact that whoever she married would be in a strong position to become Speaker when her father died. Hundreds had died to keep the secret buried, but if it got out … the Speaker’s position would be untenable. Who could condemn Junayd for failing to react in time, perhaps because of a long-buried sin, when the Speaker’s own daughter had committed outright treason?
A flicker of hope ran through him. He had friends and allies … most of them might shy away, after the failure, but not all of them would. Maybe, just maybe, there was a chance for survival.
“You will be reassigned, Admiral,” the Speaker said. “Command of the striking fleets will be passed to someone else. You will assume command of the outer defence formations, protecting our borders against intrusions. In time, with God’s grace, you will return to your old role.”
Junayd nodded, hastily. The defence formations weren’t highly regarded, not when serving on the striking fleets brought glory and wealth, but at least he wasn’t being ceremonially beheaded, let alone hung, drawn and quartered. He could build a new power base for himself, given time; indeed, with the Commonwealth no doubt seeking ways to strike back, there would even be chances for glory. On the other hand, the manpower would be poor and morale would be in the pits. Few competent officers were assigned to the defence formations.
But at least I will be alive, he reminded himself, firmly.
“You will assume your new role at once,” the Speaker said. “The guards will escort you to your ship.”
So I can’t talk to anyone along the way, Junayd thought, wryly. Whatever deals had been struck while he’d been languishing in a prison cell wouldn’t have taken his desire to see his family and friends into account. Everything I send to my family will be carefully censored first.
“Thank you,” he said, instead. “It will be my honour to serve.”
“Indeed,” the Speaker said. “And may God defend the right.”
“You know,” Candy Falcone said, “you really should be on the dance floor.”
Kat Falcone sighed as she leaned over the balcony, peering down at the guests below. Candy had a talent for inviting the best and brightest – or at least the richest and well-connected – to her balls, but she had very little in common with any of them. Some were trust fund babies, unable to do anything more complex than unscrewing the cap on the latest bottle of bubbly; some had built themselves reputations based on their family name and a certain willingness to exploit it for themselves. They would have been somewhere – anywhere – else, she was sure, if they’d actually lived up to their claims.
“I’m bored,” she confessed, without looking around. “I shouldn’t even be here.”
“You’re the Guest of Honour,” Candy said. “Percy wants to meet you, Katherine, while I believe Owen and Gayle were trying to work up the nerve to ask you out …”
“God forbid,” Kat said. “What do I have in common with any of them?”
She groaned, loudly. Percy was a weak-chinned wonder, a walking advertisement for the dangers of making someone’s life too easy, while Owen and Gayle were known hedonists. It was hard to find something edgy in the Commonwealth, not without breaking laws that would see even high-ranking aristocrats in jail or facing a firing squad, but they seemed to manage it. And besides, she was in a relationship. Why her sister didn’t seem inclined to leave her to have her own life was beyond her.
“You’re an aristocrat,” Candy said. “You have that in common with them.”
Kat swung around to glower at her sister. Candy was tall and blonde, wearing a long green dress that showed off her chest to best advantage while hinting at the shape of her legs. They hadn’t gotten on since Kat had grown old enough to realise that her older sister spent more time in pursuit of pleasure than anything else … and that she would eventually grow bored of a baby sister, no matter how novel it seemed at the time. If Candy hadn’t been hosting some of the most important balls on the planet, with some of the movers and shakers invited to attend, Kat would have declined the invitation. Right now, she wished she’d declined it anyway.
“I am a serving officer in the Royal Navy,” she said, sharply. It was something she was proud of, if only because she’d achieved it on her own. “How many of them” – she waved a hand down towards the crowds – “have ever served in the navy, let alone commanded their own starship?”
“I believe that Tryon owns a pleasure yacht,” Candy said. “Would that count?”
“No,” Kat snapped. “A pleasure cruiser isn’t quite the same as a heavy cruiser.”
“Your ship crashed,” Candy pointed out. “What else do you have to do?”
