Change of Command (Serrano Legacy Series #6)by Elizabeth Moon
THEIR UNIVERSE IS FALLING APART!
Rejuvenants fear the backlash caused by bad drugs; they want to ensure that nothing interferes with their pursuit of long life or the profit that comes from promising it to others. Neighbor states fear the aggressive expansion of the Familias Regnant, fuelled by population growth and extended lifespan. Within the/b>
THEIR UNIVERSE IS FALLING APART!
Rejuvenants fear the backlash caused by bad drugs; they want to ensure that nothing interferes with their pursuit of long life or the profit that comes from promising it to others. Neighbor states fear the aggressive expansion of the Familias Regnant, fuelled by population growth and extended lifespan. Within the Regular Space Service, those who have received experimental rejuvenations fear they may have been given bad drugs on purpose. Esmay Suiza's family fears that her marriage to an offworlder will damage their position. Barin Serrano's family fears that his marriage to a Landbride of Altiplano will damage his career and their reputation.
Fear begets violent reactions from foreign governments, from great Families determined to maintain or increase their power, from internal rivalries in the Fleet and nothing escapes the resultant bloodbath unscathed. As Esmay and Barin struggle to reconcile their families, others have more cosmic struggles to win.
Read an Excerpt
Newscast: "Today the Speaker of the Table of Ministers and the Grand Council of the Familias Regnant was assassinated while en route from the shuttleport to the Palace. His close friend and legal advisor, Kevil Mahoney, was seriously injured and is now undergoing emergency treatment in a secure medical facility. Three security personnel also died. Speaker Thornbuckle's youngest daughter, travelling in a separate conveyance, was not injured, but is now in protective custody...."
BREITIS MEDICAL PAVILION
Kevil was aware of disturbing dreams, and tried to fight his way to consciousness. He felt stiff, as if he'd been in the same position too long, and somewhere in the distance someone hurt quite badly. Red and pink swirls slid past his vision; when he blinked, nothing happened but the addition of ugly green smears to the swirls. He thought he heard something, butlike the vague shapes that teased his eyesthe sounds were curiously unhelpful, blunt and unformed.
He struggled harder, and finally made out a voice, speaking some arcane language he didn't know. What was a subcue something-or-other? What was an ivy line? His fogged mind tried to show him a picture of ivy leaves lined up in a row.
"need complete rejuv, if he lives that long" came suddenly, with silvery clarity.
Ice, then fire, washed through him; he never knew if it was something they did, or his body's response to what he heard. His eyes opened to see a pale blur; hestruggled to get his mouth open, then realized it was open, wedged with some instrument.
"Lie still," someone said. "Close your eyes."
He was in no mood to take orders. He gagged on the thing in his mouth, and someone slid it out.
"What happened?" he croaked, in a voice he didn't recognize but felt in his painful throat.
Memory returned in that moment, even as he asked. Even as the people he could not yet see hesitated, he knew what had happened.
He and Bunny in the ground car. Bunny's face, taut and lined for so many months, finally relaxing. They had been chatting about the continuing problems resulting from the Morelline's pharmaceutical plant on Patchcock, the rising price of rejuvenations and the political implications
And then the white flare of some weapon, and Bunny's face disappearing into a mess of red and pink and gray
He must be dead. No one could survive that. And he, Kevil Mahoney, was aliveat least for nowbecause his friend's head had taken the brunt of whatever attack.
The New Texas Godfearing Militia had sworn vengeance on them. Evidently it had been no idle threat.
He needed to know what had happened. Who was in charge now? What was Fleet doing? But he felt a dark chilly fog rising over him, and slipped into that darkness unsure if it was death or a drug.
Hobart Conselline permitted none of the emotions churning inside him to show in his face or demeanor. His secretary's expression of cautious solemnity proved he'd been successful; the silly man couldn't tell how his employer was taking the news. Good.
"It's been confirmed by three separate agencies, milord," his secretary said.
"Terrible!" Hobart said, and shook his head. "I suppose it was those terrorists, in retaliation for the executions"
"That's the speculation at this time, milord."
