His Grace, Callum, Exarch Consort -Exarch Regent he corrected himself
- of Pegasus (and father to the little, fragile ball of misery currently rolled up in her bedclothes) softly closed the door behind him.
"Deness?" he said, noting, with a note of detached surprise, how calm and even his voice was.
There was no reply. Callum, his own grief a still-nebulous, distant thing, couldn't help but marvel at the stillness of the room, the stuffiness
(for lack of a better word) of the atmosphere, which contrasted sharply with the bright light streaming in from the large windows.
"Angel?" he tried again, moving closer to his daughter's bed and sitting down on its edge. He reached out; but the lump of blankets and sheets moved away, avoiding his touch.
"Leave me alone
, Papa," she said, her voice muffled, and Callum winced. There was no note of whining or complaining in Deness' voice, only raw pain and his own feelings couldn't help but rear their ugly, ugly
heads in sympathetic response.
"I can't, darling," he said, sadly. "Come, come out, let us have a look at you, yes?"
"No." Again, pleading, not complaining; and breaking his heart in the process.
Callum took a deep breath; and he took his boiling anger and fury, and pain, and grief, and choked them down. He took another breath; and he reminded himself how much he loved his daughter, and how much he had loved his wife and he embraced that
, reaching out again.
"Darling," he said, "please. I know it's selfish of me to ask, but I need
you, right now. I need you with me, close to me, more than ever. And I think-"
A pause; to think and take everything in, and to note that the little bundle of bedsheets was very still, now, listening attentively.
"-I think you need me too. I think that it'll do the both of us only good to be...well, anywhere
but here, alone. I think your mother would agree, too. So, I can't just walk out of here. Come out, Angel, please
A moment of indecision; and then the ball uncurled, and unfurled. Deness emerged, blinking tear-filled eyes, her auburn hair (so much like her mother's, Callum noted, with a heart-wrenching pang of grief)
a tangled, messy halo around her face.
She did not meet Callum's eyes for long. Instead, she shuffled closer to him, a picture of pathetic despondency, and wrapped her arms around his waist, drawing herself into a close hug and laying her head onto his chest. Callum wasted no time in returning the hug and placing a soft kiss on the crown of her head.
"It's too much, Papa," she mumbled. "It doesn't...doesn't make sense
Callum nodded, fingers softly patting down her hair. "It doesn't, Darling. I know. It's hard to believe, in the first place. That she isn't coming back."
"It's like a bad dream," Deness said. "I want to wake up,
"I know," Callum agreed. "I feel the same. It feels like the world has changed so much
, in an instant, and it's so hard to keep up. And you feel...wrong, left behind, and lost, yes?"
There was frantic nodding, and a muffled sob, as Deness shifted position into a more comfortable leaning hug. "Numb," she said. "I feel bad, but...it's so far away. It doesn't hurt
like in the stories. I don't want to..." she shrugged "...to break things, or scream. It just...feels fake
, Papa, like the whole world is...not all here, anymore."
She pushed back against him, looking up at him. "Is that wrong? Is there something wrong with me? I should be more sad,
Papa. This should be more painful
"No," Callum said, firmly, cutting that poison
, that black, horrible thing
that had somehow slithered into his daughter's mind and out of her mouth at the root. "No, no, no, darling, never think that. No, there will
be pain and sadness, in the days to come, I promise you that. Once we catch up with the world, once we truly understand
what happened. Once we wake up from this nightmare. And it will stay with us, for a long time. But -listen to me, now- never
think that you somehow...owe
your mother grief or pain, or that there's something wrong with how you deal with this loss. Can you imagine how it would break her heart if she knew?"
A deep breath.
"She and I have always wanted you to be happy, and content. Things did not go the way we planned, but I will not
let you tear yourself apart or doubt yourself because of this."
There were a few heartbeats of silence, which, if not comfortable, were underlined by less dejection than before. Callum could see that Deness had not been completely convinced, but she seemed accepting for now, as she returned into his hug.
"Papa?" she finally asked, her voice still unsure. "What happens now?"
Callum sighed. "For now, darling, we pick ourselves up, as a family, first. There are things that need to happen, including a big funeral, for Aretha, with big words about glory and country and sacrifice," and with an empty coffin
, he thought, feeling his grief and hate coil up again, at the thought that the Delest hadn't even left him with a body
to mourn, "but we can handle those, together, I think. Eh?"
Deness nodded, hesitantly.
"And then, we'll take a short break. Go to your grandparents, for a few days, to let our minds and hearts settle, yes? And then, we'll need to come back, and there's going to be a big ceremony again, and you'll be named Exarch."