Kat gritted her teeth. Lightning was being repaired after the battle, her crew was dispersed among a dozen other ships as the Commonwealth struggled to regain its balance after the war had begun … she shouldn’t be wasting time at a party. But she knew, no matter how much she wanted to deny it, that there was nothing she could do …
“Something,” she said, finally. Maybe she should have asked her father to use his influence, once again, to get her a transfer. This time, she was sure, no one could have argued that she hadn’t earned the post. The medals on her chest proved that beyond all doubt. “This party is just a waste of time.”
“It isn’t,” Candy said, as she took Kat’s arm and led her towards the stairs. “The men and women gathered here aren’t entirely useless. They represent voting blocs in family corporations – small blocs, to be sure, but not useless. Keeping them confident that our ultimate victory is assured is quite an important part of the war.”
Kat blinked in genuine astonishment. “Really?”
“Yes,” Candy said. She leaned closer to whisper into Kat’s ear. “You’re not the only one capable of thinking tactically, you know. Some of us fight battles in ballrooms and bedrooms, not in deep space.”
“Oh,” Kat said. She knew socialising was important, but she’d never been very good at it, not when she’d been the youngest of ten children. Instead, she’d been allowed to choose her own path and walked straight into the navy. It still galled her to know that her family name, curse and blessing mixed into one, had smoothed her path to command. “But surely they know they can’t escape the war?”
Candy smirked. “How many of them have never experienced the world outside the towering mansions of High Society?”
She had a point, Kat was loath to admit. She’d never really experienced hardship until she’d gone to Piker’s Peak. Even sharing a room with a single roommate had been tricky, back when she’d been used to having an entire suite to herself. And the less said about the food the better. But she’d earned her uniform and her position in the Royal Navy. The men and women on the dance floor had no idea of what life was like outside their mansions … and they wouldn’t have any real comprehension of just how horrific life would become, under the Theocracy. What they’d done to Cadiz, since driving Kat and 7th Fleet away from the planet, proved they wouldn’t even begin to hesitate in reshaping the Commonwealth’s worlds to suit themselves.
“So you go chat to them and tell them everything you saw,” Candy added. “And make it clear that victory is inevitable, if they keep pushing for it.”
Kat didn’t – quite – roll her eyes, but she saw her sister’s point. If victory was inevitable, why strive for it? But if victory was not inevitable, why not consider some form of compromise with the Theocracy? It was impossible, she knew – the only way a sheep could compromise with a wolf was from inside the wolf’s belly – but someone without direct experience of just how ruthless the Theocracy could be might think otherwise.
“I’ll do my best,” she promised, as they reached the bottom of the stairs. “But the sooner I’m back on the bridge, the better.”
She groaned inwardly as the crowd surrounded them, some staring at her uniform – Candy had insisted she wear her dress uniform – others eager to chat to Candy about nothing in particular. Kat looked at them, silently grateful her father had allowed her to go to Piker’s Peak, rather than one of the finishing schools that specialised in turning young men into chinless wonders and young women into brainless beauties. If things had been different, if she’d been less driven to accomplish something for herself, she might be one of the admiring throng, rather than a starship commander. It was not a pleasant thought …
But Candy has hidden depths, she reminded herself. It was an odd thought, reminding her of exercises where she’d hunted for stealthed starships. A cloaking device could hide a starship in the vastness of space, or convince prowling hunters that it was nothing more than a small asteroid or a cloud of dust. How many of the guests have hidden depths too?
It nagged at her mind as the party dragged on. Candy had a point; the vast majority of the party-goers might be unimportant, in the grand scheme of things, but collectively they commanded huge wealth and power. She toyed with a handful of scenarios; maybe, just maybe, their influence would be sufficient to change the Commonwealth’s path, if they wished. But she found it hard to believe they had any real influence. God knew her share of the family voting stock was minimal, even though she’d proven herself at Cadiz.
“Lady Katherine,” a smooth voice said. Kat turned to see Lord Brenham, standing just behind her with a glass in his hand. “Would you care to join me on the dance floor?”