"How many were killed or injured?"
"Lord Thornbuckle and three security personnel killed; Ser Mahoney is alive but in critical condition. He is not expected to live."
"A terrible, terrible situation." Hobart shook his head again. Terrible for some, certainly. Bunny Thornbuckle's relatives and friends were no doubt reeling in shock and confusion. So would the whole Council be, if someone didn't take hold and give the guidance that had been so sorely needed for the past several years. If Kevil Mahoney had been uninjured, they might have turned to him, but without either Bunny or Kevil, the Families would mill about like panicky sheep, baaing uselessly at the wolfpack around them. He knew exactly what far-sighted, strong, decisive leader should take charge.
"Send our condolences to Miranda," he told his secretary. "Inform my wife's secretary that I'm sure my wife will want to call on her." Poor, beautiful, clever Miranda, so unlucky in her choice of men and her children.
Poor Brun, for that matter. Like everyone who had met the child, he had enjoyed her scatterbrained, madcap beauty. She had needed a good husband to settle her down, but Bunny had insisted on letting her run wild, with disastrous results. Another instance of Bunny's lamentable lack of decisive, firm leadership. Nothing like that had happened to the Conselline daughters, nor ever would. Bunny's older children had turned out well enough, though young Buttons was no second Bunny. He had all his father's stuffiness and none of his father's brilliance. All the better; the last thing the Consellines needed was another Bunny Thornbuckle in that Chair.
"You have messages from several of the Families," the secretary said.
"No doubt," Hobart said. Those he had been talking to, in preparation for the Grand Council meeting this year, would want to know his plans now. For an instant, the internal vision of those plans blinded him to the room around him. With Bunny and Kevil Mahoney out of the picturewith Bunny's supporters in disarray, shocked and grievinga man who knew what he wanted and moved quickly and decisively might go farther than he had believed possible.
He glanced over the messages as his secretary left the room. As he'd expected: shock, concern, fear, shock ... with every passing moment, he felt more certain that he, and he alone, would have to act in this crisis. How fortunate that he had not left Castle Rock with the others. "Make a list of all the Chairholders who are still onplanet," he said. His secretary nodded. "And set up a conference call for the Conselline Sept, all chairholding members."
"Sir, I have the listI keep a current file on all the Chairholders"
"Excellent." He looked over it carefully while his secretary was arranging the complicated linkage of ansible and ordinary communications lines for the conference call, and realized that the opportunity would never be greater.
The Barraclough Sept, which included the lesser Aranlake and Padualenare septs, had not rallied to Bunny's side when Brun returned. The Aranlakes, with the exception of Lady Cecelia de Marktos, had supported an Aranlake candidate, Hubert Roscoe Millander, for Family head, and they'd lost. They were home sulking. The Padualenares favored Bunny's brother Harlis, who supported their claim to seniority over the Aranlakes, and their ambitions in the colonial worlds. This left only a few of the Barracloughs themselves onplanet, those closest to Bunny and therefore more likely devastated by his death.
Hobart glanced around the room, his gaze roaming from one proof of his eminence to another. Would his family be devastated if he were assassinated? Delphine would be; she could cry and cry until her pretty face was all swollen and splotched with ugly color. The girls would cry, but only for awhile, he was sure. They would look for another patron, another source of favor and another dispenser of luxuries. Fickle, that's what women were, unless you trained them well, as he had trained Delphine. The boys, thoughif he had brought them up well, they would be planning already how to avenge him, and how to gain more power.
But he would not be assassinated. He would be more careful than Bunny, more alert to covert threats, lessnot less brave, but less foolhardy. Brun had no doubt got her foolhardy genes from him, not from prudent Miranda.
His excitement mounted as he went on through the list. If he had had Bunny killedand the thought had crossed his mind more than once, in the year when it seemed that nothing else would get that great fool out of an office he was unfit to fillhe could not have chosen a better time. Best of all, he hadn't done it himself; he'd had nothing to do with it. Fate had finally come over to his side. He had proven himself capable of succeeding against the worst Fate could do, and now Fatewomanlikehad chosen him for that very energy and persistence and will to triumph.
