Joined: Thu Jan 23, 2014 1:10 pm
Cathy Montaigne is happier than a June bug on a shrub!
War of Honor Ch. 50 wrote:"Good evening, Lady North Hollow. I'm so happy you could come!"
"Why, thank you! I was delighted to be invited," Georgia Young replied as the butler ushered her into the palatial sitting room. It was a very large sitting room, for an apartment, even in the City of Landing, where space was hardly at the premium it was on more populous planets. It might be smaller than, say, the Green Sitting Room in the Landing residence of the Earl of the Tor, but not by all that much. Not surprisingly, perhaps, given that the luxurious "apartment" to which it belonged easily ran to at least three thousand square meters. In, needless to say, one of the most expensive residential towers in the entire capital.
Not bad for a commoner, Georgia thought as she handed her stylish jacket to the butler with a gracious smile. He smiled back at her, and one of her eyebrows tried to quirk in surprise. Mostly because it was unusual for any well-trained, professional servant to return the smile—or frown—of one of his employer's guests. But also because there was something . . . odd about that smile. Something she couldn't quite put a finger on.
The butler bowed slightly, and withdrew from the sitting room, and Georgia gave herself a mental shake. Perhaps there had been something unusual about his smile. But equally perhaps she was imagining things. Not that she was in the habit of doing something that silly, but this afternoon was shaping up to be unusual enough to put any self-respecting troubleshooter for the Conservative Association on edge. She wondered again if she should have mentioned the invitation to High Ridge before she accepted it. And decided once more that she'd been right not to do so. It would be a mistake to let him believe that she felt she required his permission for anything she chose to do, and an even bigger mistake to allow herself to believe it.
"Please," her hostess invited. "Sit down. May I offer you some form of refreshment? Tea, perhaps? Or something a bit stronger?"
"No, thank you," Georgia said as she seated herself in a powered armchair that was almost appallingly comfortable. "While I was delighted when you asked me to stop by this afternoon, My Lady, I was also very surprised. And I'm afraid that my schedule was already pretty fully booked before this unanticipated pleasure presented itself. I can only stay a short time, because the Earl and I are due to join the Prime Minister for a fund-raising dinner tonight." She smiled. "And while I appreciate your having thought to ask me to drop by, I'm sure you'll forgive me if I'm blunt enough to say that I rather doubted it was for a social occasion."
"Of course I'll forgive you." Her hostess chuckled. "In fact, I'm sure you've heard that I tend to be on the blunt side myself. I'm afraid my own social graces are less than polished, which always caused my parents quite a bit of distress. Still, I suppose I should point out that, socially speaking, of course, you really don't have to address me as 'My Lady' any longer, My Lady. I'm afraid I'm just plain Cathy Montaigne these days."
"And before my marriage to Stefan," Georgia responded with another gracious smile, "I was 'just plain' Georgia Sakristos, so perhaps we could simply dispense with any 'My Ladies' from either side?"
"That would be perfectly fine—and so diplomatic!" Montaigne chuckled again, in high good humor, and Georgia wondered what she felt so cheerful about. She also wondered whether or not Montaigne's obvious good cheer was a good sign or a bad one. According to the ex-countess' dossier, she was at her most dangerous when she smiled.
"While I'm being diplomatic," Georgia said, "allow me to congratulate you both on your election to the House of Commons and on the power base you seem to be building there. I trust you'll forgive me if I don't repeat those congratulations in public, since Stefan and the Prime Minister would never speak to me again if they caught me exchanging pleasantries with the enemy. And, of course, Countess New Kiev would probably do something far worse than that."
"I'm sure she would," Montaigne said with a blinding smile. "Indeed, I spend the occasional evening contemplating the degree of irritation I must be causing both of them. Well, all three, I suppose, counting your husband. Of course, I have to wonder if anyone does count him. Including yourself."
"I beg your pardon?" Georgia stiffened, coming upright as abruptly as the luxuriously enfolding chair allowed. Her voice projected both surprise and an edge of anger, but there was another emotion behind those she'd deliberately allowed herself to show. A sudden, abrupt tingle of anxiety. A suspicion that perhaps Montaigne's cheerfulness might turn out to have been a very bad sign indeed.
"Oh, I am sorry!" Montaigne said, with every appearance of sincerity. "I did say my social graces leave something to be desired, didn't I? I certainly didn't mean to denigrate your husband. I simply meant that it's fairly well known in political circles that the Earl depends heavily on your . . . advice, shall we say? I wouldn't want to be tacky enough to go about using phrases like 'the power behind the throne' or anything equally cliché-ish, but surely you know that no one in Landing doubts that Earl North Hollow follows your guidance very closely."
