Part Seven - Federated Commonwealth

And it's been two years I miss my home

But there's a fire burning in my bones

Still believe

Yeah, I still believe

Chapter 40

Aswan, Caph

Draconis March, Federated Commonwealth

13 February 3064

Caph was one of humanity's first extra-solar colonies and it had been one of the core worlds of the Terran Hegemony and by extension of the Star League. As the Star League fell, Caph had been left brutally scarred by fighting between Kerensky's and Amaris' forces... and then again as House Liao, House Kurita and House Davion fought over it.

Two of the world's three continents were no longer habitable, but from the vibrant capital city it was hard to imagine that. The thriving metropolis rivalled Avalon City for size and sophistication. Even the relatively sudden end of their brief independence within the Chaos March didn't seem to phase most of the populace.

Peter's temporary residence had been used by Caph's militia until Marshal Orsina had brought the Fourth Davion Guards Regimental Combat Team across the Lyran Alliance and reconquered the world in the name of the Federated Suns. There were various reasons Peter had decided not to argue with the terminology, including but not limited to the fact that Caph provided a perfect jumping off point for his task force to cross back into Lyran space.

It was also part of the immense double-chain of HPG stations that enabled two-way real-time contact between Tharkad and New Avalon and the holo display of his suite lighting up drew his attention away from the skyline of Aswan and towards two women sharing a couch, hundreds of light years away. "Yvonne, Catherine, how are you?"

Each was sat against one arm, leaving a sizeable separation, he noticed as they both greeted him with smiles. "We're doing well, of course," Yvonne assured him. "Catherine has even managed to persuade George Hasek to make a formal statement of support."

Peter grinned. Finally! He'd been worrying about the March Lord's continued intransigence. "How did you manage that, Cat?"

"I can hardly take credit," his blonde sister said quietly. "I think your efforts on Algol and Acamar were what swayed him. I heard about the casualties there."

That soured the mood immediately. The Fifth Royal Guards had lost more than a dozen mechwarriors between the fighting on those two worlds, and twice that many of their 'Mechs had had to be left behind for major repairs or even to be scrapped.

"It was less the enemy's ferocity than some carelessness," he said harshly. "I should have made sure they were more adjusted to using lighter 'Mechs that couldn't simply bull through enemy fire the way our Mackie II's used to." He'd had to keep the Royal Guards in reserve on Epsilon Indi, although fortunately the arrival of two additional RCTs had left no need to commit them - the Davion Light Guards and Fifth Davion Guards were holding the recovered worlds until formal garrison forces could become available.

"I don't believe that that's all of the answer, Catherine," Yvonne said mildly. "But it did help and it's probably why he agreed to contribute to our belated birthday present for you."

Peter blinked. He'd turned twenty-nine at the start of the month but it had hardly registered except for one evening drinking with his company commanders. "I wasn't really expecting you to send me anything."

"Consider it a joint gift from Duke Sandoval, Duke Hasek and the two of us," his younger sister told him. "The Glowworm should have reached Caph's jump point yesterday by command circuit along with your other supplies from Addicks."

"Yes... I think they did." He frowned in concentration. "Why?"

"In addition to twelve fully reconditioned Mackie IIs - quality checked to Daniel Holstein's personal satisfaction - she's carrying twelve Templar OmniMechs and twelve Sagittaires to join the Fifth Royal Guards." Catherine smiled a little more sincerely. "Hopefully some of those less suited to lighter rides can now be back in their comfort zone."

He grinned and rubbed his jaw. "You know exactly what I want." A full battalion of assault 'Mechs would do wonders for the Royal Guards' strength.

"Well we were hoping to give you Kath-rina." Yvonne caught herself at the last moment and glanced guiltily at Catherine before continuing. "But we have no news of her. Just two unconfirmed sightings of the Lucien Davion."

"Two? I heard about Marlette -" A merchant jumpship had reported picking up a warship in the outer system - which could be a mistake of course. "But where else?"

"Similarly tenuous. The DCMS claim an Avalon-class cruiser was recharging at Styx - but they aren't sharing their sensor data so it could just be posturing over losing Marduk. I don't think Theodore Roosevelt would play such games but he has many subordinates."

"Kurita," Yvonne corrected her, with an air that suggested she was growing used to it.


"You said Theodore Roosevelt."

"Oh." Catherine frowned in irritation at herself. "Yes. My bad."

"It's plausible," Peter noted, pretending to ignore Catherine's lapse. "If Katrina is headed for Tharkad then Styx is the sort of backwater system she might be able to get away with passing through - although Draconis space might be risky it avoids any chance of running into my forces here in the Chaos March."

"The surprise is that she hasn't contacted ComStar somewhere to have them send messages to try to stabilise her support. Losing New Avalon is bad for her but she could have mitigated it by remaining visible."

Yvonne nodded in agreement with Catherine. "Tancred's still got some hot spots to deal with but with the March Lords supporting us, all the key industrial and command worlds look securely with us in the Federated Suns. Nondi can't say the same for the Lyran Alliance. There's not a day that goes by without news of another riot somewhere or fighting."

"If she's losing control then this could be the end of the beginning ."

"The beginning of the end perhaps." Peter glanced at Catherine and saw Yvonne doing the same - was she slipping like this so often? That probably didn't look good to the public. "Have you been able to get an idea of what forces she can rely on?"

"It's hard to pin down for sure, but a lot of regiments are finding reasons that they need to stay on their base worlds to cover the border and deal with the local conflicts." Yvonne pursed her lips. "She can count on the Royal Guards, of course, and it looks like the four remaining Jaeger units are in her pocket still."

The Coventry Jaegers had attacked Victor's ally, Duke Bradford, on Coventry itself last year. While the Duke's own forces had been crushed by the Jaegers, Victor's arrival had saved him and secured Coventry Metal Works to help supply the allied forces in the Lyran Alliance. The Jaegers had taken months to destroy though - like Katrina's forces on Algol, very few had been willing to surrender.

"The good news is that her hold on Skye has almost entirely collapsed," added Catherine optimistically. "The Skye Jaegers aside, the Skye Rangers seem to be paying more attention to Robert Kelswa-Steiner than Nondi. That's a problem in and of itself, but Caesar Steiner arrived in the region and swung all the Donegal Guards RCTs present - including the three that were on this side of Terra - over to our side. He can squash Robert flat if he tries anything."

"That's great news - what about Hesperus II?" Almost entirely unpopulated, Hesperus II was home to the largest 'Mech factories in the Inner Sphere, heavily fortified and guarded by at least two Regimental Combat Teams.

"As far as we can tell, all three units there taking the position that securing Defiance Industries for the Lyran Alliance is more important than holding it for either side - they'll fight if attacked, but unless we do that then we can discount the Fifteenth and Thirty-Sixth Lyran Guards, the Gray Death Legion and FCS Simon Davion."

"I can't say they're wrong," Peter agreed. The Simon Davion was a sister ship to his own flagship, the Hanse Davion. There were other warships in Skye Province, but without the Avalon-class cruiser they'd be hard-pressed to threaten him. "If Caesar is on Skye, I should be able to join up with him there and then we can pincer Tharkad between us and Victor."

His sisters exchanged glances and his heart sank. "What?"

"Victor is already moving on Tharkad," Yvonne told him. "He's leaving Coventry today."

Peter blinked. "But... he's only got..." He thought a moment. "Okay, five Regimental Combat Teams and some supporting units... that's more than we had on New Avalon, but he'll have more opposition than we had to deal with."

Catherine nodded. "I know. And four of them are from this side of the Commonwealth - he only has two Lyran units with him - the Seventeenth Donegal Guards and Archer's Avengers. Nondi may not be the sharpest political mind but even she can spin this in line with Katrina's Davion versus Steiner..." She searched for a word and settled on: "Ideology."

Sitting back, Peter activated his noteputer and checked his files. "Aunt Nondi's logical recourse is to bring in the task force she's been assembling to go after Coventry. With only the Eleventh Arcturan Guards and two Provincial Militias it's far from large enough to handle Victor's forces alone but added to the two Royal Guards RCTs on Tharkad, it can probably buy time for her to try to sway other units or to bring in the Jaegers."

"All three of the Royal Guards RCTs," Yvonne corrected him. "We've had confirmation that the Third Royal Guards aren't headed for Dalkeith after all - they're on the way to Tharkad and they'll beat Victor there."

"Then the numbers are close to even, and Aunt Nondi has the defensive advantage. What's Victor thinking? Given a couple more months we could combine our forces."

His youngest sister looked pensive. "His messages suggest he's concerned about Katrina. She could have reached Tharkad by now and if she hasn't then it could happen any time. He wants to take Tharkad before she can take the reins once more - just her presence would bolster her cause significantly."

Peter uttered a curse under his breath. "What's she going to do that Nondi can't? She's no general."

"She's also outmaneuvered Victor repeatedly," Catherine said quietly. "On the political battlefield, yes, but that's all the more deadly. We can't afford to underestimate her."