He closed his eyes a moment, allowing himself the luxury of imagining the moment when he took over as Speakerwhen the faces which had ignored or turned away turned to himhad to turn to himand he could finally show his true abilities. I will make the Familias great, and everyone will know who saved it from destruction.
* * *
"I didn't know they would take it out of my pay," Ensign Barin Serrano said. His voice almost squeaked, but he couldn't help it. His entire paycheck, gone ... nothing in his credit cube, and he'd already ordered the traditional engagement and wedding gifts.
"Well, who did you think would pay for it? Those people have already used up the Sector discretionary fund, and most of the recreational reserve. And they're not even charging you for all of them, just the ones your pay will cover."
"Ten dependents ..." Barin murmured. That would eat up all his pay after he was promoted, too. He supposed he should count himself lucky that Fleet regulations prohibited official indebtedness. "And I'm not even married. How could they do this to me?"
"Look at it this way, sirit'll keep you out of trouble."
"No ... not really. I've just sent in my order for the wedding ..."
"Attention all hands ... attention all hands ..." A pause, during which Barin tried to think how to get himself out of his present financial fix. Then the captain's voice: "It is my sad duty to announce that the Speaker of the Table of Ministers has been assassinated. Stand by ..."
Barin stared at the chief, who stared back. The Speaker assassinated? Where? How?
And what would happen to Brun, and all those women?
"Lieutenant Suiza, there's a flash priority message, Cobalt encryption."
"Ummm ..." Esmay Suiza's mind had drifted, as it did often these days, to Barin. "Rightwellkeep a link to the ansible and I'll get the captain." The last priority message had been medical, directing them to relieve senior NCOs with rejuv of duty, but they had none aboard. Maybe this one would be useful. What she wanted was a message from Barin, preferably with a friendly reaction from his family. Being on two different ships really hampered communication; she hoped they could meet in person for a few days. Captain Solis knew she was due leave; he had already said she could take the time off. But she'd heard nothing....
Captain Solis, never talkative this early in first shift, became even more silent after the encrypted message had gone to his console. Esmay glanced over. "Sir?"
"I ... said nothing, Lieutenant." He met her eyes. "Lord Thornbuckle is dead. Assassinated. Presumably" his gaze dropped to the readout of the decryption device. "Presumably it's the New Texas Militia, in retaliation for our execution of their Rangers." A pause, during which Esmay did her best not to ask the question that hammered at her mind. He answered it anyway. "Lieutenant, you can count on all leaves being cancelled. I'm sorry. There are some things more urgent than a wedding."
"It won't hurt to do the paperwork," Esmay said, without thinking. Solis gave her a long look, but finally nodded.
"Good idea. Then if you get the chance ... but in the meantime, I want a threat assessment ... get started on that while I make the announcement to the crew."
Newscast: "General Casimir Suiza announced today that the Landbride Suiza is planning to marry an outlander, Barin Serrano, also an officer in the Regular Space Service. Opposition to any such outlander marriage is expected from the Landsman's Guild; questions have already been asked about the succession, in view of the fact that Landbride Suiza continues to reside offworld and serve in the Regular Space Service. In other news, the Speaker of the Table of Ministers has been assassinated on Castle Rock ..."
GUERNESE REPUBLIC GENERAL NEWS SERVICE
Newscast: "... of more concern is the threat of renewed violence from the New Texas Militia branches which were not destroyed by the Familias Regnant in their extravagant attempt to rescue the Speaker's daughter. Questions have been raised in Parliament about the involvement of Guernesi intelligence personnel in that attempt, and whether such cooperation with the Familias Regnant compromised Guernesi interests ..."
Memorandum to the Chair of the Benignity:
Whatever the Familias Regnant hoped to gain by attacking the Texan Militia, and despite the successful extrication of the Speaker's daughter, they will find they have poked a hornet's nest. Although it is tempting to take advantage of this, I believe that any contact with the Militia would endanger our longstanding policy, and would risk alienating the Holy Father.
