State of the Union II

Fledglings Take Flight

Author's Note:

Thank you to FASA for creating Battletech, WizKids and CGL for keeping the setting going over the years, to HBS for their game and to the fanfiction community for giving me ideas.

I don't own Battletech or the associated copyrights, I'm not making a profit off this so no one else should. Making fun of it, on the other hand…

Part One - Tharkad

I can't find the rhyme in all my reason

I've lost sense of time and all seasons

Feel I've been beaten down

By the words of men who have no grounds


Chapter 1

The Triad, Tharkad

Donegal Province, Federated Commonwealth

3 November 3064

Peter Ardan Steiner-Davion held the coffee mug under his nose and inhaled the rich scent of the steaming contents. He remembered how much he'd needed the brew to get through studying for his exams back at NAIS. If only he'd known back then what it was to be really busy. He'd had no idea.

Well, such was life. You grew up or… Well, or you had a grave somewhere. Ugh, he was getting downright maudlin. A mouthful of coffee washed that away just in time as a knock on the door signalled the arrival of his next meeting.

The Captain-General of the Free Worlds League was wearing the dress uniform of the FWLM even for this theoretically informal meeting. But then, there was only so much that one could unbend when the meeting involved two heads of state. The scar-faced man hid a startled expression as he saw that Peter was wearing a long, hooded robe - if one of far richer materials than Peter had worn during his long self-imposed exile.

"I wouldn't have thought that desert robes were suited to this climate," Thomas Marik murmured as he accepted the offer of a mug of his own from a servant, who then discreetly withdrew. The older man - he was easily twice the Archon-Prince's age - added a drop of cream to his coffee before setting the small tray aside and joining Peter in the window bay of the meeting room, looking out at the sleet-swept garden outside.

Peter smiled tightly and sat down again on the cushioned bench that filled the bay. "While the popular image of deserts is one of heat, they can get very cold at night. These are well-insulated against this climate." Tharkad was a cold world compared to most planets colonised by humanity, with glaciers covering more than half of the continent of Bremen despite it lying well south of the polar regions.

"If you were wanting to harken back to my ComStar days they're the wrong colour."

"I'm just being self-indulgent," Peter assured him - the robes were royal blue and the cut was also significantly different from those of ComStar and the Word of Blake. "Where would you like to begin."

Thomas took a sip from his coffee. "I'd like to see my daughter."

"I was under the impression that Jessica was on Atreus, with the rest of your family," Peter told him drily. "If ComStar are giving you grief on contacting them I'll do what I can…"

"You know I mean Isis."

"And you know that I know that you're no blood relative to her - or at least so distant that it's not worth mentioning."

Thomas' eyes narrowed, the scars around his right one leaving the expression disconcertingly asymmetric. "Are you threatening me?"

"If I was threatening you, Captain-General, you wouldn't be left in any doubt of the matter." Peter raised his mug to his lips, sipped and lowered it. "But let's cut the crap. The fact is that you're not the… original, shall we say? Not the original Thomas Marik. And that fact has already slipped out to too many people in the Free Worlds League. You'd have to be an idiot not to realise that it's going to hit the public sooner or later, which means it has laughably little value as blackmail."

He put the mug down entirely. "You've been a very effective Captain-General and except for the understandable issues after your son died, you've been someone we can do business with since the Clan Invasion. But let's call a spade a spade."

The older man eyed him steadily and then drank from his own mug, using the gesture to break eye contact. "Very well. I wish to speak with Isis Marik."

"She's at Resaurius Keep. As far as I can tell, you can just go over there and speak to her anytime you want." He couldn't, but Peter wanted to see what Thomas said.

"I tried. I was denied entrance."

"I've given no such orders," he told Thomas honestly. "The security answers directly to Isis - my brother assigned them to her." Victor had an absolute gift for befriending female members of the other great houses. If he hit it off with Kali Liao then he'd have a full set. Peter hid a shiver at the very thought. The Chancellor's sister was a dangerous lunatic - even her brother admitted it.

"Can you not overrule him? I understood that you rule, not that you were his proxy."

Oh so he wanted to play that game? Peter rubbed his jaw. "Of course, but if I compromise the security of one guest, how would my other guests -" Such as Thomas himself, or the other members of the Star League Council "- feel about their own safety?"

"Then arrange something," the Captain-General grated, anger seeping into his voice. "You're an inventive young man."

Peter's temper flared and for a moment he was on the edge of snapping back. Instead, with difficulty he kept his face and voice steady, cramming the anger down inside him where he could deal with it later. "Is that really the position you want to take, Captain-General?"

The so-called Marik paused and his next words were more conciliatory. "I intended that as a compliment, Lord Steiner-Davion. But perhaps that was not how it came across. There is another matter we should discuss."

"Yes. Arcadia."

Thomas made a dismissive gesture. "My forces will withdraw, of course. We had no intention of claiming the world, merely extracting my… Kristen's Krushers. I'm sure you would have done the same."

"I would. And so, it would appear, would Therese Marik and her husband." Peter took satisfaction at the colour rising on the other man's unscarred cheek at the confirmation that Lyran intelligence was aware that the Sixth Marik Militia hadn't crossed the border on the Captain-General's orders.

Kristen Marik's death - along with her husband and two of their three children - had done nothing to ease tensions between the two realms. Contracted to defend Coventry, the Krushers had served Katrina loyally and helped put down the pro-Victor provincial militia only to have the Coventry Jaegers betray them and attempt to massacre the mercenary regiment.

Escaping and crossing almost the entire Lyran Alliance - along with a daring raid on Gallery - the Krushers had finally been run to ground on the border world of Arcadia, from which the Captain-General had refused to rescue them. Kristen's brother-in-law Jeremy Brett-Marik had soured his career a second time by leading a mission to rescue the survivors, too late to save his in-laws. Popular media had seized on it and a major holovid was being shepherded through production despite official attempts to quash it. The result would undoubtedly make Archon and Captain-General out as villains… but the public splash was nothing compared to the impact on Kristen's surviving daughter Alys, who'd moved firmly into the orbit of her Aunt Therese and the 'loyal opposition' within House Marik itself.

"The MRBC have ruled in favour of the Krushers, of course," Peter added after a moment. "I've instructed our lawyers not to contest the ruling. Duchess Alys may expect the bodies of the dead personnel along with the financial and material compensation to cross the border before the end of the year. I hope there will be no barriers to their delivery."

"I'll ensure there are no issues."

"Good." Peter leant back, feeling the cold glass of the window even through his thick hair, although the hood cushioned his neck. "The Coventry Jaegers have been struck from the rolls. Little satisfaction for her, I suppose."

"I would think not. The Federated Commonwealth has not been a safe place for House Marik over the last few years."