There was a long pause and then the prince rubbed his jaw. "Okay. I can't wait any longer then. The Davion Guards can stay in the Terran Corridor to secure a supply route back to Addicks - bringing them into the Lyran Alliance was always going to be inflammatory, even if the Fourth were willing to go back there."

"So you're moving now?"

Peter nodded. "We have three warships - that should be enough to deal with the two corvettes in Skye if they side with Nondi. Since Uncle Caesar is keeping Skye pacified I should be able to cross it quickly and reinforce Victor. If he can win, great. But if he can't then he should be able to hang on long enough for me to arrive."

"As long as you don't get defeated in detail," Catherine warned.

"I'd have to make some pretty major mistakes for that to happen," he told her confidently. "I've got the Pride of the Federated Commonwealth with me, after all."

Yvonne smiled, but she shook her head. "You know what goeth before a fall, Peter."

"Oh I know. But seriously. Between the Pride, four Regimental Combat Teams and two other 'Mech regiments -" the Tenth Lyran Guards, Twentieth Avalon Hussars, Nineteenth Arcturan Guards, First Ceti Hussars, Third Lyran Regulars and First Federated Suns Armored Cavalry "- Nondi would have to bring everything else she has together in one place to stop us."

"Or warships."

Peter paused and acknowledged the point. "Okay, yes. But she'd have to send those covering Tharkad to match ours and with Victor on the way, she can't afford that."

"It's still a risk."

He nodded soberly. "But Victor's forced our hand with his own risk. If Katrina returns and Victor gets himself killed, she could very well consolidate her position as Archon and regain control of the Alliance. She's had years longer to dig in there. If that goes on..."

The three Steiner-Davions looked at each other, each seeing the same determination in their siblings.

"You'd better wake up your staff then," Catherine said at last. "Good luck, Peter."

Peter nodded and closed the channel. When he looked out of the window, Caph's star was low in the sky, a brilliant sunburst over Aswan's towering buildings. The sight reminded him of the sunburst that formed half of the Federated Commonwealth's heraldry and he raised his hand before it in a fist, completing the image.

"Time," he said to himself. "Ask me for anything but time."

Chapter 41

Castle Davion, New Avalon

Crucis March, Federated Commonwealth

24 March 3064

Yvonne got a nod from Catherine's secretary - a woman pulled from the palace's general secretarial pool back when Catherine was just a newly arrived member of the royal family and less than two months later had found herself running the office of the effective head of state - and entered the main office without knocking.

It was her - their - father's office once, then Victor's... and Katherine had been using it as well, something that still elicited a shiver from the youngest Steiner-Davion. Who was Katherine really? For that matter, where was she?

"Catherine? Your secretary said you weren't doing anything urgent."

While the face behind the desk was still unnervingly familiar, the much shorter hair thankfully provided an obvious signifier that this wasn't the ousted blonde but the one Peter vouched for. And, Yvonne realised with a touch of judgmentalism, one who'd been doing a fairly good job of not just holding things together in Peter's absence but tying up the wounds of the war.

"Not urgent," Catherine agreed. She pushed her chair away, looking away from the documents being projected into the air in front of her by a holo-projector was cunningly concealed in the wooden desk. "Just reviewing reports from the Colonelcy Board."

"The what now?"

Lips curled, Catherine clarified: "General Abrams' board - the rank reviews?"

"Oh yes. Why do you call it that?"

"I didn't, FNS are calling it that. Presumably because we're formally reinstating the rank of Colonel."

Yvonne nodded in understanding. "I never understood why that was thrown out when the LCAF and AFFS merged - it was one of the few ranks they had in common, wasn't it?" She went to one of the couches in the office and put one hand on the back in silent invitation.

Catherine pushed back her chair. "I blame Seattle," she said as she walked around the desk, not explaining the cryptic response.

They sat facing each other and the younger sister hesitated before asking: "Have you thought about the future?"

The smile on Catherine's lips was self-deprecating. "Just a bit." She spread her arms and wiggled her fingers to indicate the breath of that 'bit'. "Time is a fire in which we burn, Yvonne."

"Are you being morbid or...?"

"It sounded better in my head." The blonde smiled a little sadly. "What scale are you contemplating the future of?"

Yvonne leant back and eyed the other woman. "The future of the Federated Commonwealth and the Star League."

"It's entirely possible that neither has very much of a future," Catherine told her immediately.

" say that so easily."

"The Star League exists because it benefits all of the members. It's a purely voluntary association... and it was to a very large degree driven by the threat of the Clans. Victor, Theodore and..." She hesitated. "Mansdottir, are all concerned by that. Katrina should have been, but... Katrina. Thomas Marik and Sun-Tzu Liao have no direct stake in those threats - I suspect Thomas was pressured by the Word of Blake since they have an ideological opposition to the Clans. Sun-Tzu just didn't want to be the one left out."

"The Clans are still there, aren't they?"

"Yes... but not as a unified force. Actually, I think they're going to face some very... interesting conflicts between themselves, but that's getting away from the point." Catherine considered and then shrugged. "Overall, Clan Ghost Bear are the strongest of the Clans right now - the Wolves and Jade Falcons are still weakened by their war seven years ago and other conflicts since. But the Draconis Combine is fighting the Bears fairly effectively right now, and with little to no outside help. The Clans are no longer the menace they once were."

"And without an outside threat, you think the Star League will break up - the way the Allies of World War II did once the Cold War broke out?"

"That's an awful historical parallel, but not entirely inaccurate," Catherine said with a wince. "Right now, the Star League is missing its primary focus and without another that we can all agree on, it will be of reduced influence. It didn't exactly do anything about our recent war with the Combine and Theodore is the First Lord."

Yvonne nodded slowly. "Where does that take us, back to the Succession Wars?"

"Well not the early ones, at least I hope not. Although the technology for that level of savagery is more available now that it has been - warship fleets, for example. If someone starts breaking out the canned sunshine -"

The term got a blink and then a snicker from Yvonne, who fought it down just a little too late.

Her sister gave her an arched eyebrow and then wry smile. "Not a term to use in public, I confess. But yes. The Star League may have value as a restraint but if two or three of the major powers withdrew then it might collapse entirely."

"There wouldn't be many members left in that case," Yvonne pointed out and then paused. "Unless others joined it... but the Periphery was never interested and all the states in the Inner Sphere are members. Except the Word of Blake - have they contacted you?"

"I may be reading too much into it."

"Do you think that it would be wise? They're fanatics in Myndo Waterly's mould." Yvonne shivered, recalling how the former Primus had attempted to seize control of the entire Inner Sphere in the wake of the Battle of Tukkayid. The youngest Steiner-Davion had been only thirteen years old, but she remembered how her parents had been forced to divert resources to neutralise the plot after it was leaked by a Combine spy inside Waterly's inner circle.

Catherine leant forwards. "Keep your friends close, Yvonne, and your enemies closer."

"Ah." She shook her head though, still discomforted by the recollection. "And when it comes to the Federated Commo-"

Yvonne was cut off by a chime from the intercom. "Excuse me, your highness." The secretary's voice was cool and professional. "Count Allard and his grandson are here on what they advise is urgent business.

Catherine turned her hands palm up and shrugged. "Count Allard's judgement is usually sound. As is his grandson's." She went to the door of the office and returned a moment later with Quintus Allard and Quintus Allard-Liao, both looking grave.

"It's not news of your family, I hope?" Yvonne greeted them.

Quintus the younger shook his head. "No, your highness. So far as we're aware, my mother and siblings are well, other than being constrained to remain on Sian. The news is from somewhat further afield."

The sisters exchanged glances. "I think we're braced for the worst," Catherine said slowly.

"Our sources from the Lyran Alliance have pinned down the troop movements we've been concerned about," the Count informed them. "Unfortunately, it is as we feared - the redeployments to deal with the unrest were merely a cover for reinforcing Tharkad's defenses."

"It's not really a surprise. None of the worlds affected are as critical as the capital."

Yvonne called to mind the situation on Tharkad when she'd last been briefed. Although the forces were approximately equal in strength, Victor had used Nondi's need to maintain a grip on the capital to his advantage and landed on the smaller continents of Heidelberg and Franze. With local superiority they'd been overrun with relative ease, providing a foothold for the Allies from which Victor planned to move to Bremen, the planet's largest continent and the location of the Triad.

"How bad is it?" she asked the Allards.

"The timing was very bad." Quintus Allard's lined face showed more resolve than it did sympathy. "The orbitals had remained contested and Victor's warships were focused on protecting the Bremen landings until too late. Both of the corvettes on loan from Phelan Kell were damaged trying to hold off LAS Yggdrasil and her escorts, although we believe one of Nondi's corvettes has been almost crippled. As a result, loyalist commands were able to set down on Heidelberg and overrun Victor's supply bases there."

Catherine rubbed her forehead. "What strength are they in?"