Our intelligence reports indicate continuing and widening splits between the ruling elements, however, which might well be exploited without entangling us with the New Texans. Project Dance has provided the most accurate assessments so far of the behaviors of major Familias septs. Project Retainer is showing a profit, and the latest data indicate that some 15-23% of the R.S.S. senior NCO corps will be severely affected within another 180 days, with peak incidence at 250-300 days. Three independent sources confirm early failure beginning over 300 days ago. It is somewhat surprising that the Familias have not cut back manufacture and distribution of the drugs ...
Memorandum to the Admiral of the Fleet:
At the request of the Table of Ministers and the Grand Council, all ships not on high-alert status will maintain one minute of silence at 1200 hours on the day of Lord Thornbuckle's funeral, and no other recognition shall be given; specifically there shall be no salute of arms.
"One minute of silence in respect for the Speaker of the Grand Council."
Silence dragged on. Longer than a minute, it felt like. Esmay wondered how Brun was holding up. She had not had time to recover from her captivity, and already she had lost her father. Esmay murmured prayers she had not thought of in years.
Memorandum to the Chief of Personnel, from the Chief, Medical Services:
Urgent you refer all enlisted personnel who received rejuvenation treatment within the past ten years to medical immediately. Make no exceptions. If necessary, refer in order of rejuvenation.
Admiral Vida Serrano, now securely in command of Sector Seven, read the memorandum in silence, very aware of the tension in Master Chief Valdos' shoulders. She herself had forwarded the concerns of Barin and Captain Escovar about mental deterioration in senior enlisted personnel, under the tightest security. She had followed the subsequent medical investigation, but the details eluded her. Rejuvenation neurobiology was not her field. She needed to be briefed on it, and so fardespite several increasingly firm requests to Fleet Headquartersno such briefing had taken place.
How could she reassure Valdos, and others under her command, without the information she needed?
What would happen if she couldn't?
"Get me the heads of personnel and medical," she said. "We have a situation I don't fully understand, and I want to be sure we handle this with both discretion and fairness."
"Sir." A pause. "If the admiral permits"
"Is it true they're looking for ways to bump out senior NCOs, an excuse not to offer any more rejuvenations?"
Just the kind of ideas she did not want floating around. But was it true?
"In my opinion, Chiefand it's only my opinion, but I do have some datathis may have to do with medical problems from a bad batch of rejuv drugs."
"Yes. I am not going to blacken anyone's name, because I don't know all the facts. I'm not a medical officer. I do know that investigation of something else revealed a source of contaminated rejuv drugs, and there was concern that they might have made it into our supply chain. Meanwhile, several senior NCOs began showing neurological symptoms within a few months to a year of each otherwidely separated in their duty stations, and not all in the same branch."
"Could theyhave given us bad drugs, to justify later refusal to rejuv?"
"On purpose?" He nodded. "Absolutely not. If that's what happened, I suspect it is a simple mistakeor, if not, an enemy wished to deprive us of our most valuable senior NCOs in order to make a strike easier."
"I hope you're right, sir." He went out, shaking his head.
She hoped she was right, too ... and that he believed her. If the NCOs started worrying about whether they had been given bad drugs intentionally, the close-knit community of Fleet could unravel with fatal speed.
Internal Memorandum, MorCon Pharmaceuticals:
... despite the best efforts of our advertising departments to restore confidence in our product, the market share is still severely depressed compared to the 68% dominance of the market we enjoyed before the Patchcock scandal. Our competitors have taken full advantage of revelations about the inferior quality of our product, and our legal staff tells us that litigation is still increasing. This has severely affected profits, which used to make up over 20% of the total for the Conselline Sept. Nonpolitical means of recovery have been ineffective; we need legislative relief from laws that are crippling our attempt to deal fairly and honestly with the consequences of the errors made by others. We feel it is imperative that some means be found to regain market share. Lady Venezia Morrelline continues to oppose this, and we have been unable to convince her that we cannot be held responsible for the acts of sabotage by a foreign agent....