Deness tensed up, like a taut bowstring, and pulled back, shaking her head. "No, Papa! That's - Mama
is Exarch, I don't-"
"No," Callum said, softly, but firmly. "Your mother was
the Exarch, Deness. That's you
"I will be here," Callum continued, firmly. "Do not worry, you are not expected to learn to run the entire Exarchate overnight. I will be your regent, Angel, and I will be with you every step of the way, until you grow up and into your inheritance. But the Exarchate -your people
, now, Deness- needs
an Exarch, to love and rally behind."
He kissed her forehead, again, above her wide eyes, and smiled. "I must say, darling, I believe you will make a magnificent
Exarch. And I know that, if your mother were here, she would feel the same way. Stay strong, Deness Pegasus, Ninth Exarch of Renkin. High Mistress under God and King of the House of Pegasus."
"Stay strong, my love - and you'll make us all proud, I promise."
Arc Champion Julius French bowed deeply over the proffered hand of his Queen; and then, accepting the command to take a seat with graceful gratitude, slid into the indicated armchair with a minimum of fuss.
He was resplendent in his dress whites for the occasion, of course; and, he had to admit, he was more than a little nervous. So far, the Palace had staunchily supported him through the inevitable criticism the Terconia deal had sparked amongst the House of Lords, not to mention Pegasus. And yet, only a few weeks into this new, restless peace that he had brought forth, French could not shake the feeling that he was walking a very thin line. His study of the after-action reports and the memorandums he had circulated for what he considered necessary fleet upgrades (not to mention doctrinal reforms for the Fleet, reforms that the war had shown were urgently
required) were sure to have ruffled many feathers; the peace he had negotiated had been decried as being dishonourable; and the hawkish elements in the House of Lords were asking for a resumption of the war against the Delest.
Of course, not everything was doom and gloom. His friends in high places (and he had a significant number of those) had understood the necessity of the arrangement he had been forced to conclude with the Delest; and the Guild debt-holders were reluctantly (but with no official objections) already accepting the first Britannian payments. Payments which chipped a significant portion away from the crippling debts that the Guilders had spent decades
cultivating in the Britannian economy. French was confident that, in fifteen or twenty years, what he had achieved in Terconia would be lauded in the history books as the peace which helped New Britannia stand back up on its own two feet.
For now, however, he was all too aware that he was not particularly loved amongst the Britannian political scene. And that it would be very easy indeed for his King and Queen to cut him loose and satisfy the circling sharks. So, it was with hope, but some degree of trepidation as well, that he waited for his King and Queen to address him - and either throw him to the wolves or send him back to work.
"Arc Champion," Queen Michelle said from her own seat, her voice tinged with a note of amusement, "Welcome. We apologise for the short notice, but there are some things We need to discuss in private as early as possible."
"Of course, Your Majesty," French said, his back ramrod straight. "I am at your service, as always."
His eyes found the rotund form of the fourth person in the room, Brigadier Clarice Sinclair, of Military Intelligence, in a silent interrogatory. French knew her by reputation only, as a capable but unambitious analyst, fanatically loyal to the Royal House and His Majesty in particular.
"The Brigadier is in possession of the information We wanted to discuss," King Rhys said, placing a trusting hand on the shoulder of the woman. "In fact, it was her agents that first brought this matter to our attention. Do not worry, Sir Champion; everything We say will stay within the walls of this room."
"Now," Queen Michelle said, "before anything else, let me say -let Us
say- Sir Champion," a sideways look at her husband "that We are pleased, quite
pleased indeed with the agreement you have brokered with the Delest. We are aware that your actions have received some criticism by the more...ill-advised
members of the House of Lords and their clients; but, rest assured, Sir Champion, that you have Our full support and gratitude."
"A damn good show, Sir," King Rhys agreed. "The Delest are feuding like rabid dogs but they're still paying what has been agreed and the Guilds have been a damn sight more accommodating, lately. Not to mention...well, as God is my witness, it was a tragedy what happened to Exarch Aretha, really, but we can stand to live without her constant opposition in the House. A damn good show, indeed. You will not find Us ungrateful, I can tell you that!"
"...Quite," the Queen said, a hint of exasperation in her voice. "That said, Sir Champion, there are some things that cause Us concern. Namely-" she picked up a dataslate from the polished table between them, "-your recommendations for a reform of our fleet, as well as your preliminary statements regarding the Pegasus contribution to the war."
French nodded sharply and assumed as attentive a stance as possible; there was little to be said on his end. Here comes what pain Their Majesties see fit to dispense upon me.
"Let us start with the Pegasus matter first," the Queen began. "Your after-action reports are highly critical of Exarch Aretha's actions, especially with regards to her insistant pursuit of a decisive battle. While your arguments are valid, We would ask that you...refrain from such statements in the future."