Quintus opened his noteputer and gave the contents a cursory glance. "The Donegal Jaegers and two regimental combat teams: the Third Lyran Guards and the Third Donegal Guards."

"So Victor's lost his supply base and he's outnumbered?" Yvonne gripped the arm of the couch. "Are there no reinforcements we can send?"

"Unfortunately, while many of the LAAF forces have shifted away from directly support of your sister during her continuing absence, very few are willing to support your brother either. And the exceptions are faced by other concerns."

"Robert Kelswa," Yvonne spat.

Catherine nodded. "Duchess Aten still hasn't woken from her coma and with her eldest daughter dead, that leaves Skye effectively in the hands of Robert and Hermione. Even if we wanted to risk moving troops away, by the time Caesar reorganised jumpships for it, Peter would be there with his task force."

"Can't Morgan Kell do anything?"

Quintus Jr. shook his head. "The Jade Falcons are mustering their forces. While it's tempting to think they're going to turn on Clan Wolf, it seems more likely that their Khan sees this as her last opportunity to blood troops against us before the Civil War is won. As a result, the Arc-Royal Defense Cordon can't spare any significant forces. With two warships and a battalion of the Kell Hounds already on Tharkad, they they can't afford to send more."

"It could be worse though."

They all looked at Catherine. "While it always could get worse, your highness, do you have something specific in mind?" asked the Count.

"The Twenty-Fourth Lyran Guards are on Donegal, only a jump away from Tharkad," she pointed out. "They could have been easily brought in and we've been assuming they were loyal to Nondi. Peter Riskind and Sabine Steiner are a formidable command team, but if they're still on Donegal then Victor may not need to face them."

Allard nodded. "You're correct, and we have no indications that they're preparing to move."

"If Sabine isn't moving to support her grandmother," - Sabine was their second cousin and one of Nondi Steiner's grandchildren - "then I have to wonder why."

Catherine shrugged. "Possibly she sees the writing on the wall - or possibly Riskind is forcing neutrality on her. He might have had to detain her in the latter case..."

"There is a third possibility," pointed out the youngest Allard-Liao. "She would hardly be the first Steiner to harbour political ambitions and she's very close to the throne - arguably the best outside you Steiner-Davions, should her mother and grandmother be discounted."

"Another would-be Katrina Steiner," Yvonne noted sourly, recalling that Sabine's military acumen had been likened to the former Archon.

"A better one than the last." Catherine made a face. "Not my first choice, or my second, but if it comes to a compromise then she might be one we can live with."

"A compromise where the Federated Commonwealth is no more."

Catherine spread her hands. "Not my first or second choice."

Chapter 42

New Glasgow, Skye

Skye Province, Lyran Alliance

21 April 3064

Skye was... interesting. In the Capellan sense of the word.

Peter had visited the Ducal Palace, paying respects to Hermione Aten - who seemed increasingly likely to be the Duchess as her mother's coma continued. Her husband Robert had been 'unavoidably detained' elsewhere but the youngest Aten had made pointed comments about how she and Robert had both lost parents to terrorism.

It was more than likely, Peter thought, that she was on the entirely too long list of people that knew that Victor had had Robert's father Ryan assassinated in retaliation for the murder of Galen Cox. Of course, for all those who knew it to be true, virtually everyone with a nose for politics suspected it.

"It's a terrible shame about Margaret," his host told him, offering him a glass.

"I'm not sure I should be drinking," he told Caesar Steiner, but accepted it anyway.

"It's not a cure to everything, but it eases the pain of dealing with the littlest Aten." His distant uncle sipped his glass judiciously. "Some of Kell's people very nearly got her and Ilse out, but the Skye security thought they were in on it and in the confusion..." He shrugged. "Poor communication kills."

"Yes." The contents of the glass were smooth, probably deceptively so, Peter thought. Wetting his lips more than once might not be wise. "On the other hand, if they hadn't been there then all three Atens could have been killed."

"A mixed blessing. Robert's in this Free Skye thing up to his neck, but he's as wily as his father so we can't pin it on him. And whatever he does, don't believe for a moment that Hermione isn't in it with him. They're two of a kind."

"I'd rather come to the same conclusion." He set his glass down. "And the Skye Rangers all rushed back here so I assume that they'll fall in with Kelswa-Steiner if it comes to it."

"Almost certainly," Caesar agreed without hesitation. "If that happens I'll wipe out the entire brigade - but that won't do anything for public opinion."

"A possibility best avoided - but of course that means I can't take you with me to Tharkad."

The older man shook his head. "I'm sure Reinhart will uphold the family honour." His son commanded the BattleMech regiment of the Tenth Lyran Guards. "I thought you were bringing one of the Ceti Hussar RCTs as well?"

"Some of the jumpships needed repairs - nothing serious but we've been pushing them fairly hard shuffling units - so I left them behind. Since we have the opportunity, I told Marshal Lamont to see if he could secure other worlds within the Chaos March. We need the Terran corridor re-established if the Federated Commonwealth is to have any future."

"You believe that it does?"

Peter considered the man asking the question seriously and nodded. "I believe both halves have benefited a great deal from it. One of the things that Katrina used to try to discredit Victor's rule after 3057 was the economic problems in the Suns. Granted, she exaggerated some of those issues, and others resulted from her sitting on much of the military jumpship fleet, forcing Victor to lean more heavily on civilian shipping..."

"I'm familiar."

"Yes. But at root, both sides of the Federated Commonwealth saw reduced economic growth after the Alliance seceded. The Lyran manufacturers profited from the markets of the Suns and access to Lyran production stabilised those markets, letting the Suns diversify in ways they hadn't for centuries."

Caesar grunted. "Money talks, I'll give you that. But politics is more about emotion and your sister has stirred that up good and proper."

"I know. The damage she's done to relations between both halves won't be made right easily - but at the same time, that gulf still isn't as wide as it once was, not when my parents chose to bridge it for the first time."

"Civil war can be polarising. It may be wider than you think."

Peter rubbed his chin. "Is that what Victor's thinking?"

"I couldn't say."

Slumping back into his chair, Peter looked across the table at the general. "Where do you stand?"

"I'm here, aren't I?"

"Right." He sighed. "Do you need anything to help hold Skye together?"

"I wouldn't say no to another regiment or two, but it's been worse."

Peter nodded decisively. "The Third NAIS Cadre is made up of heavy and assault 'Mechs. I'll detach them to reinforce you - if nothing happens then they'll get to broaden their horizons here on Skye. and if the worst does, you'll have a heavy unit to complement the Second Donegal Guards."

Caesar tossed back the rest of his drink. "A bunch of green cadets? Alright, I'll take it. If nothing else, those fresh-faced kids'll look good on the holos."

"If we can win this battle with PR instead of guns, then so much the better. We're going to need all our firepower when the Jade Falcons move."

"You're sure they will?"

"They're more vultures than birds of prey. Katrina was useless against them five years ago, and now we throw a civil war into the mix... Everything I've heard about them makes it just a matter of time."

"And the SLDF isn't likely to join us - Theodore Kurita isn't calling on them against the Ghost Bears, so he's unlikely to let them fight the Jade Falcons for us." Caesar had been the Lyran liaison to the SLDF since it was reformed and remained well informed, even now.

Peter set his own glass down. "Which is a problem in and of itself. But one we'll need to deal with another day."

"Yes, taking care of Nondi and the Falcons will take both hands." Caesar's eyes narrowed. "You've still got enough forces to tip the balance on Tharkad, but there's no knowing if Victor will still be alive when you get there."

"I couldn't swear that he's alive now." Peter glanced out the window and then back. "Unless your news is more current than mine."

"He was alive two days ago, when he tried to come down on the Triad from the north. I think if your great-aunt had killed or captured him, she'd have let everyone know that. It'd be a blow - no offense, but you don't have as much of a reputation as your brother. Yet."

"That assumes she knows. But someone pulled the Prince's Men back in good order, so here's hoping."

Without his supply bases, Victor had been operating a mobile campaign across the northern ice fields of Bremen. So far Nondi had been content to keep a strong garrison with her at the Triad - the three Royal Guards RCTs, that had stalled the attack on the 19th - while General Esteban hunted for Victor's task force with other regiments.

"Assuming what she has said is true though," Peter continued, "He's taken losses - serious losses. And I doubt he has the supplies to rebuild from it."

"Much like Bishop Sortek's position then," Caesar said with a smile and offered Peter a topping up before filling his own glass for a second time.

Chapter 43

The Triad, Tharkad

Donegal Province, Lyran Alliance

30 May 3064

Searcy was glad to be free of the city streets as he marched his Sagittare up the slopes towards the Triad.

Behind them, entirely too many of Tharkad City's broad avenues were clogged by smashed tanks and broken BattleMechs, buildings with scarcely an intact window and many with ruptured walls or even roofs.

Some of his company complained about it being Avalon City all over again, but to Michael Searcy it could only recall Solaris and that - in hindsight - dreadful August week after he and Vandergriff had crashed into the stands at the Colosseum and ignited a firestorm. God, it was closer to two years than one now.