Kat bit down the reaction that came to mind. Lord Brenham was notorious, so notorious that even she had heard of him. He was an unrepentant rake, a seducer who was reputed to have slept with every girl and half the boys in High Society. And, surprisingly, he wasn’t hated by everyone else. High Society didn’t give a damn what happened, as long as it happened between consenting adults in private.
“No,” she said, flatly. She supposed she should have been politer, but she was tired and cranky. Besides, she’d never lost herself in hedonism and she wasn’t about to start now. “I’m required to mingle.”
Lord Brenham merely nodded, then walked off. He didn’t show any sign of anger at her rejection, somewhat to her surprise, but she supposed it made sense. A man so intent on chasing bright young things wouldn’t have time to get upset. All he’d need to do was find someone else …
“Great between the sheets,” Candy observed. If rumour was to be believed, her string of conquests was almost as long as Lord Brenham’s. “But personality? Skin deep.”
Kat scowled at her. “Is it wrong to want something more … personal than a quick fuck?”
“This is High Society, sweetheart,” Candy said, gently. “You know as well as I do that marriage, that intimacy, isn’t a matter of choice.”
“I know,” Kat muttered.
It wasn’t something she’d ever expected to have to handle, not when she was the tenth child of Duke Falcone. Peter, Ashley and Dolly – the three oldest – were the ones whose marriages would be determined by their father, mingling the family bloodline with partners who would bring strength and other assets to the family. Kat’s share of the family bloc was so low that she could marry for love, if she wanted. Maybe it was a flaw in her personality, but she was damned if she was entering a loveless marriage. There was something fundamentally wrong about a match where both partners knew the other was having an affair …
The smaller groups started to blur together as Candy moved her from group to group, sometimes clearly showing Kat off, sometimes just listening as the gathered aristocrats discussed the war and its implications. One elderly woman bragged about her grandchild, fighting on the front lines; one younger woman talked about her new baby and wondered out loud if he would be constricted in the military. Kat rather suspected she would wind up feeling sorry for the baby, if she ever met the child; the mother had given birth only a month ago, she gathered, and yet she’d left the baby with the servants and ventured out for a party …
At least dad spent some time with us, she thought. Duke Falcone had been a very busy man and his ten children had suffered, although he had tried to make time for them. Their mother had largely stayed at home, supervising the children as best as she could and commanding a small army of servants … which hadn’t stopped Kat and her siblings from running riot, on occasion. What will happen to the poor baby?
“But surely there would be room for peace,” a middle-aged woman was saying, loudly. Her shrill voice grated on Kat’s ears. “The galaxy is big enough for the both of us.”
Kat opened her mouth to make a sarcastic reply, but an older gentleman spoke first. “The Theocracy attacked us first, Lady Ella,” he said. “They clearly do not agree that we can co-exist; everything we know about them tells us that they cannot tolerate a different society near their own. Their expansion would inevitably bring them into conflict with us, if only because we welcome the refugees fleeing their rule.”
“Some of those refugees turned out to be spies,” another man said.
That, Kat knew, was true. The Commonwealth had taken in everyone, debriefing them thoroughly … but a number of spies and operatives had slipped through the net. After the first attacks had died down, every refugee had been hastily rounded up and interned, the innocent as well as the guilty. The innocent would be cared for, she knew, but it would also undermine their faith in the Commonwealth. And, perhaps, the Commonwealth’s faith in itself.
She pushed the thought aside, irritated. The Commonwealth Charter was many things, but it was not a suicide pact.
“You might be interested in this,” Candy said, tugging her towards another group. “And you might even have something to say.”
“Admiral Christian should have continued to press the offensive,” a man said. “In choosing to withdraw from Cadiz, he wasted a chance to smash an entire enemy fleet.”
Kat felt her heart sink as she recognised him. Justin Deveron was an armchair admiral, an amateur student of military history who had never – as far as she knew – served in the military. He was handsome, in a way; his suit was carefully tailored to look like a uniform, suggesting he had served without ever making a false claim. His brown hair was cropped close to his scalp in a spacer’s cut, adding another layer to the illusion. Kat had regrown her long hair, once she’d left Piker’s Peak, but most spacers preferred to keep their hair short. It could get in the way when they were on duty.
