A Call To Arms – Snippet 13
Winterfall didn’t know what was about to happen, or what Breakwater was going to do in response. But no matter what went down in the next few minutes, Winterfall was determined that he himself would come out looking as good and as professional as possible.
Winterfall gave his neck scarf one final pat. “Yes, My Lord,” he said. “I’m ready.”
* * *
“Are you ready?” King Michael asked.
Edward gave a final tug at his collar. “Almost,” he said. “Just one more minute.”
“One more minute?” His father gave him a small smile. “Really, Edward. That was the same line you gave me when you were eight and were trying to stall your way out of something you didn’t want to do.”
“Consistency is a virtue,” Edward said reflexively, his mind still back in the dining room.
“Only if you’re consistently right,” Michael countered. “Otherwise, it’s the granddaddy of all vices.” He paused. “She’ll be all right, Edward,” he said more quietly. “She’s strong, and she has all of us to help her get through it. The more important question is whether you’re going to be all right.”
Edward looked sharply at him. Was his father really going to bring up those horribly ill-advised words?
No, of course not. He was merely referring to the next few minutes.
And to the many, many minutes beyond.
“I’ll be fine,” he said. “You’ve prepared me well. Despite my best efforts to the contrary.”
“You did fine,” Michael assured him. “It just took you awhile to hit your stride.” He raised his eyebrows. “Do try to hit it a bit faster this time.”
“I will,” Edward promised. He hesitated. “They’re not going to like this, you know.”
Michael shrugged. “Some won’t. At least not at first.”
“His was one of the names that came to mind,” Michael agreed. He shifted his shoulders. “And with that, I believe your minute is up.”
Edward forced a smile. “Which was your consistent line,” he reminded his father.
“You asked for a minute; I gave you a minute,” Michael said with another smile. “The art of compromise.” He sobered. “Just remember that compromise never means giving away your core values. Ever.”
“I know,” Edward said softly.
“Good.” Michael straightened up —
And suddenly, he was once again King Michael, ruler of the Star Kingdom of Manticore. “It’s time. Let’s do this.”
He headed across the Royal Sanctum toward the door. Edward followed.
Wondering if the collar would be less uncomfortable if it wasn’t for the lump in his throat.
* * *
“Wow,” Travis said when Lisa reached the end of her story. “That was…just wow. You’re all lucky someone didn’t get killed.”
“Someone did get killed,” Lisa reminded him.
“I meant someone from Damocles,” Travis said hastily, feeling his face warming.
“I know,” Lisa said. “Though from what Commodore Henderson told us about General Khetha, I don’t feel as sympathetic as I did at the beginning.”
“They’re sure that was who it was?”
“Very sure,” Lisa said. “Once they knew his ship had been stolen, and found out from the people at his mansion exactly who had gone missing, they knew who to test for. After that, it was just a matter of putting together enough surviving DNA for a positive ID.” She took another strawberry from the bowl Travis had placed in front of her end of the couch, which she’d been mostly ignoring while she told her story. “And of course, once the police pulled up what they knew about the Canaan situation, and what he’d done before he was kicked off the planet, they wrote the whole thing off as revenge.”
“I don’t believe it,” Travis said. “There’s something else going on.”
“See, that’s what I thought,” Lisa said, her face brightening. “But Henderson and Nabaum — that’s the police lieutenant who handled the case — seemed to think that was all it was. They said it wasn’t for any of the treasure he stole, because the mansion wasn’t touched, and he didn’t have anything in banks or safe-vaults.”
“That they know of,” Travis pointed out. “Maybe he had something stashed away and the killer needed an access code or something.”
“His people say no,” Lisa said. “Though of course they could be lying through their teeth.”
“Yeah,” Travis said, searching for a different topic. Talking with Lisa was always enjoyable, but he’d hoped to avoid talking shop tonight. “Speaking of teeth, you may have noticed that Crumpets has a new chew toy.”
“Yes, I did,” Lisa said, reaching down and retrieving the half-eaten hybrid of colorful cloth and more durable rawhide. “Did she lose the old one, or just eat it wholesale?”
“Good question,” Travis said. “I’m guessing the latter, since I’ve searched this place fore to aft and haven’t found any trace of the old one.
Lisa waved a hand at the couch she was sitting on.
“Did you look between the couch cushions? Not under the couch, but between the cushions?”
For a moment Travis stared blankly at her. How in the world would a dog that size –?
“No, I didn’t,” he confessed, standing up. “Uh…”
“Allow me.” Smiling, Lisa stood up, made a magician’s abracadabra gesture, and lifted up the cushion she’d been sitting on.
And there it was. Slightly more bedraggled than the last time Travis had seen it, but it was indeed Crumpets’ old chew toy.