"Stefan does confide in me," Georgia said, her tone stiffly proper. "And I do advise him, from time to time, when he does. Nor do I think it's inappropriate for me to do so, particularly given my position with the Conservative Association."
"Oh, I never meant to suggest that that was improper, in any way!" Montaigne smiled again. "I simply wanted to establish that whatever your official place in the hierarchy of the High Ridge Government, your actual niche is somewhat higher."
"Very well," Georgia agreed, eyeing her hostess narrowly. "I'll concede that I have somewhat more influence behind the scenes than may be apparent to the public eye. I suppose in that regard I'm rather similar to, say, Captain Zilwicki."
"Oh, touché!" Montaigne's green eyes glowed, and she clapped her hands in delight. "That was very well done," she congratulated her guest. "I scarcely felt the knife slipping between my ribs!"
"I hope you'll forgive me for saying this, Ms. Montaigne," Georgia observed, "but the Conservative Association has amassed a fairly extensive file on you. Especially since your election to the Commons. And when you invited me over, I reviewed that file, of course. It said, among other things, that you enjoy being disconcertingly direct. An observation whose accuracy I'm rapidly coming to appreciate."
"Well, it would never do to disappoint all of the astute analysts, yourself included, who labor so diligently on the CA's behalf, now would it?"
"Indeed not. On the other hand, perhaps you and I could agree to put up our foils and get to the real purpose of my visit . . . whatever it is?"
"Certainly. You do have that fund-raiser to attend." Montaigne smiled yet again, and pressed a button on the wrist com disguised as an extremely expensive antique wristwatch. "I'm afraid the jig is up, Anton," she said into it. "Would you care to join us?"
Georgia crooked an elegant eyebrow but said nothing. Then a door concealed behind a tasteful light sculpture slid open, and Anton Zilwicki stepped through the sculpture into the room.
Georgia studied him with carefully concealed interest. She'd been preparing a dossier on him since his and Montaigne's return from Old Terra, and especially since Montaigne had decided to stand for election as an MP. The more she'd discovered, the more impressed she'd become. She strongly suspected that Montaigne's surprising decision to stand for a seat in the Commons had been Zilwicki's inspiration. The man had a positive talent for "thinking outside the box," and it was obvious to Georgia that he and Montaigne made a potent and potentially dangerous team. She was just as happy that her marriage to Stefan placed her firmly in the ranks of the Conservative Association. At least the team of Montaigne–Zilwicki was unlikely to become a direct threat to her own power base . . . unlike what she strongly suspected was going to happen to New Kiev in the next two or three T-years.
This was her first opportunity to see Zilwicki in the flesh, as it were, and she was forced to admit that he was an impressive specimen. No one was ever going to call him handsome, but neither was anyone ever going to call him anything uncomplimentary if they were within arm's reach of him. She felt an almost overwhelming desire to chuckle at the thought of her husband's expression if he should happen to find himself trapped in a small room with an irate Zilwicki, but that didn't keep her instincts from twanging. She was far too experienced not to realize that they were rapidly coming to the true reason Montaigne had invited her to "drop by." Not that they were making any particular effort to pretend otherwise.
"Lady North Hollow, allow me to introduce Captain Anton Zilwicki," Montaigne said cheerfully.
"Captain." Georgia gave him a small, seated half-bow of greeting and allowed the frankly measuring edge of her glance to show clearly. "Your reputation precedes you," she added.
"As does yours," Zilwicki acknowledged in his deep, rumbling voice.
"Well!" Georgia continued, returning her attention to her hostess. "I presume that the Captain's presence indicates that you have some startling bit of political intelligence to bestow upon me? That, after all, would have been the reason that the Prime Minister, for example, might have seen fit to invite me into a similar meeting."
"There are certain advantages to dealing with a fellow professional," Zilwicki observed. "Efficiency and directness, if nothing else."
"I do try not to waste time when there's no tactical advantage in doing so," Georgia conceded.
"In that case," Montaigne put in, "I suppose I owe you five dollars, Anton." Georgia glanced at her questioningly, and the ex-countess shrugged. "He bet me that you wouldn't spend any time beating around the bush." She smiled at Georgia for a moment, then turned back to her towering, slab-sided lover. "Should I ask Isaac to step back in for a moment, Anton?"