"Joshua's leukaemia long predated his time at NAIS," Peter reminded him. "And Kristen's command was unfortunately far from the only one betrayed by the former Archon. Rhonda Snord springs to mind."

"Unlike Janos Marik, I have no grudge against that unit," Thomas riposted mildly. "I assure you, my only interest in Isis is to assure her that she can return safely to her home. The falling out with Sun-Tzu was clearly his fault and not hers, whatever he may claim."

"And yet you supported the relationship."

"Besides the political benefits of their engagement, she seemed genuinely enamoured of him." The Captain-General spread his hands. "I do care for the girl in my own way."

"I will pass on the invitation to speak with her." Peter cupped his hands around the mug for its last heat and then drained it. "The choice is hers though. She's under the protection of my House so long as she remains here. If she feels safer with us than with you, then any problems that causes for your image are not my concern."

"I wouldn't have expected you to be worried."

"Oh, I am worried. I've just been through one civil war. Another, even across the border, isn't something I look on favourably. But interfering in the League's politics wouldn't do me any favours."

Thomas considered. "There is one thing that you could do."

"My position on Isis is final."

"That is understood, Lord Steiner-Davion, but you do have a vote in Star League matters."

"And you want…?"

"I think it's fairly obvious I'll be elected as First Lord for the next three years." Thomas' face creased in a smile. "Meaning no offense, you're still something of an unknown quantity while House Liao and House Kurita have had their chance and in the rotational nature of the office, the other great houses must hold it before they can be re-elected to it."

"It would be difficult for me to secure a majority vote," agreed Peter drily.

"Three years from now would likely be a very different matter, but even my vote wouldn't be enough to elect you as things stand." Thomas put his own mug aside. "The prestige of that may help to win over some of the more fractious elements in my parliament. If that election was unanimous, it might help to heal some of the tensions that have plagued the Star League through the last three years."

"And of course it would look even better for you at home."

"Exactly."

"I'll give that some thought," Peter said diplomatically, although key points were already obvious: both Victor and Katrina had voted in traditional rivals of the Federated Commonwealth to the First Lordship. Doing the same and expecting it to play better in the Lyran provinces along the League border than his siblings had found in the other border marches would be madness. Being outvoted would be a small thing in comparison.


Chapter 2

The Triad, Tharkad

Donegal Province, Federated Commonwealth

5 November 3064

Isis Marik had chosen not to meet her father's doppelganger at Resaurius Keep - she preferred to keep the retreat as a private refuge and inviting him there would have unsettled her sense of security within it's faux-medieval walls.

There was also the question of privacy. Their conversation might well touch on private matters so she preferred they not be overheard, but having some visibility could act as a restraint upon the Captain-General. The observation gallery for the Estates General served for this - floor to ceiling windows looking out over the debating chamber gave visibility in both directions but the long gallery could be divided into several rooms by soundproof barriers. Since Peter Steiner-Davion had pushed - however mildly - for the meeting to take place, Isis felt no guilt in putting him out by requiring one such room set up for her.

Although she had arrived early, she found the room already occupied - her so-called father was sitting on one of the couches, the lights dimmed slightly to make it harder for those in the debating chamber or the other parts of the gallery to see details of them within.

So he'd taken her preparations and turned them to give himself a home ground advantage. Nonetheless Isis knew where the light dimmer was and was able to announce her presence by bringing them up sharply, crossing her arms as Thomas 'Marik' blinked at the sudden increase in light levels. "You pushed for this meeting, Captain-General, what is it that you want?"

"Isis, I want you to come home."

"Home?" She looked at him in surprise. "For ten years that was Sian, but I'm no longer welcome there. We both know I was never really welcome on Atreus, you only kept me around because until Joshua was born and after leukaemia was diagnosed you needed an alternative heir on hand. So where is home?"

Thomas shook his head. "Within the Free Worlds League, with your cousins. If Atreus doesn't suit you, Isis, we have many holdings. Your exile is self-imposed - no one blames you for Sun-Tzu renouncing your engagement to him."

"How strange, because I rather got the impression that you blamed me." Isis forced a smile that was deeply ironic. "The man who arranged the engagement but never permitted a marriage, who made an alliance but withdrew from military operations when your goals were met when your ally's objectives hadn't been… found it easier to blame me than accept that he'd used me as an expendable hostage."

"You were never a hostage," he protested.

"Sun-Tzu saw it more clearly than I did. And however angry I am at him, I saw better than you how your actions were viewed on Sian. But that was never a consideration. Did you even read my letters?"

"Of course."

"Then you knew full well that his patience was expiring. I can at least claim inexperience in realising what that would mean for me personally." She walked over to the window and looked down at the Estates General - they were debating with their High Council peers something about currency reform. "You've led the Free Worlds League for almost thirty years, you have no such excuse."

"And I've been your father for slightly longer than that. Perhaps… no, certainly with less success." Thomas walked to join her.

"My father? Is my real father even alive?" she asked. "I doubt I've ever even met him."

The Captain-General hesitated. "Yes. He is still alive. The bomb that killed your grandfather required extensive reconstruction - enough that he would be politically unacceptable as Captain-General."

"You mean he's a cyborg. Somewhere within the Word of Blake's ranks, I would assume."

"A respected voice within the Toyamist wing of their leadership."

Isis glanced sideways at the irony in the white-haired Captain-General's voice. "Not one that I have ever heard."

"I suppose not. Your uncle Paul remains in close contact with him - he's been a conduit over the years."

"Puppet and puppetmaster?"

The Captain-General shook his head. "Proxy. But over a quarter of a century we have had some… disagreements."

"Since you're close to William Blane, who is hardly a Toyamist, I would say so." She let her smile fall off her face. "You said Paul was close to him… and Corinne?"

"I don't know if she's been taken into his confidence that far."

"But she knows that you aren't who you claim to be."

"I am who I have been for a generation. One of the better leaders the Free Worlds League has ever had. Does my exact parentage really matter?"

"You're asking a bastard that?" Reaching forwards, Isis touched the glass separating her from the politics of the Federated Commonwealth. "Do you really think I have anything to go back to in the Free Worlds League. At best I'd just be another minor Marik, dependent on better heeled relatives for my daily bread. No different from being a perpetual guest here, really."

"Setting aside my own legitimacy… you're the grand-daughter of a Captain-General. Lands and titles are yours for the asking."

Isis paused. How desperate must he be for her presence in the League to say something like that, even if only she could hear that? "And if I asked?"

It was his turn to hesitate and she felt his gaze on her, measuring if it was greed or ambition that motivated the question - or rather, how much of each. In that evaluation she understood as she hadn't before how Victor had come to despise politics for the shadows cast by the supposedly high ideals of those who practised it.

"The dukedom of Irian has been vacant since the execution of Garth Marik in 3028," Thomas told her, in the tone of a man dangling bait before a hungry fish.