REGULAR SPACE SERVICE MILITARY PRISON, STACK ISLANDS, COPPER MOUNTAIN
On a cold, windy day in local autumn, the prisoners of Stack Islands Military Prison were drawn up in ranks to witness another change of command ceremony from behind barriers of both steel and invisible force shields. In front of it, in the small enclosed parade ground, all but a few of the guards were also in formation, uneasily aware of the prisoners' gazes fixed on their backs. No matter that a force shield lay between them; nothing protected them from the malevolence.
Up in front, Iosep Tolin relinquished his command to Pilar Bacarion with relief. He had not enjoyed any moment of his stay in that exile from his former sphere of power, and he had agreed to take early retirement to get quit of it. Pilar, thoughhe would be very glad to put the width of the Big Ocean, and later some deepspace, between himself and one of the few women who had ever been close to Admiral Lepescu.
On her part, Commander Pilar Bacarion felt an almost physical surge of pleasure in the tension on Tolin's face. He not only disliked her, he was afraid of her. He should be. They all should be, and they would be, in time. She smiled at Tolin, letting him see that she recognized his fear, and saw the glisten of sweat on his forehead, even in the cold. Then she released him from her gaze, and turned it instead on her subordinates.
They did not flinch. She had not thought they would. Their gaze challenged herthe first female commander this prison had ever had. Was she tough enough, their gaze asked. Could she do the job? Otherswhose identities she already knewhad no doubts about her toughness. They were well aware that Lepescu had been her mentor, that she had supported his agenda. Carefully disguised in her duffle were slivers of the ears she had taken; when it had become imprudent to keep these proofs of her status, she had sliced them thin herself and found hiding places for them.
She had Hunted, in the oldest Hunt of all; she had killed. She had survived the Hunt on Sirialis, having left to take command of a ship before the game ended with Lepescu dead and Heris Serrano once more in favor with Fleet brass. But no one knew it. They were all dead, and the prisoners she'd hunted had never seen her face. Her luck was strong, and her skillsshe would match her skills against Serrano directly some day; she knew she would win.
She looked past the guards, past the force screen, to the prisoners in their drab ranks. In there she also had potential allies. In time.
Tolin left at last, in the whining aircar. She wished him a nasty storm on the way to the mainland, but it didn't really matter. Let him liveand let him realize someday just what he'd seen, in their brief exchange.
The ceremony over, Pilar summoned her staff. They were unwise enough to look surprised; she allowed herself a tight smile on the way to her office, thinking how soon they would learn what she was like.
On the mainland, at Main Base, autumn had not yet moderated a brutally hot summer. It had been a dry year, and now fine reddish dust turned the sky dirty brown as the wind lifted it high into the atmosphere.
In this kind of weather, everyone who could get offbase privileges spent hours in Q-town's bars, drinking whatever was coldest. Even combat veterans accepted the crowd in their favorite watering hole. It was too hot, and too miserable, to complain.
Margiu Pardalt, newly graduated from the Academy, and the only Xavierine in her class, had a habit of coming tops in her classes. She had to; she had to do something to make up for her sister Masiu, killed by raiders years ago. Masiu had been the family genius: brilliant, brave, everything a family could hope for. Margiu was second-best, and knew ita poor replacement for the fallen heroso it was up to her to make her mark, to be Masiu's memorial. Her place in the Academy had been a gift from the Familias in memory of Masiu. Her place in the universe was to be her gift in return.
She had earned an evening's liberty by coming first in her class yet again at Copper Mountain, and she thought it fitting that her free hours came at a time when no rational person could enjoy them. She'd have stayed in her quarters, but her training CO had told her to get off the baseand orders were orders.
Another gust of wind howled down Q-town's main street and filled her nose with hot stinging dust. She sneezed, and her eyes watered. It reminded her too much of the Benignity's scorch of Xavier, when she and her family had wrapped torn sheets around their heads for weeks to filter the dust and ash.