"I doubt that will be necessary," Zilwicki told her. He smiled, but the smile, Georgia noticed, never touched his eyes at all. Nor did he look at Montaigne. His attention was completely focused upon their guest, and it was difficult for Georgia not to shiver under its weight.
"The reason we invited you here," he told her after a moment, "was to offer you a certain opportunity. One I think you'd probably be wise to accept."
"Opportunity?" Georgia repeated calmly. "What sort of opportunity?"
"The opportunity," Montaigne replied in a voice which was suddenly calm, almost cold, and very, very focused, "to withdraw from politics and leave the Star Kingdom."
"Excuse me?" Georgia managed not to blink in surprise, but it wasn't easy.
"It's really a very good opportunity," Montaigne told her in that same chill voice. "Especially the bit about leaving the Star Kingdom. I'd recommend that you do it as tracelessly as possible, too. If you agree with us, we're prepared to give you up to three days' headstart . . . Elaine."
Georgia had opened her mouth to snap an angry retort, but it closed with a snap, retort unspoken, as the name "Elaine" sent a sudden icy chill through her. Her eyes clung to Montaigne for perhaps two heartbeats, then snapped to Zilwicki. Deadly as the ex-countess might be in the purely political arena, there was no question in Georgia's mind as to which half of the partnership had turned up the information that name implied.
She considered trying to brazen it out, but only for an instant. Zilwicki's reputation for competence and thoroughness had become very well established in certain rarefied circles over the past four T-years.
"I see," she said instead, forcing her voice to come out sounding calm and collected. "I haven't heard that name in quite a few years. I congratulate you on making the connection between it and me. But I'm afraid I don't quite understand why the fact that you have leads you to believe that you can . . . convince me to leave the Star Kingdom at all, much less 'tracelessly.' "
"My dear Lady Young," Montaigne cooed, "I very much doubt that the Prime Minister would be at all happy to hear about Elaine Komandorski's career before she went to work for the late, unlamented Dmitri Young. Such sordid stuff! And, you know, that little affair of yours with the badger game and the industrial intelligence you extorted from that unfortunate gentleman. You remember—the one who committed suicide?" She shook her head. "I'm positive the Prime Minister's delicate sensibilities and exquisite sense of justice would be completely shocked by that one."
"I see that your reputation is well deserved, Captain," Georgia said, gazing steadily at Zilwicki. "On the other hand, I doubt very much that you have any proof of Ms. Montaigne's . . . accusation. If, and please note that I did say if," she added for the benefit of the inevitable recorders, "I had indeed had anything to do with an affair such as she's just described, I feel confident that someone in my position would have spent the intervening time making certain there was no proof of the fact that I had."
"I'm sure you would have," Zilwicki rumbled. "Unfortunately, as accomplished as you are, you're also merely mortal. I'm afraid you missed the odd witness along the way. I have three very interesting depositions, actually."
"Depositions which, I feel sure," Georgia said, still much more calmly than she felt, "must amount to no more than hearsay. Partly, of course, because I never had anything to do with the events Ms. Montaigne is describing. But also because if I had had anything to do with them, I would have been certain that I had no accomplices who might have been able to testify against me of their own first-hand knowledge."
"I'm sure you would have," Zilwicki conceded, and in someone else, Georgia might have thought she'd seen a twinkle in his eyes. Of course, the thought of "twinkle" and Anton Zilwicki were two concepts which were mutually contradictory, especially at a moment like this. There was too much Gryphon bedrock in the man. "Of course, as Duchess Harrington and Earl White Haven discovered not so very long ago," he continued, "hearsay testimony can be quite devastating in the court of public opinion."
No, definitely not a twinkle, Georgia thought. At best a gleam . . . and an ugly one, at that.
"But as the Duchess and the Earl also demonstrated," she replied, "false hearsay evidence used in an effort to discredit someone has a tendency to rebound against the accuser. And given the many connections my husband's family has, I feel sure we would be able to weather any such accusation. Why, you might be astonished by the people who would come forward to testify to the uprightness of my character!"
She smiled sweetly, but her confidence took another blow when neither Montaigne nor Zilwicki even flinched at her oblique reference to the power of the North Hollow Files.