The Robinson-built Sagittaire was a far cry from the increasingly wartorn Mackie he'd used in the Federated Suns. Five tons heavier - slower on the ground but it boasted jump-jets, which were a crucial advantage in the city. Out here, as the towering political heart of the Lyran Alliance loomed in front of them... well, it would help.

So would the cold. The outside temperature was dropping as night came on. Despite the warmth of his fusion reactor, Searcy shivered at the stark landscape. "Are you sure you want to push on, boss?" he asked on a private channel. "Tomorrow, we'd have more 'Mechs ready - and your brother would have caught up."

"It's tempting," Peter Steiner-Davion admitted in a voice that betrayed more fatigue than he'd shown in the briefing session earlier. "But it also gives them longer to make repairs and assemble stragglers." Then, voice steely: "I want this done, Michael."

"Your Royal Guards against Nondi Steiner's."

"It seems that that's how it must be."

It was about all that was left to Nondi's hard core of loyalists. Maria Esteban's command - her own Eleventh Arcturan Guards and militia from Alarion and Carlisle had done their best to relieve the Third Lyran Guards and the Donegal Jaegers as they hung onto the spaceport, but numbers - and fresh mechwarriors not worn down by weeks of battles - had told. Esteban had offered her surrender to General Gloria Bishop's Nineteenth Arcturan Guards - the sister regiment giving assurances of fair treatment.

The advance into Tharkad City had been blunted, then stalled as the Royal Guards sallied forth. Searcy could still see the carnage if he closed his eyes - a Demolisher II tank had blocked up Baker Company for twenty minutes, hull down in a parking garage, until their own armour had caught up and rooted it out. He was four 'Mechs down as a result. Three of the mechwarriors hadn't made it out.

"Do we have intel on what she has left?"

"A little better than two battalions - mostly First and Second Royal Guards. Reinhart Steiner tells me that less than a company of the Third Royals made it out of the city, and I believe him," Peter advised.

"So about our numbers," Searcy thought out loud. Nondi could still command the Third Donegal Guards in theory, but they'd been holding back what was left of Victor's forces alone all day - and the Federated Suns Armored Cavalry had been sent after their rear area so they were in no position to affect matters tonight. "A fair fight."

Peter's voice was as cold as the frost outside. "Fair or foul, we must win."

"Then we shall," Searcy offered in assurance they both knew was false.

There was nothing subtle about the advance and Nondi responded in kind. The outermost perimeter of the Triad was nothing more than a wire fence and cameras to keep out trespassers and the press. The space between that fence and the walls with the real defenses was an open killing ground and the Fifth Royal Guards' light and medium 'Mechs fell behind a wedge of heavy and assault machines as turrets began to open fire.

Only moments later, Royal Guards' Mechs - their colours identical to those of the Fifth - surged out to meet them.

Searcy saw Crucis Company drive forward to meet a loyalist spearhead of Fafnir and Hauptmann assault weights but there was no time to intervene - a pair of Ontos tanks opened up on him with LRMs and he fired his jump jets, hopping aside before the rain of missiles could scour away armour from the wedge-shaped torso of his Sagittaire.

A blue-and-white painted Zeus reared up in front of him - even without the golden rattlesnake of the Third Royal Guards and the blue Lyran Alliance badge where he wore the Fist-and-Sunburst, Searcy knew it for an enemy: there were no Zeus in the Fifth.

The Zeus had opened up on Scott Tracker's Mackie, a twin-barrelled laser - was that a 'Mech scale blazer? - tearing into the heavier 'Mech's armour.

Catching it from the flank, Searcy let his targeting computer pinpoint the weak spots and then fired his pulse lasers into poorly patched plating over the right shoulder. The air inside his cockpit heated to almost scorching levels and amber-lights flared but the precision burst ripped away the armour and deep into the joint, severing the limb and sending it to the ground.

The Zeus kept firing at Tracker until an Osiris soared in on its jump jets, attempting a dangerous death-from-above and spoiling Searcy's second shot.

The mechwarrior in the Zeus back-stepped, avoiding the charging Osiris's landing, then stepped forwards again, hitting the light 'Mech with a savage kick.

One leg crumpled and the Fifth Royals' Osiris hit the ground - it must be Tracker's brother Andy - the younger mechwarrior had been recruited out of the Fifth Crucis Lancers on Algol where he'd been shot out of his Valkyrie by the Republican Guards early in the campaign.

Searcy fired his ER PPC and saw the Zeus turn towards him only to take a shoulder-charge from Tracker's Mackie. Both mechs crashed forwards, the Mackie on top, and Searcy shifted his focus to the next available targets, absently ordering Jason Scott to help Andy Tracker get his 'Mech up and help finish off the Zeus - with two hand actuators, his Phoenix Hawk could deal with the first and it lacked the armour to join Searcy on the frontline.

A trio of Royal Guards 'Mechs were advancing, a Hauptmann OmniMech and a pair of Griffins. None showed any armour damage so far.

"Bannson, with me," he ordered tersely. One omni-mech deserved another and the company's one Templar might be as unfamiliar to the Lyrans as the Hauptmann was to mechwarriors from the Federated Suns.

A moment later the Gauss Rifle mounted in Bannson's Templar fired a shot into the upper glacis of the Hauptmann, scarring the 'Mech's armour to one side of the forward-jutting head.

The two faced off and the Griffins conformed to the Hauptmann's movements, confirming his suspicion that the two were acting as bodyguards - which made the assault 'Mech's pilot someone important - perhaps one of the regimental commanders.

With his heat comfortably in the green, Searcy felt safe to risk an alpha strike against the nearer of the two Griffins. Planting his 'Mech's feet squarely he stitched pulse lasers across the smaller 'Mech as the mechwarrior inside threw up the right arm to cover his vulnerable cockpit and the missile launcher next to it.

The move preserved the LRM launcher, and the ER PPC in the right arm, but at the cost of almost all the armour protection across the lower chest, Searcy's PPC lashed out and adding to the damage. His heat spike briefly into the red and only slowly back into the amber.

At this close range, Searcy thought he could see the enemy mechwarrior inside his cockpit. He flared his jump jets the moment his temperature allowed it, guessing that the Lyran mechwarriors wouldn't guess that the Sagittaire would mount them and was rewarded when he only took glancing hits from their lasers and the rest of their fire went wild.

The ninety-five ton 'Mech came down knees first against the chest of the Griffin that he'd targeted - not a perfect Death From Above, but he hadn't been planning on one - like any canny Solaris Mechwarrior he knew to aim for weak spots and heavy, claw-like feet of Searcy's Sagittaire caved in the already compromised armour below the LRM launcher.

The explosion of the LRM storage almost ruined his landing - it did tear through the chest of the Griffin, wrecking the missile launcher and cutting the critical shoulder connections to the PPC. While cellular storage saved the lighter 'Mech's engine, it was left with only a single laser to fight back with.

The second Griffin had bounded backwards to avoid being caught the same way, its ER PPC tearing through almost all the protection to the left of the Sagittaire's spine. Another hit there could be crippling, and even a single laser might be enough.

Twisting his assault 'Mech, Searcy brought the right arm weapons-mounts around, sweeping the damaged Griffin's remaining arm and the laser on it out of line of his 'Mech.

His crosshairs pulsed gold as it intersected the second Griffin's outline but he waited until they were right over the cockpit before he triggered the pulse lasers in his left arm and chest, saving his fire to bring his internal temperatures down.

Not all the pulses of coherent light hit where he needed them to - but at least two did and no Mech cockpit could take take that beating.

The Griffin fell backwards, a blackened hole marking what had once been the 'face' of its head.

Not pausing, Searcy spun his Sagittaire towards the remaining Griffin, which backed away, a shot from its medium lasers scarring the armour protection over his ER PPC. He fired without hesitation or mercy.

Both his large lasers struck home, stitching holes in the remaining frontal armour of the 'Mech and destroying the lion's head badge on the left breast. Then the PPC bolt hit dead-centre, ripping through the paper-thin protection over the Griffin's gyro. What had begun as a backwards stagger under the impacts turned into a collapse to the frozen ground.

As welcome as that victory was, the battle was far from over. The outer wall had been breached and Searcy saw a Mackie - he thought it might be Peter himself - charge through it, ducking to avoid fire from the Fafnir that tried to fill the gap and shoulder-ramming it backwards to allow lighter Mechs of 'Peter's Pride' access to the court itself.

Before he could join them, however, Searcy would need to deal with the Hauptmann and the explosion of Bannson's gauss rifle as shots hit its capacitors told him that he wasn't done there yet.

The Hauptmann was smoking - not just from the ludicrously placed small laser in the head but from a gaping hole in the right side from which coolant was leaking. In return though, Bannson's Templar was missing its entire right side except the leg...

Including the leg, in fact, as the Hauptmann's autocannon roared and shells ripped the already battered limb apart.