“I’m not even going to ask,” he said.
“Probably just as well,” Lisa said, replacing the cushion and resuming her seat. She wiggled the toy at Crumpets a moment then tossed it over her head, sending the little animal scurrying after it. “Our best guess was that she liked smelling it nearby when she was on the couch with us.”
“Ah,” Travis said, feeling his throat tighten. Our. Us. How did Lisa’s ex always manage to intrude on these conversations? “Well, I guess now she’s got two of them.”
“Trust me: a dog can never have too many chew toys,” Lisa said. “You have any idea what this big broadcast is about?”
“Nope,” Travis said, watching as Crumpets trotted back with her newly-rediscovered treasure. She settled down at Lisa’s feet and started gnawing it. “I was hoping you might.”
Lisa shook her head.
“Not a clue.”
There was a chime from across the room, and the vidscreen came on. “Ah — here we go,” Travis said, swiveling around in his seat.
“You’ll see better from here,” Lisa suggested, pointing to the other end of the couch.
“Thanks,” Travis said. Feeling a little odd, he got up and sat down near her. Not too near, of course, but not so far away as to be insulting.
On the screen, King Michael stepped to a podium adorned with the Royal Seal of the House of Winton. Dressed in his full regalia of state, he looked every millimeter a monarch.
“My people,” he said into the pair of microphones on the podium, his voice deep and confident.
And yet, behind the richness of his tone, Travis sensed a hint of weariness.
“Citizens of Manticore, Sphinx, and Gryphon; Members of Parliament; My Lords and Ladies.”
There was every reason for him to be weary, of course. The daily wrangles with Parliament; the decisions necessary to keep the Star Kingdom running smoothly; not to mention the continual squabbles for power between the RMN and MPARS.
“In the eighteen years that I’ve been privileged to be your king, the Star Kingdom of Manticore has experienced unprecedented growth. We’ve continued to move along the path of recovery from the devastation of the Plague, and with the additional citizens who have come to us via the assisted immigration program we have become a stronger and more vibrant society. The Royal Manticoran Navy has guarded us against external threat, while the Manticoran Patrol and Rescue Service has risen to the challenge of securing the safety of travel within our borders.”
The image went to split screen, the second image showing a slow pan across the assembled Lords. Chancellor Breakwater was prominent among them, his face studiously neutral. Two seats down from him, Travis spotted his brother Gavin, wearing the same expression.
“We have begun building our own merchant marine, and our industrial capacity continues to flourish. You have worked together with fortitude and patience, and I have no doubt that we have a bright future ahead of us.”
“But that future will not be mine to oversee.”
Travis felt a sudden tightness in his chest, the weariness in the King’s face suddenly taking on an ominous edge. Was he ill? Discouraged?
“For reasons which must remain private, I have decided that I can no longer lead the Star Kingdom of Manticore. Accordingly, I am today declaring my abdication from the Throne in favor of my son, Crown Prince Edward.”
Travis felt his eyes widen with disbelief. King Michael was abdicating? Beside him, Lisa said something shocked-sounding under her breath. Travis barely even noticed.
“I have no doubt that he will lead you with dignity and strength, and I know that you will accept him with the same loyalty and honor you have always shown me.
“Thank you, and may God be with you all.”
With that, he stepped away from the podium.
And was gone.
For a long moment, Travis just stared at the screen. The camera belatedly turned to follow the King — the former King — from the stage and into the wings, then shifted back to a view of the Lords.
They looked as stunned as Travis felt.
King Roger had died in office. So had his daughter, Queen Elizabeth. Travis had grown up assuming that was the way of things, that Manticoran monarchs gave their entire lives for their people and for the crown. The king is dead; long live the king.
Now, without warning, all that had changed. The Star Kingdom was entering uncharted territory.
And Travis had never been good with uncharted territory.
He started, turned to look at his side. Lisa was still sitting there, gazing at him with what looked like concern on her face. “You all right?” she asked.
Travis forced a nod. “Sure,” he said. “It’s just…that was about the last thing I expected.”
“You and the rest of the Star Kingdom,” Lisa said darkly. She nodded at the TV. “Looks like Crown Pr — like King Edward is going to speak.”
Travis looked back. With his father now gone from the stage, Edward had stepped to the podium. In the background behind him was his son, Richard Winton, resplendent in his black and gold Academy cadet uniform.
Only now they were King Edward and Crown Prince Richard.
Travis took a deep breath. He’d survived uncharted territory before. He would survive this one, too.
Lisa had set Crumpets down on the couch between them. Absently scritching the dog behind her ears, Travis braced himself for this new and unexpected future.