She laughed. How could she not? And as he drew back, affronted, Isis half turned away from the glass and towards him. "Why do you need me so much, 'father'? Do you want me to be your mouthpiece, someone to counter Corinne and Alys within House Marik?"

"No one who knows our history would think you would be in my camp," Thomas admitted. "And I wouldn't expect you to be partisan on my behalf, but for that reason where you can find it in yourself to speak on my behalf you would be all the more convincing."

"And you imagine that I would?"

"All I ask is your honesty. I have been a good Captain-General and the alternatives are…" He made a dismissive gesture…

"Who are they?"

"Support is rallying around Corinne." Thomas made a face. "My replacement as proxy for your biological father, whether she knows it or not."

"And thus the Word of Blake would rule through her?"

"You understand then."

"Who else?" asked Isis. "I've followed the politics of the League where I can, but at a distance and with the priority of Victor's headquarters as the war against Katrina…"

He nodded. "Therese is promoting her son, Photon. He has the martial reputation to be a serious contender but Therese is no friend to Paul. If one side or another took the throne then the other would fight them for it."

"So you say." Isis had to concede the point though. Photon was twenty years her elder and had spent almost that long under a false name, rising to Lieutenant-Colonel of the Second Free Worlds Guards on his own merits not the Marik name. Isis had still been at court in 3050 when Thomas awarded him the Order of the Saber in his own name for valour. He was in his prime, a tested and proven leader constrained only by the geographical and political distance between his mother's stronghold on Tamarind and the capital on Atreus. In contrast Corinne was younger and less tested, but far better connected as the daughter of the League's Minister of Intelligence.

"Besides that, Kirc Cameron-Jones is whispering that since House Marik has placed a non-Marik on the throne that we… that they've forfeited their right to first refusal. As such, as head of one of the original provinces he claims that he's a right to the throne."

Isis rolled her eyes. "I take it that Duke Halas differs from that." Thomas' second wife Sherryl was the Duke's daughter. He also ruled Oriente, one of the three great provinces whose alliance centuries before had founded the Free Worlds League.

"Christopher isn't just my father-in-law and a friend. We share the same views of the League's future."

"And those would be? I can speak for your record, mixed as it is, but I can't say you've ever confided in me politically."

Thomas gestured back towards the seats and Isis returned, realising to her chagrin that she'd steered the conversation back into safe waters for him. Political discussions were meat and drink to the Captain-General - as natural as breathing.

"The last time the Steiners and Davions united kicked off the most ferocious war in a century," he warned her. "And that was with far more constrained resources and military capability than we've built since. A new Succession War could tear down all the progress we've made in our lifetime."

"So you support the Star League?"

"Exactly." Thomas gave her a half-clap. "A military response could be cataclysmic, but the Star League can serve as a balancing effect against potential dominance of the Federated Commonwealth, since they have only a single voice there, outnumbered by the other members."

"A constraint that may start to chafe," warned Isis.

"Indeed, just as their economic and military might threatens the rest of us. So it must be handled delicately." The Captain-General leant forwards. "The Free Worlds League can hold a crucial centre-ground - our only major conflict with the Commonwealth was Operation Gurerro, and even their own media concur that we had ample justification there."

"Since Victor Steiner-Davion defeated the Clans on their homeworld, the outside threat of a renewed Clan Invasion no longer holds the Star League together, and internal pressures are building. We're uniquely placed to step forwards as leaders in a new balance of power - which in turn means we can use our relative security and prosperity to expand economically and provide for our people." He shook his head. "Kirc's views have rarely reached past the borders of the League while Corinne's backers are more concerned with advancing the Word's most extremist agendas than with our own future."

Isis considered. "You want us to hold the balance of power between the Federated Commonwealth and their enemies?" she asked doubtfully.

"Precisely." He nodded like an approving school teacher. "With proper guidance the Star League can guarantee stability for the Inner Sphere for generations to come."


Chapter 3

Mount Asgard, Tharkad

Donegal Province, Federated Commonwealth

6 November 3064

"You're sure about resigning?" Peter asked bluntly. "There's a place for you with the First Royal Tharkad Battle Armor Regiment if you want it."

The young man - well, not that young, according to the file on Peter's desk he was only a year and a half younger than Peter himself - shook his head firmly. "No sir. My father always told me the regiment was his home and it wasn't until I'd left the Legion that I realised how right he was."

Peter gave Alexander Carlyle a long look and rubbed his jaw. "I suppose I can hardly argue against going home once you have some perspective," he conceded. The son of the legendary Grayson Death Carlyle had missed the consolidation of most of the Royal Guards survivors into the Second Royals due to injuries suffered in the defense of the Triad. One of those injuries had been damage to one ear that left him unable to pilot a BattleMech - one problem that even Star League medical science had never quite overcome.

His only reply was a nod and Peter hid a sigh. Rebuilding the Lyran armed forces was proving a struggle when soldiers like this - promising junior officers who could have been the future leaders of the entire force - felt they couldn't continue to serve. "Would you rather muster out on Glengarry or on Hesperus II where the Legion are based right now?"

Carlyle blinked. "I was expecting here, sir."

"You can if you prefer, but I assumed you'd want to take your 'Mech with you - the Legion will probably want it back -" Even in its damaged state, the Archer was a valuable asset. "- and the least we can do is get you home on the military's dime."

"Uh… Hesperus II, sir. Colonel Carlyle has offered me a battle armor company with the Legion so I should report for active service."

Peter nodded and made a notation. "You can expect shipping orders by tonight," he promised. "But it may be a few days before there's a dropship headed the right way." Standing, he leaned over his desk to offer the soon to be former Hauptmann his hand. "Perhaps we'll cross paths again someday."

"Thank you, sir." Carlyle accepted the hand and when it was released he offered a razor-sharp salute. "For what's worth, I'm honoured you offered to keep me on."

The young officer left and Peter slumped back into his chair. As titular commanding officer of the Fifth Royal Guards - and as Archon Prince he was in theory commander of the entire Royal Guard brigade - he'd also taken on responsibility for those Royal Guards not shipped out to Donegal or Skye. These meetings had been a fine excuse to escape the five-ring circus of the Star League Council's more ceremonial activities for a day but they were just as wearing in their way.

"What's next?" he muttered and checked his schedule, brightening as he reached the entry. Thumbing his intercom he demanded: "Is Field Marshal Steiner-Davion here?"

"Yes sir."

"Send him in."

A moment later the door admitted his elder brother, looking disgustingly healthy and well-rested. "Your highness."

Peter gave him a mock glare. "It could have been you behind this desk, you know."

"And I've never been more sure I made the right choice. Being the Archon-Prince suits you, Peter."

"And being a father seems good for you."