"On the contrary, I wouldn't be surprised at all," Zilwicki told her. "No doubt it would be embarrassing for them when a DNA scan demonstrated that you were indeed Elaine Komandorski. You were quite efficient in obliterating Elaine's public record, but you missed at least one copy of your dossier with the Landing City Police." He smiled at the flinch she couldn't quite conceal. "I'll concede that there are no convictions in Elaine's LCPD file, but it's truly amazing how many times she was investigated. And the two times that charges were dropped because the key witness suddenly and mysteriously—and permanently—vanished would make fascinating reading. Under those circumstances, I suppose it would only be natural for your friends and allies to attempt to convince the public that such a sterling and upright individual as yourself could never have been guilty of all the terrible things the police thought you'd done. Unless, of course, the Prime Minister decided that, just as with certain individuals accused of trafficking in genetic slaves, it would be more politically expedient to throw you to the wolves."
"I think," she said, in a flatter, harder voice, "that you may be underestimating my . . . influence with the Prime Minister."
"Ah! So he is in the files," Montaigne observed. "I always suspected he was. Still, Elaine, you'd have to have a very strong hold on him to convince him to stand loyally by you. Especially now, with the diplomatic situation deteriorating the way it is." She shook her head mournfully. "I'm afraid my reading of Baron High Ridge's character suggests that, under the circumstances, he'd be inclined to do the right thing and, however regretfully, disassociate himself from anyone who might once have been involved in such improper acts, however peripherally. After all, whatever you might want to do with the information on him in the files, there'd be any number of powerful people who'd feel compelled to stop you. I mean, think of how many people's careers and political agendas depend on his remaining in power. Unless, of course, you have enough on all of them to convince the entire Government to commit seppuku to save your own neck. Because—just between us—I don't think I'd count on them to do it out of loyalty and the goodness of their hearts."
"Perhaps not. But even if they didn't choose to speak out in my behalf, I'm scarcely without a power base of my own from which to defend myself against such libelous accusations."
"Well, 'libelous' is a very value-laden term," Zilwicki said. "For example, if someone were to go to the LCPD and provide them with evidence that a certain Elaine Komandorski, shortly before she vanished and one Georgia Sakristos appeared on the scene, was involved in the murder of one of the PD's own criminal fraud investigators, I'm sure they wouldn't consider that libel. Not until they'd investigated very thoroughly, at any rate."
"I see." There was nothing at all pleasant about her voice now, but it was warmer than her eyes as she glared at him. "On the other hand, when it turned out that it was impossible to prove those allegations—because, of course, they would be completely false—I'm sure the courts would be inclined to consider it libel, given that the allegations would have originated with a political opponent. The Crown looks with a certain disfavor on people who attempt to use the courts as a political weapon, Captain."
"They certainly do," he agreed. "And while it pains me to admit it, it's entirely possible that there are enough judges in your famous files for you to survive even with the interesting odds and ends of evidence I've already managed to assemble. On the other hand, it doesn't really matter. I don't need to go anywhere near the police. Or the courts."
"Meaning what?" she demanded tautly.
"Meaning that once I discovered Elaine's existence," Zilwicki said, "I found myself wondering where she'd come from? I mean, she just . . . appeared one day, didn't she? And with such a substantial store of initial operating capital."
"What do you mean?" Georgia heard the quaver in her own voice, and cursed herself for it. But there was nothing she could do about it, any more than there was any way to prevent herself from paling.
"Meaning that I found your first biosculpt technician," Zilwicki told her very, very softly. "The one who rekeyed the genetic sequence on your tongue."
Georgia Young sat absolutely still, stunned into a realm far beyond mere disbelief. How? How could even someone with Anton Zilwicki's reputation have dug that deep? She'd buried that. Buried it where it would never see the light of day again. Buried it behind Elaine, willing even for someone to find her original criminal record because they would stop there, without going still deeper into who she'd been before Elaine.
"Of course," Zilwicki went on, "there's no law against having the number removed, is there? Most freed slaves don't have the resources to pay for it, but having it removed certainly isn't a crime. But he kept the record of the original number, Elaine. The number of a slave the Ballroom has been looking for for years. The slave who sold out an entire freighter full of escaped slaves in return for her own freedom and a half-million Solarian credits. Do you know what they intend to do with that slave when they find her?"
Georgia stared at him, her vocal cords frozen, and he smiled thinly.
"I've never been a slave. I don't pretend to understand what someone who has been one would be willing to do to gain her own freedom. And, by the same token, I don't pretend to stand in judgment on those who want to . . . discuss her actions with her. But I think, Elaine, that if I were her, I'd be far more concerned about the Ballroom than about anything the Star Kingdom's courts might want to discuss with her."
"What . . . what are you offering?" she asked hoarsely.