Searcy pushed his Sagittaire into a run towards the pair of embattled assault 'Mechs. A volley of long-range missiles hammered into the ground around him, save for a few that chipped away at his armour. For a moment he thought it was the Ontos tanks from earlier but then he spotted a battered Archer leaning against the fortifications, missile launchers still showing signs of the contrails.

Disdaining to waste attention upon the 'Mech, he left it to a Royal Guards Osiris to deliver a coup de grace with its medium lasers and focused his attention on the Hauptmann.

The enemy mechwarrior very nearly missed his approach, firing another furious volley from its large lasers and autocannon that stripped away layers of armour from the struggling Bannson - the Hauptmann only turned at the last moment to try to avoid taking Searcy's first ER PPC shot against its damaged flank. Instead the lightning clawed away protection from the right arm's elbow to its shoulder.

Seconds later, the upper limb was severed entirely as Searcy reached the effective range of his large pulse lasers and fired them as a pair into the still upraised arm.

The arm - weighing something on the order of ten tons on its own - hit the ground with a thump audible even inside his cockpit and decisively drew the Hauptmann's attention from Bannson. Searcy dodged sideways as the other mechwarrior opened fire. The autocannon was the main threat and he managed to avoid it but lasers slashed armour away from his torso while two of the four Streak SRMs fired hit his cockpit, the impacts throwing Searcy against his restraints.

In return he zeroed in on the already damaged right torso, close enough now for his own small and medium lasers. "I'll take you apart piece by piece if I have to," he muttered and his shots ripped away the remaining protection.

The explosions that followed made it clear to him that he'd found the main ammunition bins. The bulk of the stored missiles and autocannon rounds' fury was vented out of the rear as pre-weakened panels gave way but the sheer explosion left the Hauptmann staggering, the mechwarrior having to sink down onto its haunches until the gyro fully compensated - and possibly until their ears stopped ringing.

While the autocannon and one missile launcher were left, without ammunition they were useless and the limited laser array was dangerous, but far less than Michael Searcy could bring to bear.

Circling to the left exposed the side of the Hauptmann, which struggled to keep up with the more nimble Sagittaire barely able to bring its weapons to bear. Shot after shot savaged the inner workings of the OmniMech until, finally, the reactor shielding was critically ruptured.

Fire bloomed on the battlefield - around the fusion engine and then from the cockpit as the mechwarrior ejected.

For a moment, Searcy thought that the mechwarrior had made it, but the seat spiralled wildly as it soared up - part of the cockpit canopy hadn't released correctly. The parachute failed to deploy and as he watched, it hit the ground at what had to be terminal velocity, the mechwarrior still strapped in.

If there was any mercy left to them, he hoped the loyalist had been killed or at least knocked out by the cockpit - the brief flight with its obvious and fatal ending was nothing he would have wished on anyone.

Turning he saw Bannson finishing off the Archer with a kick that came entirely too close to the smaller 'Mech's cockpit. "Enough of that," Searcy ordered. "You know the orders. We're not like Katrina's fanatics."

"Sir." The other Mechwarrior was half-defiant, half-apologetic - clearly of two minds about those orders. But he obediently fell in behind Searcy as they joined the other Fifth Royal Guards streaming into the Triad's inner grounds.

Chapter 44

The Triad, Tharkad

Donegal Province, Lyran Alliance

1 June 3064

The throne of the Lyran Commonwealth was as stark as Peter remembered from when his mother had sat there.

Now it was empty, though once again flanked by a pair of BattleMechs. In the absence of any Griffins - the model that traditionally filled the role - Peter had selected two of the least damaged Mackies of the Fifth Royal Guards to take up the positions. Catherine would probably chide him for the political message, but at least he'd realised that using 'Mechs built in the Suns would be a mistake.

Victor had clearly not yet grasped the issues inherent in his own uniform. While Peter wore what was recognisably the dress uniform of the Royal Guards, if with the tunic a darker green than was standard, his elder brother was still in the uniform of a AFFS Field Marshal.

They faced each other across the strip of carpet leading up the steps to the throne. Peter could feel the eyes of the mechwarriors in the Mechs, of the officers of both their forces who'd been able to join them. Someone had to make the first move...

Victor reached out and accepted the hand that Peter hadn't realised he'd extended. They shook and somewhere holo-cameras recorded the moment for posterity. "Well done, Peter. Thank you."

Peter felt abashed for a moment and jerked his chin towards the throne. "Aren't you going to sit down?"

"No." His brother looked around the room and then shook his head. "I've no intention of taking the throne again."

Catherine had warned him but somehow he'd assumed she was wrong about this one thing. More fool him. "I was rather under the impression that that was what all this -" he gestured to indicate the entire war "- was all about."

"Then you're mistaken." Victor gave him a tired smile. "Although I imagine many other people feel the same way. I did this to remove Katherine, because she'd proven herself to be a tyrant. If the last - mein gott, nine years now? - have shown me anything, it's that I'm not suited to rule."

Peter felt his temper fray. "If you don't..." He broke off. "I'm sorry," he told the officers. "Could you give my brother and I the room? I think we need to have a frank exchange of views."

The men and women stirred, some backing away and others looking to Victor. A tall blond man took a step towards Peter's brother. "I've heard that phrase used to describe a beating... your highness." He looked up at the two Mackies. "Are you sending them away too?"

Peter glanced up and couldn't help but snort. "Fair point."

"I'm not afraid of my brother, Jer... Galen."

What? Looking again, Peter subtracted the blond's beard - and more than half a decade of lines at the corner of his eye. "Galen... Cox?"

"It's a long story," Cox admitted.

"Katherine let Ryan try to kill him, it was safer for him to disappear," Victor said impatiently. "Why don't we step aside ourselves, Peter? Let our staffs get to know each other."

Peter rubbed his jaw and nodded in agreement. Then nodded again to Galen. "Not such a long story, I guess."

One of the antechambers had long served their mother, grandmother and other Archons before them as a place to withdraw for impromptu private discussions. Victor automatically went to one of the chairs and then paused, one hand on the back. "Old habits," he said out loud.

"I can think of a few you should break. One of them being running headlong into battle."

"If I'd known Katherine wouldn't get here by now, maybe I'd have decided otherwise."

Peter raised his hand. "Catherine is our sister on New Avalon. The other one calls herself Katrina."

"Katrina was our grandmother," Victor responded sharply.

Eyes narrowed, Peter decided there were more important things to worry about. Cat would want him to stay focused. "If you're not going to be Archon-Prince again, who will? I can't exactly tie you to the throne, but what alternatives are there?"

"I was thinking you and Yvonne."

"Neither of us has any experience of ruling," he shot back. "Except the few months Yvonne had before Kat-herine rolled her off the throne in your absence."

"My experience is mostly making mistakes," his brother told him. "I'm a soldier, not a statesman. The two of you can grow into the roles - and neither of you has the baggage I'd be bringing with me."

Peter raked his hair back from his face, remembering Morgan Hasek-Davion doing much the same with his similarly long hair on a few occasions when he had cause to remonstrate with his younger cousins. "When we're talking the two of us, do you mean dividing the realm?"

"It's already divided." Victor looked away. "And even after she took the throne on New Avalon, Katherine couldn't undo that. If she, a far more adept politician than I, couldn't repair that damage then what hope is there?"

"I refuse to believe that that witch is a good example of anything," Peter growled. "She wanted the FedCom divided so she could keep playing people off against each other. You have responsibilities, Victor."

"Yes, but grasping for power isn't one of them." He settled into one of the chairs, taking a moment to let the tension between them ebb. "If you feel the Federated Commonwealth can be salvaged, then take the throne yourself and try it. But I can't."

"This is about..." He paused before he said something that he knew would provoke a angry reaction. "I have nothing against Omi, but is she a factor in your thinking?"

To his surprise, Victor let the implicit accusation wash over him. "Yes, she is. When I left to fight the Smoke Jaguars I hoped that with victory we might... have a chance to be together. I was wrong... or at least, I was naive. I got what I hoped for but not as I envisaged it. And however angry I am with Katherine, at least she gave me a chance at that... unintentionally, of course."

Peter frowned. "You could..." Then he broke off as he realised he was speaking nonsense. With the fighting over the last year and the fragility of the Steiner-Davion's position over the civil war, there was no way that a marriage or even an public relationship would be accepted.

"Maybe I should just give the job to Cat," he said after a moment. "God knows, she seems to be doing alright as Vice-Regent."

Victor shook his head. "Even if there weren't questions about her identity, you know that that wouldn't work. I've had reports on her and she's... erratic. In the long run that may not be a bad thing, but if Katherine came back she could push her aside easily."

"She might try, but I think Cat would push back. And unlike her, Cat is a mechwarrior."

Victor shrugged. "Alright. But it's a rotten thing to do to someone who needs time to recover from what seems to have been quite an ordeal, even if we don't have details."

"Damn you, that's not fair."