She groaned, again, as Deveron recognised her. He’d made a name for himself as a gadfly, questioning the Admiralty regularly and posing as an expert; indeed, the fact he’d never served allowed himself to claim to be giving disinterested advice and commentary. But it also meant that his statements, at best, were wholly theoretical …
“But I believe you were there, Captain Falcone,” Deveron said. There was an easy confidence in his voice that got on her nerves. “Do you believe that Admiral Christian passed up the chance to smash an enemy fleet?”
“Yes,” Kat said, “but …”
“The Admiralty saw fit to reward him for abandoning the fight,” Deveron said, addressing the circle. “He ran from Cadiz and they rewarded him …”
Kat felt her temper flare. She knew Admiral Christian. More to the point, unlike Deveron, she’d actually been there when he’d taken the decision. She knew his reasoning and she agreed with it. So had the Admiralty. Many people had been criticized, in the wake of the First and Second Battles of Cadiz, but Admiral Christian hadn’t been one of them.
She pulled herself to her full height, as if she was standing on her bridge in the midst of combat. “I’m afraid that isn’t quite correct, Mr. Deveron,” she said. It was easy enough to channel one of her more sarcastic tutors from Piker’s Peak. “Your analysis, while superficially accurate, fails to take a number of factors into account. This failure undermines it to the point where it loses relevancy.”
Candy shifted beside her, warningly, but Kat ignored her, never taking her eyes off Deveron.
“You see, in war, there are operational concerns, tactical concerns and strategic concerns,” she continued, speaking each word clearly. “Operationally, tactically, the combined striking power of 6th and 7th fleets could have destroyed the enemy force. Post-battle analysis suggested, very strongly, that the enemy ships had expended all of their missiles, forcing them to either force a duel at energy-range or to abandon the battlefield. Yes, there was a very good chance we could have smashed the enemy fleet or forced it to withdraw.”
She took a breath, then went on. “However, there was no way to know if that was the sole enemy fleet in the sector,” she said. “We didn’t know – we still don’t know – just how many ships the Theocracy possesses. The destruction of one enemy fleet could have led to the combined force shooting itself dry, just in time for a second enemy fleet to arrive and scatter us. Or, for that matter, to seize other worlds in the sector. The combined fleet was the only deployable mobile force available. Risking it for a dubious goal was not on the cards.
“Retreating from Cadiz was not a cowardly decision. It was a brave decision, purely because armchair experts such as yourself wouldn’t hesitate to call it cowardly. By the time the Admiralty had examined all the sensor records and collected testimonies from everyone on the scene, the opinions of you and the other armchair experts would have filled the datanet with claims that Admiral Christian fled the battlefield and that if you’d been in command no enemy ship would have escaped.”
Deveron stared at her. “But …”
“But nothing,” Kat snapped. She allowed her anger to colour her voice. “You weren’t there. You weren’t the one on the spot, with everything resting on you, when the decision had to be made. All you can do is carp and criticise, doing it from – at best – a flawed understanding of just what actually happened. He had no choice! Admiral Christian did the right thing at the right time, combining the goal of striking a blow against the Theocracy with the urgent need to preserve his command intact to hold the line. And, as the Theocracy invaded three worlds and attacked two more, in addition to Cadiz itself, we know he was right. It’s only people like you who say otherwise.”
She turned and stalked off. Candy would probably seek to smooth ruffled feathers, but she found it hard to care. The folks on Tyre had assigned Admiral Morrison to Cadiz, then chosen to turn a blind eye to his conduct, even as the storm clouds loomed over the Commonwealth. No doubt Deveron would have praised Admiral Morrison to the skies, even though he’d done more than anyone else to weaken the defences and make the Commonwealth vulnerable …
I may get in trouble for telling him the truth, she told herself as she made her way back to the waiting aircars, but it was worth it.