"Seventy-two standard-hours' headstart," he said bluntly. "I won't promise not to hand the evidence I've assembled over to the Ballroom. Cathy's 'butler' would never forgive us if I did. But Isaac will give me those three days, as well. He and Jeremy are reasonable men. They'll be unhappy with me, but they recognize the realities of horse-trading, and they know what sort of political stakes we're playing for here in the Star Kingdom. They'll settle for knowing where to start looking for you again."
"So you want me to just vanish?" She stared at him for a moment, then shook her head. "No. You want something more than that. I'm not important enough for you to risk the possibility that the Ballroom might not be as 'reasonable' as you hope it will. Besides, you'd do much more damage to High Ridge and his government if you just told Jeremy where to find me." She shook her head again. "You want the files for yourself, don't you?"
"No." It wasn't Zilwicki. It was Montaigne, and her level voice was like liquid helium. Georgia looked at her in disbelief, and the ex-countess shrugged. "I won't pretend that a part of me isn't tempted. But those files have done enough damage already. Oh, I could probably convince myself that the real criminals, the bastards who've broken the law and gotten away with it, deserve to be turned in and brought down in public, as spectacularly as possible. But the other temptation . . . the temptation not to turn them in." She shook her head. "It would be too easy to turn into another New Kiev and convince myself that the nobility of my purpose justified whatever tool I chose to use."
"Not to mention," Zilwicki rumbled, "the fact that a good third of the 'evidence' contained in those files was probably manufactured in the first place."
"Not to mention that," Montaigne agreed.
"So what do you want?" Georgia asked flatly.
"We want the files destroyed," Zilwicki told her. "And we want it done in a way which proves they've been destroyed."
"How am I supposed to do that?" she demanded.
"You've already demonstrated that you're a very inventive and capable woman, Elaine," Montaigne told her. "And it's common knowledge that the files are stored in a high-security vault under the Youngs' townhouse here in Landing. I'm sure that you could arrange for that vault—and the house, for that matter—to suffer some spectacular mischief. Without, I hasten to add, any loss of life."
"You expect me to arrange all of that and get off the planet within three standard days?" She shook her head. "Even if I wanted to, I couldn't pull something like that off that quickly. Not, at least, and leave myself enough time to run to make any difference in the end."
"Your three days would begin the day after the files are destroyed," Zilwicki told her. "Unless, of course, you tried to leave the planet before they were destroyed."
"And if I refuse, you'd really hand me over to the Ballroom? Even knowing what they'd do to me?"
"Yes, I would," Zilwicki said flatly.
"I don't think I believe you," she said softly, then looked at Montaigne. "And despite everything I've heard about you and your relationship with the Ballroom, I don't think you'd let him. I don't think you'd care to live with what they'd do."
"Maybe I wouldn't," Montaigne replied. "No. I'll go further than that. I wouldn't like to live with it. But don't you think for one fucking minute that I wouldn't do it anyway. Unlike Anton, I've spent decades working with the Ballroom and with escaped slaves. Like him, I can't really put myself in their places. The living Hell any slave experiences—even you—is something I can only attempt to imagine. But I've seen what slaves have done to gain their freedom. And I've heard them tell about the other slaves—the ones who helped someone else gain her freedom, and what it cost them. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that I require any slave to be that heroic, that self-sacrificing. But I have by God known slaves who were that heroic, and I know the tales of the ones who were that self-sacrificing. And I know that you were directly responsible for sending almost five hundred escaped slaves back into that Hell to save yourself . . . and for a tidy little profit, as well. So, yes, 'Elaine.' If Jeremy catches up with you, I'll live with whatever he does."
Georgia felt something shrivel deep within her as she gazed into those implacable green eyes.
"And think about this," Zilwicki told her. Her eyes snapped helplessly back to him, and the smile he gave her would have suited any shark. "Even if I didn't have the stomach in the end to turn you in to the Ballroom, I don't have to. I found the middleman you used to contact Denver Summervale. I have his deposition, too. I doubt very much that it would stand up in a court of law, but it wouldn't have to. I'd simply send it to Duchess Harrington."
What had already begun to shrivel crumpled completely at the icy promise in Anton Zilwicki's eyes. Georgia Young, Lady North Hollow, looked back and forth between those two very different yet equally unyielding faces, and knew both of them had meant every word they'd said.
"So, 'Elaine,' " Montaigne asked softly, "what's it going to be?"
Son, your mother says I have to hang you. Personally I don't think this is a capital offense. But if I don't hang you, she's gonna hang me and frankly, I'm not the one in trouble. —cthia's father. Incident in ? Axiom of Common Sense