"Politics isn't, get used to it."

Peter clenched his fists for a moment, then caught himself. What would Father Giles do? he wondered, thinking back to St Marinus House. "Alright," he said at last. "If the throne is one responsibility too far for you, then I guess I have to take it - but you don't get to run back to ComStar and leave us to pick up the pieces."

Victor shook his head. "You don't get it, Peter. As long as I'm here, my history would work against you. It'd be assumed you were just my proxy."

"That would be their mistake. And I don't mean to keep you here on Tharkad, anyway."

"I'm listening."

Pointing at Victor - more precisely at his uniform: "You're wearing a Field Marshal's uniform, aren't you? If commanding troops is all you think you're good for, I can use that. Maybe in the Terran Corridor - Marshal Lamont has secured three more worlds there and George Hasek's sending in the Vegan Rangers to help, but it's still a narrow link." He grinned. "I remember you wanting a command in that part of the FedCom back when you were at NAIS for your exchange year."

"Here's what you wanted, but not as you expected?" Victor arched an eyebrow. "That's the story of my life." He paused. "Let me think about it."

Peter nodded. "Of course. It would be easier for Omi to visit you if you're near the Combine anyway."

"I said I'd think about it. Don't push."

Peter raised his hands defensively. "Fine, fine."

"I do owe you, though. That warning about the assassin working in the gardens - you were right."

"Thank Cat, not me. What happened to him? He didn't get away again?"

Victor's smile was shark-like. "No, he didn't get away."

Chapter 45

The Triad, Tharkad

Donegal Province, Lyran Alliance

12 June 3064

Nondi Steiner's funeral was excruciating.

Under the circumstances she could hardly have been given a state funeral and having refused to surrender at any of the opportunities offered, she'd also been denied a military one. (Peter had quietly limited that decision to senior officers - it would be an added burden for the families of the less well-paid and he drew the line at persecuting next-of-kin).

As her great-nephews, Victor and Peter nonetheless had to attend and sat beside each other on the front row, on the other side of the aisle from Nondi's daughter and other close relatives in reach. Robert Kelswa-Steiner had also turned up and was seated on that side of the aisle with his wife. One of Peter's less happy duties at some point in the near future would be to confirm the pair as Duke and Duchess of Skye: Margaret Aten had finally slipped away during the fighting on Tharkad.

Most of those recalling Nondi's life in the Triad's chapel diplomatically restricted themselves to her childhood and earlier military service, up to the War of 3039. Lisa Steiner, who had inherited the Duchy of Gallery from Nondi and opted to accept retirement rather than serve under Peter, was one of the exceptions and guardedly searched for positives in her mother's more recent loyalties.

It was almost a relief when Archer Christifori slipped into the chapel and discreetly joined the brothers on their pew. He passed a dispatch to Victor, who glanced at it and then handed it on to Peter, eyes suddenly distant.

Glad of something else to focus on than his second-cousin once-removed's understandable rose-coloured view of Nondi Steiner, Peter read the dispatch and had to keep himself from cursing out loud.

Cat had predicted this and it had been apparent from as far away as New Avalon for months, but General Sharon Bryan was still characterising it as a 'surprise attack'.

Clan Jade Falcon had hit six worlds so far, five in the General's theatre and one in the Arc Royal Defense cordon. The latter threat had to be honoured, even if it was blatantly gauged to pin in place both garrisons that were under Morgan Kell's influence and his son Phelan's Clan Wolf-in-Exile forces.

For her part Bryan was concentrating forces at her command world, confident that this would make it an irresistible target for the glory-hungry Falcons and also that they'd break their strength trying to get through her fortifications.

Loyal to Katrina as she had been, Bryan at least hadn't been an active combatant and as an Operation Serpent veteran, her experience against the Clans made removing her from one of the primary positions facing them a low priority. Looking at this, Peter wasn't sure that was right.

"Bryan?" he asked under his breath, looking back at the podium. Lisa was winding down, fortunately. Alas, Robert was next.

"Liability," Victor said tersely, similarly discreetly. "She got smashed on the offensive against the Jaguars, so now she's overreacting and focusing on defensive. Hopefully Adam Steiner will advise her better."

Well he almost beat you, so at least we know he's good, Peter thought. The commander of the Fourteenth Donegal Guards had been left with most of his forces and equipment rather than detained on the strength of Victor's unwillingness to weaken the forces facing the Jade Falcons. To his credit, Adam had been willing to focus on that threat since.

As Lisa finally stepped back, Peter rose to his feet and went past Victor and Archer to the aisle. Robert Kelswa-Steiner was halfway down the aisle but Peter gestured for him to step back and went to the podium himself.

"Under the circumstances, I believe Aunt Nondi would understand this slight deviation from the order of service," he said, looking at the scattering of faces. "We disagreed on several matters, but one thing I have never doubted was her devotion to defending the Lyran state from outside threats."

"One such threat has now moved from the possible, to the actual. As in 3050 and 3058, Clan Jade Falcon has struck at Lyran worlds and at the Lyran people." Peter turned to face the coffin, closed to hide the injuries caused by an unsuccessful ejection from her 'Mech as the Royal Guards had battled over the Triad. "Just as you twice let go of your wishes to retire in peace when your nation needed you, I must now say goodbye as I take up the cause of protecting the Commonwealth."

Leaving the podium behind him he headed for the exit, joined by Victor and the two brothers glanced pointedly at the handful of senior officers in attendance, signalling a minor exodus from the chapel. Behind them as they left, Robert pressed on to the podium, determined to have his say even if Peter was no longer there to listen.

They didn't have to go far to find somewhere to confer in privacy. Over six hundred years of piecemeal construction and reconstruction of the Triad, the default use for any part of the complex that didn't have a specified purpose was meeting room. The need for private conversations never went away, after all.

Victor cut to the chase. "We've got almost twenty combat commands on Tharkad, even if all of them are understrength. This is the obvious place to pull reinforcements from."

Taking the seat at the head of the table, Peter rubbed his jaw. "No argument from me. And we have the warships and jumpships to transport them. We need to start moving them offworld anyway." He looked at his brother. "We were talking about the Terran Corridor, but I think that this takes priority."

"I agree. This won't be like Operation Bulldog though. We don't have the reserves or the supplies in place. Two years of fighting have eaten through it."

Peter shrugged. "I know, I don't have unrealistic expectations of kicking the Falcons back out their OZ... not now, anyway. But if Khan Marthe Pryde wants a war to blood her warriors again, I want you to give her more war than they have stomach for - inflict casualties and equipment losses that her Clan can't afford. Can you do that?"

"It'll be expensive," Christifori warned. "No offense, Prince Peter, but you've never faced the Clans in battle."

"I know." And I can't go now either. Someone has to stay here and mind the store. "But it's a price we have to pay. Pryde calls herself a falcon but she's a scavenger, a vulture - striking at us because she thinks we're easy prey. If we show here that she's wrong, then it can buy us time to recover and maybe, just maybe, a few years down the line we can remove them as a problem once and for all."

Victor shook his head. "That's ambitious."

"A man's reach should exceed his grasp," Peter quoted from memory. "Else what is heaven for?"

"Fair enough." His brother glanced around the room. "I'd like to take the same task force I brought here, but the fact is, not everyone's ready for another campaign."

There had been a briefing the day before on the strengths of the units still on Tharkad. "Most of the regiments I brought are still in fighting form. General Christifori, I imagine that you'd like to stay with Victor but we also need to reinforce the Arc Royal Defense Cordon and I think you're the right man to lead the forces there."

"I can have my Avengers ready to go in three days," the Thorin native promised.

"We can do a bit better than that - I don't just want the attack on Koniz beaten off, from there I want you to hit the Jade Falcon OZ. Pryde might think she's pinning forces in place by hitting the Koniz PTM and Barber's Marauder IIs there, but if you and the Kells use it as a springboard to hit her worlds, it'll force her to commit forces against you."

Victor nodded. "That makes sense. I'd suggest sending the Seventeenth Donegal Guards as well. They were stationed in the area before they joined my forces."

"Agreed. We'll also give you the Third Regulars and..." Peter considered. "Precentor Irelon, I'd like your men to join this task force."

Raymond Irelon glanced at Victor first and then drew himself up. "We'd be honoured, sir."

"I know you gave up a lot to join my brother," Peter told him. "ComStar's disclaimed you and doesn't seem willing to move on that position, so I'd also like to offer you formal positions as part of the AFFC."

"We've considered that, sir. The Prince's Men accept."

"That's a good name, but there will also need to be a formal designation." Peter leant back in his chair. "We seem to have a vacancy in the roster for a Third Royal Guards RCT. How does that sound?"

There were intakes of breath. The Royal Guards were traditionally drawn from the very best of the Lyran armed forces, and while the First and Second garrisoned the capital, the Third Guards were the field force.

"That... sounds politically sensitive, sir."

"It is."

Irelon cracked a smile. "Well, as long as that's understood, your highness, then I accept the mission. Both the military one, and the political one."