Ahead, on the right, she spotted a doorway just opening as someone came out, and a gush of cooler air brushed her side. She turned into it.
It was only moderately crowdedless crowded than the two bars she'd glanced into and leftand smelled of food as much as drink. Margiu made her way to one of the open booths, and slid in, then looked around. The tables and seats looked a little strange, until she realized they were meant to look like ship parts. No, they were ship parts. Her quick glance took in the long dark barobviously hull material. The modelsobviously military vessels. The battle honors hung on the walls, the photographs.
It was a shrine, then. Margiu felt obscurely comforted, and lowered her head to pray for the dead and the survivors alike. Her family were Synorhines; she had learned the right forms for valediction and commemoration from early childhood.
"Do you need help?" someone asked. Margiu looked up to find herself face to face with a man in a float-chair.
"No, sirI was honoring the dead," she said.
His brows rose, crinkling the skin around the scars on his bald scalp. "You knew about this place?"
"No, sir ... but it's obvious."
"Hmm. May I have the honor of your name?"
"Ensign Pardalt," she said. "From Xavier."
"Ah. Xavier." He looked her over carefully. "And you were at the Academy when"
"No, sir. I was home ... on Xavier, I mean." She knew already that to Fleet personnel, Fleet was home, and the planet of origin was just thatthe planet of origin.
"And you survived the Benignityyour family as well?"
"Most of them."
"You're welcome here anytime, Ensign. You've earned it."
But she hadn't earned anything. Not yet. The way she saw it, everything she had, Masiu had earned. Still, she was not going to contradict someone like this, a combat veteran.
"Thank you," she said instead. And then, carefully, hoping she'd read the signals right, "May I offer you a drink?"
She saw a reaction, but she wasn't sure what. "As it is your first time in my establishment, I hope you will honor me by accepting one."
She dipped her head. "I would be honored." Then, as he waited, she realized he wanted her to name it. She wasn't used to that, but she glanced at the menu display and chose a dark ale spiced with ginger.
When the mug arrived, heavily frosted, it came with a bowl of raw vegetable sticks on shaved ice.
"If you like spiced ales, I thought you might like these," the man said. Margiu nibbled one; it had a refreshing bite. He sipped his own drink, watching her over the rim. She found it disconcerting.
"We had Lieutenant Suiza in here when she was on a course," he said finally.
That name she knew, of course. Suiza had been added to her family's prayers, and she had heard a lot about Suiza in the Academy and after. "I've never met her," Margiu said. "But we owe her a lot."
"You remind me of her," the man said. "She's quiet too."
"She's a real hero," Margiu said. "I'm just a very green ensign."
"You might surprise yourself," the man said.
She did fantasize about that, sometimes, but she knew it was ridiculous. She could be serious, careful, diligent, prudentand none of those were heroic virtues, as she understood heroism.
ZENEBRA; EVENING SPORTS WITH ANGH DIOR, CHAUNCY NETWORK
"Lady Cecelia de Marktos, who returned to competition several years ago on one of the D'Amerosia string, has qualified for the Senior Horse Trials at Wherrin this season on a horse bred at her own stables, Seniority. With the veteran rider/owner up, Seniority won the Challenge Event for rising novices, then the Stavenge. The pair are expected to threaten the reigning champion, Liam Ardahi and the experienced champion Plantagenet, competing under the colors of Orregiemos Combine ..."
Viewers saw Lady Cecelia's pleasant, bony, somewhat horse-like face, beneath rumpled red-gold curls ... then a shot of her exercising Seniority over fences, the horse's gleaming red coat only a shade darker than her hair, then a shot of them over the last fence of the Stavenge. The video shifted to Liam Ardahi guiding Plantagenet over the Wherrin Trials' B Course big drop-bridge combination the year before, freezing on the instant before landing, while the commentator recited their previous record.
Cecelia grimaced at the display. Like any expert rider, she could find flaws in everything she did, and would have much preferred to have the vid show her over the seventeenth fencewhere she and Seniority had made neat work of a difficult combinationthan that last fence, where Seniority had jumped flat, and her own hand position showed why. She'd lost concentration for a crucial few seconds.