"You've got no idea." Victor took the seat facing Peter without waiting for an invitation, a welcome change from some of the stiff formality he'd had so far this morning. "Knowing that Kit's here, a part of myself and Omi that'll live on even if something happens to us… it changes everything."

"Maybe you have to be there." Peter leant back in his chair and rubbed his face with both hands. "God, there aren't enough hours in the day."

"The secret is delegation," Victor told him. "Even father couldn't do everything himself and he did more than most First Princes. He handed off work to Ardan, Morgan, Justin… if you find the right people then it's a bearable load."

"You know what all those people have in common?"

That took the wind out of Victor's sails. "Yes. They're all dead."

"And Quintus Allard isn't getting any younger. Dragging him out of retirement wasn't really fair - fortunately Quint Jr. is coming along well. A real chip off the old block."

"The only man I found I could trust like that was Galen."

Peter nodded. "And he's going back to the SLDF, I gather."

Victor shrugged. "I can't but he feels he can do more good there than he can here." Unspoken was that Galen Cox could never really go home - he'd been born on Tamar, now the capital of Clan Wolf's Occupation Zone.

"At least I have you, Cat and Yvonne. It's a start."

"Yes… About Cat." Victor steepled his fingers. "I never did ask you what was going on with her… visions did you call them?"

"I didn't call them that." Peter rubbed his chin. "Honestly, I don't know. Nor does she - but some of her predictions have been pretty accurate."

"Such as?"

"She knew about the New Dallas cache," he said promptly. "About the assassin posing as a gardener on Luthien. And she knew Katrina would try to purge the First Davion Guards months before the order was actually given."

"I'd like to say that I don't believe in predestination," his older brother said thoughtfully. "I'll grant you that there are more things in heaven and earth… but even so."

"Yeah. Mind you, whatever she saw is mutable. Or at least can be changed. Her prediction was that the Civil War would last more than five years and we were able to change that."

Victor shuddered. "Five years. That would have been bad. If nothing else it would have been much harder to fight off the Jade Falcons."

"Speaking of which, we're supposed to be discussing that."

"I know, but I'm curious." There was a note of reluctant fascination in Victor's voice. "What does she foresee now?"

"Nothing new," Peter told him. "The… visions were mixed in with the tangle of memories she's still getting to grips with but from what she says, she's not having dreams of events stemming from what we're actually dealing with. So hopefully we've changed enough that we won't see the other things she predicted."

"We should probably at least check into them," Victor said cautiously. "Are they being documented?"

"Discreetly, yes. I'd rather it not get out that my Regent on New Avalon was advising me based on prophetic dreams. Officially she's just very astute, despite her other issues."

Victor grimaced. "Fair enough. I'd like to see what she predicted anyway."

"I'd expected more scepticism."

"Saving Omi gets her a lot of credit," the blond brother said drily. "And I have firsthand experience of near-death visions… on Luthien when I got run through. I can't entirely rule out she may have seen something while she was in the desert on Zaniah." He cleared his throat, clearly uncomfortable with exploring the matter further. "But yes, the Falcons."

"Yes." Peter paused. "Congratulations, by the way."

"You're quite welcome." Victor shrugged self-deprecating. "The Falcons are hard fighters but at least it's more clear-cut than the other battles we've faced lately."

Peter brought up the holo-display to show the border with the Jade Falcons. "It looks on face value as if we gave about as good as we got."

"I think that's a fair assessment," agreed Victor. He reached up and pointed at two of the worlds that had been lost. "Both Khans were fighting here - Marthe Pryde on Kooken's Pleasure Pit and Samantha Clees on Kikuyu. They tried using them as staging grounds for further attacks but Adam's counter-attacks caused enough confusion that they didn't get far before my task force arrived and we were able to contain further attacks."

"They didn't expect Adam to move aggressively." Peter pointed at Blackjack and Twycross, a narrow salient driven into the Falcons' Occupation Zone like a nail. There were less courteous comparisons given the smaller attacks on either flank that had won Parakoila and Bone-Norman back for the Federated Commonwealth. "I can see why taking these worlds would cause them issues - Twycross is a respectable industrial node and I gather the Falcons had been using the old Blackjack Academy to train their own warriors. What surprises me is that they didn't try harder to take them back."

"Even after all these years the Clans tend to undervalue logistics and command structures." Victor's finger stabbed at Mogyorod. "I think Marthe delegated a lot of the fighting at this end of the border to her saKhan and when Clees died on Mogyorod, coordination between Delta and Gamma Galaxies fell apart. There are unconfirmed reports that half of Delta Galaxy was disbanded and that the rest of their units have been sent to Rho and Omega Galaxies to help rebuild them."

"Not to Gamma? They lost the Falcon Guards when Adam's task force hit them on Twycross."

Victor shook his head. "Losses to Gamma - and to Kappa, which the Blackjack garrison belong to - aren't as strategically important to Khan Pryde as the worlds nearer Terra. Now that we hold Orkney, there's an opening for Clan Wolf to cross their OZ and hit the Commonwealth, but also to potentially cut the Jade Falcons off from advancing closer to Terra."

"Is such an advance likely?" Peter frowned. "After the Great Refusal, I thought that we had less to worry about there."

"It pretty much ends any chance of a united Clan advance, but individual Clans need not concern themselves with the old truceline any more."

The Archon-Prince nodded in understanding. "Our analysts have come up with some interesting statistics on dead bodies recovered and equipment recovered from Jade Falcon units. I'd like your opinion." He brought up the spreadsheets and let his brother read.

Victor leant forwards, studying them with narrowed eyes and then leaned back in his chair, eyes distant. "Yes, that matches my recollection although I hadn't realised it was that widespread. If this is right then their losses are disproportionately heavy in newer OmniMechs and the younger warriors Marthe was probably trying to blood. The long term impacts of that could be… interesting."

"We lost two commands to their disbanding of one," Peter noted. "But the Donegal Jaegers and Third Donegal Guards weren't a huge loss if I'm brutally honest."

"No, and our usual weighting would place two 'Mech regiments and the Guards' conventional brigades as about on a par with the overall losses the Falcons took. In absolute terms, pretty even but strategically I think the Federated Commonwealth has come out ahead." Victor sat back in his seat and looked at his brother. "Hurrah for us."

"You have to know what I'm thinking."

"Going at them next time." Victor nodded. "A united Star League operation could do it, but the AFFC alone… maybe not."

"Not now, but in five or ten years when the warriors who died fighting us would have otherwise been moving up into the senior ranks of the Falcons? That'll let older and more experienced warriors hang on to the positions."

"Yes, but we'll have recovered sooner." Peter saw Victor's brow furrow in thought, so much like their father that it hurt for a moment. "Your idea to pull out older production tooling that's been replaced and set up new factories should pay dividends. Two or three years from now we could be ready."

"So right around the time the Clans would have resumed the invasion anyway."