Peter nodded. "Thank you. In a similar light, General Christifori, I'd like to designate your Avengers as the Third Skye Rangers RCT." Thorin was located within Skye Province, even if it had originally been a Terran Hegemony world.

The greying general nodded. "You want us to shame the other Skye Rangers?"

"Exactly. They withdrew from the Clan front to return to Skye. I can't formally reprimand them for that, since they didn't fight for Katrina, but in the long run I hope that you can return home and be a focus for loyal troops within Skye. I think you have the prestige for the job, and your troop's courage and honour are beyond question."

"I'm sure they'll be pleased to hear that. They may keep calling themselves Avengers though."

"I can live with that," Peter agreed.

"I take it that I should head for Melissia," Victor asked, naming Sharon Bryan's command world.

Peter gave him a crisp nod. "Correct. You have complete command of the front. General Christifori and Morgan Kell answer to you in Donegal Province and I'll place Adam Steiner directly under your command - can you work with him?"

"As long as he's willing to work with me, yes." His brother's voice betrayed some doubt on that point. "And Sharon Bryan?"

"If you can use her, keep her, but if you have to relieve her then go ahead and do it." This was no time for half-measures. "If she needs a soft landing, I can find some sort of sinecure here to make it look like a transfer rather than relief for cause."

"I doubt she'll take it well."

Peter glowered, "That would be her mistake to make, Victor. If you have to have Galen punch her, make sure he's stayed in shape."

"I really don't make a habit of punching superior officers," Galen protested mildly. "May I ask what troops you're going to send with us?"

"I'm sure the Tenth Lyran Guards would never forgive me for not letting them join Victor," quipped Peter. "Take them, the Third Lyran Guards, the Eleventh and Nineteenth Arcturan Guards..."

"Pairing Katrina's loyalists with sister regiments that joined us?"

"Correct," Peter agreed. "The Third Donegal Guards, the First Donegal Jaegers, the Federated Suns Armored Cavalry and your Outlands Legion should give you a fairly balanced force."

"I don't get any Royal Guards?" asked Victor wryly.

"No, I'm consolidating what's left of the original three RCTs into the Second and sending them to Caesar Steiner. With Robert playing games, I want some more muscle in Skye."

"That may backfire if Robert manages to subvert them," warned Galen.

"I know." Peter rubbed his jaw. "But they know they're on their last chance. Father once told me that giving someone very little when they really need it is always better rewarded than lavish generosity to those who aren't in need. Hopefully they'll take this second chance in that spirit. Besides, the Second Royal Guards are supposed to be the Pride of Skye but when did they last ever visit the province?"

"I suppose that that's fair," agreed Archer. "You're stomping pretty heavily on their traditions though."

"They can have their traditional roles back when they earn them." Peter decided not to mention that the tiny cadre left to the First Royal Guards would also be leaving Tharkad, although only to Donegal, one jump away. Rebuilding them gradually would fall to General Riskind, who would transfer to command them as an implicit reward for not bringing his Twenty-Fourth Lyran Guards in on Nondi's side.

To Peter's surprise, his cousin Sabine had actually supported Riskind on that decision, so he'd approved her to inherit command of the Lyran Guards RCT. With a little luck, Sabine and their more distant cousin Reinhart might prove a loyal voice within House Steiner to counterbalance Lisa and Robert.

Chapter 46

Castle Davion, New Avalon

Crucis March, Federated Commonwealth

1 September 3064

This was probably going to be the most expensive HPG conversation in history. Admittedly, the Star League Council had sometimes linked ten separate planets together for real-time conversations but the individual holo-fields being connected had been single individuals.

This call would link two large chambers together for at least six hours a day for what could easily be weeks. Almost a thousand people would be on the holo-cameras at any given time - the complete membership of the Federated Suns High Council and the reconstituted Estates General, together with various unelected officials and nobles down to the servers refreshing water jugs.

And then the entire data package would be edited down to a more manageable record and provided to public news outlets all across both realms, from which it was sure to be shared with foreign media and intelligence agencies.

Then again, after a harrowing budgetary meeting, Catherine had cut the legs out from under the accountants by pointing out that the cost of each day of calls wouldn't count as a rounding error compared to the costs of resuming what was now being officially called the Federated Commonwealth Civil War for the same length of time. Tancred had to give her credit for that.

Screens had been set up such that what would normally be the front of each chamber would display the other upon large holoprojectors. Since this obscured what would usually be the speaker's stand, one edge of each semi-circle had been emptied of seats and replaced with a small podium. The edges between hologram and reality were cunningly concealed, although from his place in the guest gallery, it was possible to tell.

"I hope this goes well," Yvonne murmured from beside him. "Giving everyone a chance to speak is a huge gamble. There's still plenty of ill-feeling."

"I hope not everyone tries to speak." Tancred did the maths in his head. "Even if they only had five minutes each, that would take most of two weeks."

Yvonne nodded absently. From where they sat to the left of the Federated Suns 'side' of the podium, they were adjacent to the Draconis March seating. Attendees were seated by geographical so membership ran on through the Crucis and Capellan members, then across the divide to Tharkad where Alarion, Bolan, Coventry, Donegal and Skye representative sat, followed by the seats of Peter and other ministers of state.

Lights dimmed subtly, cueing the attendees to cut conversations short and Yvonne saw Peter move to the podium.

"As the Regent of the Federated Commonwealth and Archon-Designate of the Lyran Alliance, I hereby call this extraordinary session of the Estates-General and the High Council to order." He looked around the room for a moment. "Forty-two years ago, my father and my maternal grandmother met privately on Terra and negotiated what was at first a secret alliance between their nations."

"That agreement grew into a union that, less than a decade ago, was formalised into a single state that crossed the span of the Inner Sphere. By any measure, the Federated Commonwealth of 3055 was the most powerful single political unit since the Star League. I will not dwell on how we have come from there to where we are today. The purpose of this session and those to follow is to debate where we should go from here. While I will enforce a ban on irrelevancies and personal attacks, any other aspect of this matter is open to discussion. I am committed to full transparency, so that when a decision is made, not one of our worlds can say that their interests were not represented and not one voice could not be heard."

He lowered his head and then glanced to his left - across the divide. "The first remarks will be from my sister, Catherine."

"Do you know what she's going to say?" asked Tancred as Catherine took the other podium and Peter returned to his seat.

Yvonne nodded. "We drafted it together. We don't know how she'll handle the stress here so we agreed she'd make the opening remarks and I'd deal with any responses."

Her sister had chosen to wear navy-blue today, in a military cut but very plain compared to most of the representatives. She set notes in front of her, looked into the middle-distance and declared: "Friends, Romans, Countrymen."

Tancred glanced at Yvonne. "You agreed on that as an opening?"

Her face was pale. "No, I think she's lost herself again. God, of all the times."

There was an uneasy pause as the rest of those in both halves of the room were clearly wondering the same thing.

"Those words were put to paper fifteen centuries ago and placed into the mouth of a man some fifteen centuries before even that era," Catherine continued after the hesitation. "Now, while many of our traditions - including this gathering today, could be traced back to the Roman Republic, no one here is actually a Roman. We can leave that to the Marians." The jest got a few weak laughs.

"I would hope that there are friendships amongst us, even if in all too many cases I have yet to have a chance to establish such ties with you. Friendships, that may cross from here -" She indicated the High Council. "To here -" The Estates General. "And back again."

"But countrymen... now that is the question that we are here to discuss today. Are we, all of us, countrymen - bound together as one realm by the foresight of Katrina Steiner and Hanse Davion?"

Catherine leant forwards. "There are at root three potential answers to that - yes, no and... because we live in a non-binary universe, sort of."

"We can restore the union that was envisaged from the end of the Fourth Succession War, with a single heir born to be ruler of a single realm. Although in this case, my brother Victor has declined to serve further, so it will be a different Archon-Prince."

"We can disband it, our realms perhaps remaining allies but no more - in which case Peter, Yvonne and I will have to decide on our loyalties and one or both halves will require their own rulers."

"Or we can continue as... the self-proclaimed Archon-Princess had it: two realms but one ruler. A personal union of the crowns. I cannot say that I entirely approve of this, but it is an option. Whether it is the best of both or worst of both would depend on a great many details."

Tancred frowned. "Did you notice she didn't specify that without Victor, it would be Peter ruling."

Yvonne nodded thoughtfully. "Closer to our script except for that. I hope she isn't trying to leave the door open for herself to supplant him. That would be disastrous."

Taking hold of the podium with one hand, Catherine smoothly gathered her notes with the other. "I have one further point, an announcement that I've been allowed to make today. Evidence that we are stronger together than we are apart."

"Three days ago, General Adam Steiner's task force - the combined Fourteenth Donegal Guards and First Federated Suns Armored Cavalry - scored a victory against Clan Jade Falcon upon Twycross."