"Yes," King Rhys agreed, his voice rumbling. "Pegasus may be difficult to deal with in the best of times, but now they're a hornets' nest. We know that you acted to the benefit of New Britannia, but they don't see it that way. Damn unreasonable, but we must oblige them."
"I have only reported the events as they transpired, Your Majesties," French objected.
"And we do not criticise you for that, Sir!" the King said. "It is your duty, after all. But you've also included your personal commentary on your reports; and you haven't been shy in defending your forces and yourself from criticism by pointing out the failings of the Exarch. That needs to stop,
Sir. You have reported what happened; now let the diplomats and politicians handle the aftermath, or we're going to have Pegasus in outright mutiny within the year. If you are asked about Terconia from now on, Sir, We expect you to give no comment,
until instructed otherwise."
French nodded, reluctantly. It was an understandable order, even though it meant that his fleet's honour might come to be tarnished in the upcoming days. The Delest had fallen into disarray, after the conclusion of the Terconia Peace; if New Britannia was to capitalise on that, she would need to stand together, and further fuelling the Arc Victoria - Pegasus divide would help no-one. If the absurd death of the Pegasus fleet had to be glorified into some sort of epic sacrifice for the benefit of that unity, then he could hold his tongue with very few pangs of conscience. "As you wish, Your Majesties."
"Capital!" the King said. "Now, onto the second matter. These...recommendations, that have been circulating in the Admiralty. And these requests for increased funding. Sir Champion...this must cease. At least for now. We do not have the resources
to dedicate to such a massive undertaking at this point; the Delest war reparations are channeled almost entirely into the civilian economy."
"Your Majesty!" French protested, aghast. "If there is one thing we must
gain from Terconia, it is that our old tactics are no longer effective. With the Delest now capable of employing effective subspace munitions, we must
evolve and adapt, or die."
"Yes...about those subspace munitions." Queen Michelle motioned to Brigadier Sinclair, who produced a thin briefcase and slid it onto the table, towards French. "Military Intelligence has scored a considerable success."
"We had been working on this for some time, but only recently did my analysts manage to piece the various bits of information together," Sinclair said, her voice deep and throaty like rich syrup. "Your victory, Sir Champion, and the access it provided to Delest facilities for the more...adventurous of my agents certainly helped."
At her gestured prompting, French opened the briefcase, revealing a stack of flash-paper records (the best kind
of carbon records for the suspicious spy), memos and what seemed like scans or photographs of partial design documents or blueprints.
"You will find that we have managed to, essentially, track the development of the Delest subspace missile program from its earliest phases, five or six years ago, to its recent conclusion, almost a year ago."
French was leafing through the papers, but raised his head in alarm. "The Delest have had effective subspace munitions for over a year
, and this is the first we are hearing about that?" he asked, pale and incredulous.
"For a given value of 'having'," Sinclair said. "Their prototypes, apparently, were completed eighteen months ago. Fourteen Mark I copies of what they called the Dlinnoye Kop'ye
"God help us," French breathed, "What is their effective range? Their warhead? Have they entered mass production yet? Your Majesties, I need to show this to my boffins, they might be able-"
"Sir Champion!" the Queen interrupted him, with a thin smile and a raised hand, "Peace! What the Brigadier is trying to say, is that there is a good reason
we hadn't heard about this project."
"Indeed," Sinclair said. "After testing -testing that resulted in the expenditure of two of the torpedoes against stationary and moving targets- it was determined by the Delest evaluation bureau that the weapons were not practical. They were too expensive and inaccurate, for something whose purpose could easily and more consistently be achieved by a subspace-capable bomber wing. No more torpedoes were produced; the remaining prototypes were placed in long-term storage in the Paru fortress moon. They put the project on ice, Sir Champion, and never picked it up again."
"But that's impos-"
French snapped, and then his mind click-click-clicked
the pieces together, counting and realising
. His heart raced
, his mind went and he felt ill as realisation settled in
. There had never been
fifty subspace missiles, waiting to smash his conquests to oblivion.
"Sir Champion?" the Queen was saying, leaning forward, with a kind smile. "Nobody is blaming you for being deceived. There was no way to know for certain that Dyatlov was bluffing."
French's vision had gone red with impotent rage and frustration; the papers crumpled in his clenched fists and there was a rushing in his ears-
"Indeed," Sinclair was saying, her deep voice echoing in French's ears like distant mocking laughter, "and, given your assigned goals all of my analyst agree that your final decis-"
And then she screamed, pulling back in alarm, as the Arc Champion collapsed, insensate, his limp body smashing the flimsy table before him into splinters.