Why had she been thinking about Pedar Orregiemos and the Rejuvenants, and not Fence Thirty?
WHERRIN EQUESTRIAN PARK
Two days later, Cecelia brought Seniority in from the gallops in exactly the shape she wantedpulse and respiration had recovered beautifully, and he could have gone another mile without strain. But any more fitness now, and he would peak before the Senior Trials. No, a long hack this afternoon, then tomorrow
"Cece! Have you heard?" Colum was waiting for her at the entrance to the gallops, as he usually did, but he spoke first.
"What?" She loosened the strap of her helmet, and pushed back under it the one lock of red hair that always managed to get loose and tickle her forehead.
"Lord Thornbuckle's been killedit's on all the newsvids"
She felt a heaviness in her chest as if she'd been kicked. "Bunny?" A swift montage of pictures ran through her mindBunny at the head of the table, Bunny on horseback on Opening Day of the hunt season, Bunny taking over from Kemtre at the Grand Council, Bunny and Kevil, heads together, discussing something ... "It can't be" He was younger than she by twenty-odd years; he was healthy as a horse
"They say it might be those terrorists."
Reality came back as Seniority reached down to rub his face on his leg, and yanked the reins; Cecelia blinked, looked around, saw the subdued flurry of activity near the barns. The first acid bite of sadness seeped through the shock. If it was true, this was going to hurt a lot. Colum seemed to understand that she could say nothing; he flung a cooler over the horse's back, and put a hand to the rein. Cecelia sat there, as he led Seniority on into the aisle between the barns, where the look on the grooms' faces told her that the newsvids were playing this straight.
"You heard?" That was Roz, her head groom.
"Yes." She slid down, ran the stirrups up, automatically coordinating with the groom as they untacked the chestnut horse and began the after-workout rubdown.
"You knew him, didn't you?"
Already past tense. Cecelia shivered. "Yes. For a long time."
"It's terrible. It said on the news there wasn't even enough left for a neuroscan. No chance"
She didn't want to hear this; she didn't want to think about this. Her rejuvenated body felt alien suddenly, the reverse of the way she had felt when her young mind lived in her old one ... now she felt trapped in a body that could not feel what she felt emotionally.
"Do you think they'll cancel the Trials?"
Cecelia looked over at Roz, who flushed in unbecoming splotches. "I doubt it," she said. "They didn't stop the Trials when Kemtre abdicated."
But even as she said it, she felt uneasy. Whether the Trials went on or not, should she ride? What was the right thing to do? She paused in her strokes down Seniority's muscled haunch to calculate travel times. She could not possibly make it to Castle Rock for any memorial service, even if she gave up the competition. That being so, what good would it do Bunny for her to withdraw?
What good would it do someone else?
She stood watching as Roz and Gerry began sponging the horse down, wondering why that had come to mind ... why, at some level, she did not believe that awful milita group had killed Bunny. But who else? And how was she going to find out?
"Cece" Dale, her trainer, had Max in tow. "I know, it's awful, but you've got to ride this guy."
She wanted to say she couldn't, but she knew she could. And whatever happened to humans, horses needed their unbroken routine. She let a groom give her a leg up onto Max, and headed back to the gallops.
As always, just being on a horse in motion cleared her mind. Max was no Seniority, but he was maturing into a very nice ride over shorter distances, and he would bring a good price when the time came.
If the time came, with Bunny dead. Who knew what that meant politically? She didn't, though she had paid more attention than she used to. Bunny had been a good executive, except perhaps for his frenzy when Brun was takena frenzy no one could blame. Things had gone wellher investments had prospered, and if hers prospered then surely the economy was doing well. Except for the volatility in rejuvenation pharmaceuticals, which had pretty much smoothed out this past year. The Consellines had lost faceand market sharebut they certainly weren't ruined.
And what about Miranda, and Brun? Would they move back to Sirialis? Would theyshe hated the thought that forced itself to the top of her mindwould they still have foxhunting?