"Yes." Victor hesitated. "And when that time comes, I expect Vlad Ward will attack us. He as good as said that the Wolves still count the truce as binding, not the Refusal Trials on Strana Mechty. So we may be back on the defense again then."

Peter nodded unhappily but then smiled. "On the other hand, that would leave the Jade Falcons caught between us and Clan Wolf, wouldn't it."

Victor snorted. "It's an ill-wind that blows no one good."


Chapter 4

Resaurius Keep, Tharkad

Donegal Province, Federated Commonwealth

10 November 3064

The archaic curtain walls of Resaurius wouldn't have kept out any serious military force but they were a decent windbreak, something Alys Marik appreciated given the cutting north wind that was sweeping across central Bremen at the moment. She pushed her hood back but regretted it - even here the temperature was by no means mild.

Her cousin must have been out for a while already, a long scarf wrapped repeatedly around her neck and lower face not hiding the ruddy hue of her cheeks. "Duchess Marik," she greeted Alys formally.

"Please, Isis. We're cousins, surely we can use our actual names." Alys forced a smile. "Besides, everytime someone calls me 'her grace of Augustine' I start looking around for my mother."

"And then you remember."

Alys hid a flinch as that cut a little too close. But she was here to win Isis over - disingenuity would hardly serve that goal. "And then I remember."

Isis gestured towards a bench. "Would you rather sit down? Or we could go inside. Tharkad takes some getting used to."

"I wouldn't say no to going inside," Alys agreed. "You've been here for what, five months now?"

"Eight now. It gets even colder than this up on the glaciers."

"I have done arctic training." She pushed her fingers into the pockets of her overcoat and rubbed them against each other. She should have brought gloves. Then she did the mental math about that date. "You came in with Prince Victor's force? I thought you'd arrived after Tharkad was secured."

Isis opened a door into one of the towers and ushered Alys inside. "Well I didn't come down with the actual combat troops, but I was with his headquarters unit and after we were pushed off Heidelberg there was nowhere to go except northern Bremen." She pressed the button on a discreet intercom. "Mr. Overgaag, could my guest and I have some hot chocolate? We're in the western tower lounge."

"Of course, ma'am."

"The hot chocolate they make here is fantastic," Isis confided, letting go of the intercom.

"I'd expect the Archon-Prince can afford the best," Alys said, a little more sourly than she'd intended.

Isis started unwinding her scarf. "Let's be honest, Alys, neither of us really had a deprived childhood. But that's not what bothers you about Peter Steiner-Davion, is it?"

"No." She looked away for a moment. "Intellectually I know he wasn't responsible for what happened to my family. It was his sister's orders and he…"

Her cousin stepped forwards and took her hands. "It's true that many in the FedCom have lost family and friends to this war, Peter no less than others, but that doesn't make Aunt Kristen and your family's deaths any kinder."

"I know." Alys watched their interlinked hands for a moment. "I should thank you… I do thank you, for having Ana's body recovered on Coventry."

"It was the least I could do."

"The least you could have done, was nothing," Alys corrected her. "You did more than your father did."

That got a blink from Isis and she let go of Alys' hands as the door opened and a servant brought in a tray with two mugs, a steaming jug and several smaller containers of condiments. "Your hot chocolate, ma'am."

"Thank you, Gracia." Isis accepted the platter and placed it on the room's table before filling the two mugs from the jug. "How do you take your hot chocolate, Alys?"

"With marshmallows," she replied and gathered her composure as Isis spooned tiny marshmallows into one mug, adding cream to her own. "Isis, are you planning to remain here in the Federated Commonwealth?"

"I'd probably be imposing if I stayed forever but I have limited alternatives." She handed Alys hot-chocolate and sat down facing her. "The Captain-General has invited me to return to the Free Worlds League but I'm uncertain of my welcome."

"Please be assured of my welcome." Alys sipped the hot chocolate and found it quite as fine as her cousin had promised. "And of Aunt Therese."

"The two of you are close then?"

Alys paused. "We have mutual interests, but I think we would be closer than most of the House without that," she admitted. "While I was a cadet, mother signed over guardianship to her since it wasn't practical to fill that role when she was with the Krushers in the Lyran Alliance."

"Tamarind isn't all that close to Oriente," pointed out Isis.

"No, but she visited me every year and stayed in contact by HPG. Not quite as if I was her own daughter, but still…" Alys smiled ruefully. "She's no saint, I won't claim that, and she holds grudges like… well, a Marik."

"Somewhat like grandfather, or so I've heard."

"I'd not want her to hear that, but there's some truth to that."

Isis sank back into the cushions of her couch. "We both know why I'm here, cousin. But what brings you to Tharkad - a good Free Worlds League girl? You could be on Tamarind with Aunt Therese, on Augustine taking up the reins of the Krushers and your duchy or on Atreus, swimming through the muck of politics."

"I'm here to accept Peter Steiner-Davion's apologies for the deaths of my family and bring Ana home."

"You could have met the coffin at the border, and I know you could have had a formal public apology delivered by HPG." Isis leant forwards. "I know the official reasons, Alys. But I'd like the real reason, if you please."

She hesitated and then answered. "I'm here to keep an imposter from sitting on the Star Lord's throne."

Isis raised an eyebrow. "There isn't a literal throne, you know. Or rather, it's on Terra in the decaying remains of Unity City and so far as I know the Word of Blake have continued ComStar's policy of keeping the area sealed."

Alys blinked. Isis hadn't asked who the imposter was. "You know that…?"

"Victor told me some time ago that Joshua and I had no significant blood relationship. Since my paternity was checked when father was presumed dead in the same bomb that killed his father and Joshua's identity as the Captain-General's child has never been in doubt." Isis spread her hands. "Basic maths. Besides, he told me earlier this week."

"And you accepted it?"

"What am I supposed to do? It's not as if he's ever been particularly paternal towards me. Neither he nor my real father wanted me. It's just that they're two different men." Isis smiled wryly. "He's supposed to be alive, by the way. If it makes a difference."

"Really?" Alys hadn't expected the conversation to follow this path. "Then if he survived the bomb then why…?"

"I don't remember, of course, but there was serious concern back in 3036 when he returned to take the Captain-General's throne that he'd survived through cybernetic reconstruction. Parliament demanded medical examinations to verify they weren't electing someone who was, in that trite old phrase, 'more machine than man'." Isis smirked slightly. "I suppose they should have worried more about his DNA but it might have been a deliberate redirection. I assume that my biological father is substantially mechanical."

The thought sent a shudder through Alys. "How horrible."

"I find it hard to care." Isis topped up her mug from the jug. "And how do you plan to prevent him from becoming First Star Lord?"

"I'd intended to tell the Archon-Prince who he was dealing with - but if his brother knows, then he must know."

"I'd expect so."

"Then why hasn't he done anything?" Alys demanded.