There was a buzz of excitement. "For a second time, we have reclaimed the world from Clan Jade Falcon - and for the second time, we have destroyed the Falcon Guards cluster to do so." She tapped her notes together, tidily. "There are other worlds once part of the Federated Commonwealth that have been invaded over the last fourteen years. Twycross is not the first to be brought back into our company - and I see no reason it should be the last."

The applause lasted well past Horatio DuVall taking the podium, across from Tharkad's elected representative on the Estates-General, and both men had to wait before they could begin their joint presentation of how they proposed a reunited Federated Commonwealth could build upon the lessons of the previous decades.

Chapter 47

The Triad, Tharkad

Donegal Province, Lyran Alliance

31 October 3064

For the third time in six years, Tharkad was playing host to representatives of every major state - and most of the minor ones - in the Inner Sphere. Only a few were formal members of the Star League but observers had been invited and thus dignitaries had been arriving for days, almost all of them needing to have some sort of meeting with the host of the Third Whitting Conference.

Some of those greetings had gone better than others.. Sun-Tzu's had been cursory, Christian Mansdottir's had over-run by more than an hour as Peter had discussed both the military security of the tiny remnant of the Free Rasalhague Republic and the political implications of one of the attendees.

At least, Peter thought as a pair of glossy black ground cars arrived at the formal entrance, I can deal with these two as a single matter.

The military escorts peeled away as the limousines came to rest outside the Royal Palace. The door of the leading car opened fractionally ahead of the others' but the first out was Thomas Marik, who had diplomatically agreed his car would follow the sitting First Lord's in the cavalcade escorting the two House Lords from the dropport to the Triad.

The scar-faced man in FWLM uniform paused and allowed Theodore Kurita to exit the first ground-car, an act of respect he then had to prolong as the Coordinator gravely assisted both of his companions in exiting the vehicle. The rituals of court would probably have never allowed such doting on Luthien, but here on Tharkad it would play well, Peter thought.

Omiko Kurita looked a little older than she had on Solaris VII, all those years ago, but no less beautiful. And the child with her... If Peter hadn't been forewarned then he might have been caught off-guard by the Steiner-blue eyes looking out from the face of someone who so closely resembled a younger Hohiro Kurita.

"Peter," the Coordinator's daughter greeted him with a formal bow. "I have looked forward to seeing you once more."

"Indeed. I hope to have time for an introduction I promised you," he replied and then looked down at the child. "And perhaps I can then ask one of your young companion?"

The boy clutched at Omiko's kimono and buried his face against it. He was perhaps three years old, Peter thought.

"Of course." She gave him a radiant smile. "Is your brother well?"

"Our last news was yes," Peter assured her. "Fighting on Mogyorod has delayed him, but he should arrive before the conference concludes." Turning to Omiko's father, he bowed slightly. "First Lord."

Theodore's face was apparently serene but Peter suspected he was also disappointed that Victor wasn't here to smooth matters between their two Houses. The eldest Steiner-Davion had been a guest on Luthien for months, whereas Peter was at least notionally responsible for Catherine's sharp bargaining over the conclusion of James Sandoval's invasion of the Combine.

"Archon-Prince," the head of House Kurita greeted him. "Your newschannels were full of your joint council's deliberations as we made our way to the surface. Will you be continuing that experiment?"

"A question I have also been wondering," added Thomas Marik. "I have always thought your father to hold our Parliament in contempt but you seem to feel differently."

"Some sort of representative body seems reasonable, although a lot of details remain to be worked out." Peter gave the Captain-General an amused look. "How is your own Parliament treating you, Lord... Marik? I understand that Prince Kirc Cameron-Jones has been quite vocal in questioning your right to the name."

Thomas' eyes narrowed. "The Regulans have always been... difficult."

"Ah. Well there's no question of your competence. A booming economy and two victorious wars are a record any leader should be proud of."

The Marik accepted the compliment gracefully enough, although Theodore seemed less pleased. He'd managed to more or less come out on top against the Ghost Bears, but the personal cost of the victory had been as heavy as the political cost of ceding Marduk in order to make peace with the Sandovals.

"Anyway, we were speaking of introductions," Peter offered, ushering the two of them up the steps into the Palace. "There's someone you should meet before the Conference begins."

"My daughter?" asked Thomas.

Peter gave him a bland look. The Captain-General wasn't Isis Marik's real father and by now everyone important in the Inner Sphere knew that. Isis was on Tharkad but she had expressed no interest in meeting the man who had taken on the identity of her true father. Peter had loaned her Resaurius Keep (his own preferred residence) for the duration of the conference since he would have to remain in the Triad. "This is a political matter, I wouldn't wish it thought that I was springing an ambush on you."

"If I may be excused from that meeting?" Omiko murmured.

"Of course. I believe Lady Isis Marik has expressed a wish to see you when you're settled," Peter assured her. "In the meantime, my other guest is through here." He gestured towards some double doors and the two guards waiting there opened them sharply.

Both men recognised Christian Mansdottir immediately, of course. It was the Ghost Bear officer standing with them who came as a shock. Unless you counted Phelan Kell, no Clanner had ever attended the Star League Council before.

"You will know the Regent of the Free Rasalhague Republic, of course." Peter nodded to the general first. "But it must be some years since the two of you met the Elected Prince on Outreach."

Ragnar Magnusson - or simply Star Colonel Ragnar, as the Clans would have it - drew himself up. "First Lord Kurita, Captain General," he greeted them.

Peter had hoped for more of a reaction from the two older rulers but both men took the introduction in stride - possibly they were less surprised than Peter had hoped. It would be naive to think that they had no spies. "I'll let you get re-acquainted," he told them and took Omi's arm, guiding her away from the meeting.

The boy on the other side gave him a defensive look, which Omi noticed. "It's alright, Kitsune," she assured him. "Lord Peter met many years ago and he isn't taking liberties."

That still didn't seem much reassurance to the boy and Peter wondered how - or if - he might win his nephew over. He hadn't been around children much since he was one himself. "Kitsune... is that a common name in the Combine? I don't think I've come across it before."

"Not so very common," she said with a slight smile. "It means fox, in Japanese."

Peter couldn't help but smile at that. "Does it really?" His father, Hanse, had been nicknamed 'The Fox' by his enemies - a reference to his wiliness, his red hair and to the personal heraldry of House Davion.

Kitsune asked his mother a question in japanese and she paused, letting go of Peter to pick him up. "In german, Kit', we're on Tharkad now."

"What does his name mean?" the boy asked.

Omi paused, apparently not sure.

"Rock," Peter mumured under his breath as they reached the entrance to the apartments reserved for House Kurita's visit.

She repeated the definition for Kitsune, who was apparently satisfied and toddled into the apartments to explore his new residence.

"I wasn't sure," she admitted. "It's an old christian name, isn't it?"

Peter nodded. "Christ's first follower was called Simon, but the Messiah named him Peter, the rock on which he built his church."

"Ah." Omi tilted her head. "I believe you have grown into the name then."

"How so?"

"You were not easily moved from Zaniah," she told him. "But when you were set into motion, you... what is the saying? "A rolling stone gathers no moss."

Peter nodded. He supposed it was true. Not even two years now since Catherine had been found in the desert and that meeting had hurled him across space from one side of the Federated Commonwealth to another. "I think I'm back at rest now."

"Yes, your enemies have for the most part been crushed beneath you." Omi nodded. "Not easily moved," she repeated. "But when you do move, it is with great force and power. These are good traits in a ruler, Peter."

"I've learned something of restraint, I hope," he agreed, thinking back to his younger days. "I should let you get settled in though."

He felt a rueful smile cross his face as he left that wing and headed back towards the core of the Triad. When he was younger he'd coveted the throne, but today - as so often - he walked directly past the throneroom and made directly for the office where his grandmother's old wooden desk - hand-crafted for her by his grandfather and the Kells - had been restored to its proper place.

"I just hope this stone doesn't wind up buried beneath the paperwork," he mused as he checked his in-tray. More folders and data-chips had arrived in his absence, sorted by the sizeable secretarial staff.

One chip had the code for Catherine and he plugged it into the computer on the desk. It wasn't a personal message but an update on negotiations with the Marquess of Filtvelt. Trempeleau's support for the Federated Commonwealth had come at a price for increased support of the Outback worlds along the Periphery border.

Catherine drew his attention to the reports on the status of Victory Industries, on Marduk. The 'Mechworks had been retooled to construct OmniMechs for the DCMS but it still had much of the older equipment not needed for them. She recommended subsidising the creation of a new factory for the company, located in the Outback where it could supply Griffins and Wolverines to units along the border.

The plan seemed solid, if expensive, but it could be worked into the reconstruction budget. I wonder what tooling our other manufacturers have lying idle, Peter wondered and scribbled a note to find out. It would still be simpler than expanding production of newer machines and it would take years to make good the losses the Civil War had inflicted.

I'll gather no moss while my sisters are around me to keep me moving, he thought lightly and moved on to the next bit of business.