That wasn't the important thing, of coursethe important thing was finding out who had killed Bunny and dealing with him. Or her.
Max took advantage of his rider's wandering mind and shied at a rustle in the hedge beside the field. Cecelia caught him before he could bolt, and sent him on firmly. Best think about the horse; that was something she could control. For the rest of the two-hour hack, she managed to keep her sorrow and her worries at bay.
They returned when she handed Max over to the grooms. Roz looked almost as grim as she feltshe had worked two seasons on Sirialis, Cecelia remembered, and had a scrapbook on the Thornbuckle family. "It'll never be the same," she muttered to Cecelia. "Young Buttons is a fine man, but he's not his father."
"No ... but Kevil will help him."
"He was hurt too, you know. Really badhe might die."
"That's what the newsvid said. If you can trust them. Damn those terrorists anyway; I don't know why they have to make more trouble in the world, as if there's not enough."
"Lady Cecelia" That was Dale, more formal than usual. "You have a caller."
The last thing she wanted. She turned away, leaving Roz and the new girl working on Max, and stripped off her gloves, tucking them in her belt.
He was lounging in the stable office, flipping through the stable feed records.
"Get out of that," Cecelia said, but without much heat. She herself had sneaked a look at the hay receipts for other owners, wondering if they had a better source. Everyone snooped in stable offices.
"You're looking splendid," Pedar Orregiemos said. "Stillterrible news, terrible news."
"Yes, it is." Cecelia sat down heavily in one of the battered leather chairs. "I'm still not really grasping it."
"I came over because I knew you'd been close to both of them," Pedar said.
Cecelia looked up sharply. "Both of them?"
"Bunny and Kevil, I mean. At least, that's what the word was, the past few years. People were even twitting young George about it."
"About me and Kevil?"
He shrugged. "And why not?"
"Kevil and I are friends," Cecelia said, almost spitting the words out. "Friends, not lovers." Well, only twice, after which they'd both agreed it wasn't working nearly as well as they'd hoped. "Yes, I spent a lot of time with him after my rejuvenation, because I needed his legal advice to untangle my affairs. But that's all." She was aware of the heat in her face, mixed anger and shame.
"Well, a friend, then. But still ... I was sure you'd be upset, so I came over to check on you."
Disgusting little climber. Yes, he was rich, and yes, his family was Seated, but he was, compared to her, a minor twig on the very large and ancient Conselline elm ... her branch of the Aranlake Sept made up a much greater percentage of the even larger and older Barraclough oak.
Cecelia pushed that back down. She wasn't the sort of person who worshipped a family tree; people didn't get to choose their parentage. Pedar's mannerisms, more pronounced in old age and despite several rejuvenations, had been there from the day she first met him, at someone's birthday party. He wanted to be a protector ... bad luck for him that she didn't need protecting.
"I'm fine, Pedar. I'll be fineI'll grieve, and then I'll get over it."
"Why don't you let me take you to dinner?"
As so often, the kind impulse that was exactly wrong. "Not tonight, please. I just want to go back and cry a little. Another time, perhaps."
"I'll hold you to it," Pedar said, and bowed politely. Go away, Cecelia thought, as loudly as she could while holding a polite smile that made her face ache. He bowed again and left.
She and Bunny had laughed about Pedar, from time to timetrusting each other not to share that fact. His stiff little bows; his exaggerated courtesies; his passion for antique clothing and sports even more useless than foxhunting and eventing.
She would never have Bunny to laugh with again. She would never see that long, foolish face come alight with intelligence, with his quick wit. She would never warm herself at the glow of the love between Bunny and Miranda ... a love she had watched grow and deepen over the many decades she'd known them both.
Tears ran down her face, and when Dale came back to the office, she was curled into the big chair, and didn't hear him step in, then quietly close the door behind him when he left again.
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This book needed the words: 'To Be Continued' at the end. What SF writer worth her salt sets up a battle scene in a book and then doesn't write up the battle?!!! All I can do is hope that she finishes the battle in the next book.