Isis smiled tolerantly. "Like what? House Marik nominated him and I assume that at least some of our elders knew about the substitution - Uncle Paul, for example. And Parliament elected him, so it would take a war to oust him. Why should the Star League commit to that? It's an internal matter."

"Then I've wasted my time."

"Not necessarily. You do have your sister's body, you have the chance to make connections here…" Isis paused. "And while I doubt the Steiner-Davions care very much about his authenticity, stressing the tensions over his identity could make him less of an ideal choice. Who would elect a First Star Lord who might not even rule his own realm by the end of his time in office? Or who might try to use the SLDF to prop up his position?"

"The way Sun-Tzu used them against St Ives?"

"Or Theodore in the Lyons Thumb. Let's be honest, no First Lord so far has kept his hands entirely clean." Isis wrapped her fingers around the mug. "There are five available votes - so unless someone abstains ComStar won't matter. And I doubt they'd vote for someone so tied to the Word of Blake anyway. You can't expect the Captain-General to vote against himself, so you need to persuade three of the other four to oppose him."

"I see." She frowned. Sun-Tzu would probably be a touchy subject and she wasn't sure if Isis had ever spent significant time with the Rasalhague Regent or the Coordinator. "Do you have any suggestions on how to convince the Archon-Prince?"

"Well don't start by through to push his name forward as a counter-proposal," Isis began. She tilted her head back, eyes focusing a little above Alys as she thought. "He's like his brother in that he doesn't really want the job and he's quite busy enough stitching his parents' realm back together. That's probably the best approach in fact, convince him that making Thomas Marik the First Star Lord would mean more work for him than the alternatives."

"He doesn't want to be First Star Lord?" Alys found it hard to believe.

"I don't think Peter really expected to end the Civil War in charge of the Federated Commonwealth, and he's ruling something like three times as many worlds and people as the Captain-General does. Even for a confirmed workaholic like Victor, that was a bit much and Peter isn't quite as driven but he's putting in fourteen to sixteen hour days right now and looking forward to the end of the Conference so he can hopefully take a weekend off. The last thing he wants right now is more responsibility." Isis paused. "Give him a few more years to build up a staff he can trust with some of the work and to get used to the role and perhaps that may change. But right now there's no way he could get the votes anyway and he's realistic enough to know that."

Alys had to keep her jaw from slackening. She'd thought her older cousin was more of a social butterfly than a substantial politician but she'd been able to deliver a cogent analysis despite clearly not having considered the matter before. "You're very good at this."

"I've learned that I need a better grasp on people's motives."

"Can I persuade you to come back to Augustine with me? I could do with a political advisor."

Her cousin's smile was more of a grin. "If I do decide to return to the League, I'll have my own Duchy."

"You do?" Alys was sure she'd have heard if Isis had substantial estates in her own right.

"It's in the nature of a bribe. The Captain-General offered me the Duchy of Irian."

"I thought Irian Technologies owned the planet outright and the dukes were just figureheads."

Isis nodded. "That's my own understanding - the title comes with estates there though, as well as a nice block of IrTech shares so it's not an entirely empty title. And there's a certain cachet to being a Duchess."

"Yes, I don't think Sigsmund Hughes would be pleased."

"The CEO of IrTech? No, I think he blocked the last attempt to appoint a new Duke by suing the federal government for trademark infringement." She saw Isis smile at the very idea and couldn't help but match it. Only in the Free Worlds League. "I imagine the Captain-General would think I'd be distracted fighting Hughes in the courts," Isis continued. "I have a few ideas how to deal with that but I'm not sure yet if it's a fight worth taking part in."


Chapter 5

The Triad, Tharkad

Donegal Province, Federated Commonwealth

12 November 3064

The Triad's ballroom had been the site of both the previous Whitting Conferences and the layout had become something of a tradition already, with a podium and tables for the assembled lords forming a circle. That circle had grown a little tighter when the St Ives Compact was... reunited... with the Capellan Confederation and now another table had been removed with the reunion of the Lyran Alliance and the Federated Commonwealth.

The original six seats of the First Star League had probably been something like this, Peter thought, before they moved into the purpose-built chamber in Unity City. Back before the Reunification War. The next triennial Conference would take place only a few days after the five hundredth anniversary of the Federated Suns agreed to join the nascent Star League although the date it became official was either two or four years later: when the Draconis Combine agreed to join or the day the Star League Accords had actually been signed.

"I'm honoured to be invited to return to command of the SLDF," his brother said from the podium. He wore an AFFC Field Marshal's uniform now - without prompting, wonders would never cease. "However, it's been made clear to me that the problems of the Federated Commonwealth are in part of my making and I have a responsibility to make them right. As such, returning to the SLDF is something I couldn't honourably do at this time."

Victor bowed his head humbly. "I can assure you though, that Hohiro Kurita has done a fine job commanding the SLDF in my absence and I commend him to you as Commanding General in his own right."

Peter glanced across the circle at Theodore Kurita and gave a slight nod, confirming that this was his position as well. The Coordinator glanced at his eldest son and then returned the nod.

"Shall we vote on the appointment?" asked Thomas Marik, looking around as he rather blatantly played arbiter of the conversation. "Or does anyone wish to speak on General Kurita's qualifications?"

No one spoke up and the Captain-General cast his vote in favour, which made the matter a closed deal with both Peter and Theodore adding their vote. General Mansdottir voted in favour as well and Sun-Tzu abstained, which he'd done more often than not in the Conference. Peter took that to be a sign that Catherine was right about his moving to disengage the Capellan Confederation from the Star League now that he'd milked it for all the benefits he was likely to get.

Hohiro Kurita moved from the seat next to his father to replace Victor at the podium, the two friends shaking hands amicably before Victor moved back to sit in one of the chairs at the Federated Commonwealth table.

"Thank you for the vote of confidence," Hohiro began, setting a noteputer on the podium. "I'm honoured to be named as the Commanding General. I'd like to continue today's discussions by touching on the expansion of the SLDF."

Peter nodded. "Please continue, General Kurita."

"The original intention for the SLDF was to gradually build up towards something resembling the organisation of original SLDF - brigades, divisions and even corps of troops - a plan which would take a considerable length of time." Hohiro cleared his throat. "After extended discussions with General Trevana, I've come to the conclusion that not only would the timescale for this be unrealistic but it would also fail to recognise both the very different logistical situation of the modern SLDF and the lessons all our militaries have learned through the Succession Wars and the Clan Invasion."

"May I ask what you propose instead?" asked the Captain-General - who along with the bored-looking Sun-Tzu Liao hadn't been consulted on this. To be fair, Hohiro hadn't approached Peter either but Victor had filled him in.

"At the moment, the SLDF includes the Eridani Light Horse, the Royal Black Watch regiment and the First Royal BattleMech regiment, effectively six BattleMech regiments with varying degrees of conventional support. Over the next three years, I'm proposing to reorganise and expand this into a pair of Regimental Combat Teams, each made up of four combined arms brigades. Each of these brigades will be built around a BattleMech regiment - or at least a 'Mech-heavy combined arms regiment - a supporting infantry or at least infantry-heavy regiment and a support command of armour, artillery, aerospace and other specialised assets."

"Much like a Draconis Combine combat brigade then?" asked Alys Marik from where she was seated next to her 'uncle'.

"Similarly, Duchess Marik." Hohiro inclined his head slightly. "The Eridani Light Horse would retain their traditional designation as the Third SLDF RCT, while the Black Watch and the First Royals will form the core of the First SLDF Royal RCT, joined by two additional brigades. In the long term, we envisage dividing the First RCT to create a Second RCT with one spearheaded by the First Royals and the other by the Black Watch."

Peter rubbed his jaw. "I like it, the strong infantry contingent would serve the SLDF well in the peacekeeper roles they've been called on for in their recent history and the units are small enough to be strategically flexible."

"Thank you, your highness."

"How do you propose to pay for this expansion?" Sun-Tzu asked in a disinterested tone, as if he could barely be bothered to enquire. "I see no military threat to justify further contributions towards this military build-up."

Peter restrained himself from a snort at the hypocrisy of the former First Lord who'd used the SLDF as peacekeepers in the neighbouring St Ives Compact and then replaced them with his own troops in a creeping invasion.

If Hohiro felt similarly, the new Commanding General didn't condescend to show it. "Over the last three years, much of the material budget of the SLDF has gone to replacing equipment lost in Operation Serpent… and similarly the personnel budget into rebuilding lost manpower. We're now receiving a steady flow of recruits from the Focht War College on Tukayyid and our equipment stockpiles are sufficient to begin assembling the proposed Second BattleMech Regiment next year, with the Third to follow in 3066."

"The College provides freshly trained personnel." Ragnar Magnusson was seated next to his Regent at Rasalhague's table but he'd spoken rarely so far. "Do you have enough experienced personnel to stiffen them in the new units?"

"In addition to the college, our recruiters have had an influx of new applications on Galatea and Outreach." Hohiro tapped his noteputer, clearly changing pages. "The majority of the increase comes from former AFFC and LAAF soldiers discharged over the last twelve months."

"Your soldiers are voting with your feet?" Sun-Tzu asked snidely.

"There are also a number of soldiers from worlds once part of the Sarna March who've chosen not to take Capellan service," Hohiro continued, causing Sun-Tzu to subside and trigger some less than discreet snickers among those further from the tables. "While some additional training in SLDF doctrine and equipment will be required, we expect to be able to stand up the infantry regiments and most of the two support commands before the end of 3065."

"BattleMechs will take longer then?"

"Yes, Captain-General. The main restraint there is in purchasing new BattleMechs. We have sufficient funds but most major manufacturers are prioritising their national militaries. With the exception of your own realm and Rasalhague, recent military action has left them rebuilding." He paused. "It's not clear why your own manufacturers are so heavily booked."

"I'd imagine that with other nations restricting sales that we're receiving increased demand from mercenary units," Marik replied.

"If we can avoid further conflict amongst ourselves, I'd imagine the situation will stabilise in a year or two." Peter folded his hands and leant forwards to rest his chin on then. "But it should be feasible for most of us to set aside a company or two of new 'Mechs for the SLDF, surely. That should permit the Second SLDF BattleMech regiment to form on schedule."

"Given your realm's much vaunted military-industrial complex, I'm sure you'd like a larger share of the Star League tax money," Sun-Tzu grumbled.

Peter didn't bother to restrain his expression. "If I suggested that all five members provide twenty-four 'Mechs you'd complain that I was putting disproportionate load on your realm, but if we go with proportions based on relative size then I'm pork-barrelling? There's really no pleasing you, Chancellor."

"That's enough," Theodore said firmly. "Such squabbling ill-befits the Star League Council." He looked back to his son. "If you could have the SLDF's projected needs circulated to our staffs, each lord can see what they might be able to award priority with their native manufacturers."

"Of course, sir." Hohiro tapped once more on his noteputer. "If an agreement in principle can be agreed then purchasing officers could travel to each state along with the council delegations as they return home. The sooner the arrangements are locked in, the sooner we can begin bringing the Second SLDF brigade to combat readiness."

Peter made a note to himself as well. Resupplying the AFFC was going well but replacing soldiers - both those killed and those who'd chosen discharge over continuing to serve or even retirement to their homeworlds' militias - was going to be a slow process. Lowering standards could have sped the process up but the cost of that could be severe in combat effectiveness so it was looking as if it wouldn't be until the current freshmen in various academies graduated that frontline forces would be back at their full notional strength.

As a result, finding a few companies of BattleMechs shouldn't be impossible over the next year. He'd set working groups to assessing variants currently in production to try to cut down the enormous variety of designs being churned out and focus on 'Mechs that had solid performance to back their use. The uncertainty over what they should be building had set some of the smaller manufacturers back so contracting for a few of what they were already building - and in the case of those competing for grants to set up secondary facilities, smooth feathers.

He'd see what Hohiro had in mind.

"Thomas is covering for something," Victor murmured. "Most of the mercenary commands these days are leaning on independent manufacturers like Outreach. If anything the League's share of that market is diminishing."

"So where's the equipment going?" asked Peter quietly, half-turning as the Captain-General engaged Hohiro with questions about possibly seeing an SLDF deployment to halt the ongoing conflicts between the periphery states near his border. There wasn't a chance in hell of that getting approved so it was almost certainly just playing for the holo-cameras.

Victor glanced significantly towards William Blane, the Blakist representation in the Free Worlds League delegation. "Even now that they control Terra, the Word of Blake is receiving a double-digit percentage of the League's military manufacture."

What were they doing with that? Peter wondered. Terra was by its nature a threat poised to sever the Terran corridor if the Blakists decided to turn against the Federated Commonwealth. And so little was known of their military strength that planning counter-measures was an exercise in speculation. In the worst case, adding ten percent of the League's production to any factories restored on Terra could easily bring them up to the size of ComGuards given a few more years.

We need to know more, he decided. This isn't something I can afford to ignore.


Chapter 6

The Triad, Tharkad

Donegal Province, Federated Commonwealth

15 November 3064

Kitsune Kurita had discovered the joy of snowmen - or more specifically of snow samurai. While he was quite creative in shaping snow into the shape of armour, swords had proven beyond his expertise and big pleading eyes hadn't convinced his mother, his father or his uncle that he could be trusted with the decorative blades mounted on some of the Triad's chambers - so he had to make do with curved branches. Despite this he was proud to show them off and Isis sat on a bench next to Omi as children ran and screamed at each other among the formation of snow samurai with joyful abandon.

"So there it is," Isis wrapped explaining her dilemma. "I'm not sure what I should do."

Omi nodded thoughtfully, not answering immediately.

"One thing I have realised is that simply staying with Victor's staff or at Peter's court isn't an option… or rather, they aren't options I wish to take. I'd simply be… well, what some of the extreme radicals say about the noble class: a parasite, surviving only on the back of others."

Omi glanced sideways at that point. "They say such things in the League?"

"Oh yes. And here in the Federated Commonwealth."

"Remarkable." The Kurita shook her head slightly. "It occurs to me that you last left Atreus not so very long after we first met. A little more than a year later?"

"More or less," agreed Isis. She'd been almost seventeen when she'd been invited to Outreach along with the other rulers and heirs of the Inner Sphere. "I was younger… less mature, then than I thought I was."

"Yes. You've grown considerably, and I suspect many on Atreus still envisage the younger you, rather than the woman you've grown into."

The younger woman thought for a moment. "I suppose that's true… the latter, at least. I'm not sure I've changed all that much."

"From my perspective, you have. I suspect neither your father nor your cousin quite understand who they are inviting. Where that may lead, I could not tell you. But I diverge from your implied question." Omi pursed her lips. "Setting aside whatever you have been offered in this specific case, Isis, what do you want? In all the universe, what is it that you desire?"

Isis blinked at the question. "Anything?"

"Yes. Not what you've wanted in the past, not constrained to any reasonable expectations, not even what you might want in the future. What, right now, would satisfy you?"

She blinked again and frowned in thought. "I… I'm not sure. I hadn't thought about in those terms."

"Take your time." She received a gentle smile from Omi. "This isn't a test, but when you know the answer, you'll -"

There was a cry of alarm and surprise from Kit as, ducking under someone's snowball, the little boy failed to get his feet back under him and went sprawling. He didn't seem hurt at first glance from Isis, but his face was reddening - possibly at the laughter of the other children.

"Excuse me." Omi rose and strode over towards her son, a mildly concerned look on her face.

Although she wouldn't be seen, Isis nodded understanding and turned the question over in her head. What did she want? Well, perhaps see what she had wanted before and see if it was still relevant?

Her father's love or at least attention? Well that was a bad joke, given he'd never met her and his replacement considered her more an obligation than an attachment. And a tool, of course. Although to be fair, most dynastic lords and ladies had to consider their children in that light to some extent.

The attention of the other heirs, back when she was on Outreach? She'd got that alright, but not in ways she'd expected or desired. Being a teenager might explain her behaviour but not excuse it, even to herself. She should have raised her goals to being respected by them… from the way Victor had treated her since Mogyorod… not her arrival but that night with the assassin, that was something worth having. Although respect from a mere handful of people… well, again she'd set her sights too low but it was too late now.

That gave her the niggle of an idea but before that she faced the third thing she'd wanted, the goal she'd followed for most of a decade. Sun-Tzu. No. Just no.

So, what else? Nothing seemed worth mentioning, which was a sad thing after almost thirty years. Her regrets were events impossible to reverse so however open-ended Omi's question had been, Isis discarded them.

Returning to her thought of a moment ago, she considered it. Raising her goals. Aspire to respect, not just attention. Affection, perhaps in time. She couldn't help but envy Omi a little for the bound that she and Victor clearly shared - not that she intended to try to raise her goals from Sun-Tzu in that way. Setting aside that it would be immensely satisfying to see Sun-Tzu's face on learning she'd married Victor, it would be a rotten thing to do to Omi and far too much like the ass she'd made of herself on Outreach. Anyway, Victor had to all practical purposes given up his throne to be with Omi. Isis doubted she'd even register in comparison.

Still, it gave her something she wanted almost as much as respect. She wanted that sort of relationship, someone in her life she could share experiences with. It couldn't be that hard, could it? The vast majority of adult humans managed relations and at least she was past the years of immaturity.

There were certainly plenty of men around. She'd not really been looking, the wounds of Sun-Tzu's rejection had been too raw, but perhaps it was time to set that aside.

It didn't really relate to whether she went back to the League. Even if she was penniless, many noble families would overlook that for the chance to add '-Marik' to their surnames and have a claim, however tenuous, against the Captain-General's throne. It would be an awful reason to get married though, and not the sort of relationship she wanted at all.

And, being honest with herself, it would irk her, Isis realised. She didn't want to stay a poor relation. To be someone pushed around by those with power. She wanted… not so much power as much as the independence that it could confer. Right now she had only such freedoms as those Peter Steiner-Davion granted her, because without his protection there was no assurance that SAFE or someone else might whisk her away.

And power… didn't necessarily translate to respect, but it could contribute.

Something that William Blane had said to her once came to mind. It had been during one interminable ball on Atreus where the then only-recently-ComStar Precentor of Gibson had taken a moment to speak to her. It had been right before the engagement to Sun-Tzu and in hindsight, Blane had probably been more focused on putting himself forward as the head of the forming Word of Blake than anything Isis herself said, but remaining at least a little friendly with the then heir presumptive.

She'd brashly asked him about the still only rumoured tales of ComStar's deep scheming and many plots over the centuries and Blane had chuckled (at least in her recollection, a little patronisingly). 'My dear girl, if the Succession Wars have taught us anything, it's that no one takes you seriously unless you're at least trying to take over the Inner Sphere.'

Not that she particularly wanted the Inner Sphere - or even the Free Worlds League - but there was some merit to it. Property and a title would give far more weight to her words than her surname alone.

"It's not as if I'd even have to govern the place," she mused to herself.

"I didn't quite catch that," Omi enquired with a mild look.

Omi looked up and saw her friend returning to the bench. Behind her Kit was playing again as if the fall had never happened. "Oh, sorry. I was thinking about your question."

"You don't have to tell me anything personal, but has it helped at all?"

"Yes, I think it has."

Omi nodded but didn't say anything, just turning and sitting.

After a moment, partly to fill the silence and partly to test the waters, Isis added: "Perhaps it's shallow, but the idea of having a home, money and a title does appeal to me. Peter's very kind about supporting me, but I'd rather stand on my own feet."

"That's quite understandable. And while you're certainly welcome to come back to Luthien with me, the same would be true there."

"Quite." Isis smiled slightly. "And I can't ask either of you for a duchy."

"I don't even have one of my own," Omi told her indulgently. "But if you decide to take one and I ever visit the Free Worlds League, perhaps I can impose on you?"

"Of course."

They sat a moment longer in a less expectant silence and then Omi leaned over and scooped up a handful of snow, moulding it in her gloved hands.

"What are you doing?"

"Making a snowball?"

"Why?"

"To throw it, of course." Omi glanced at Isis with a serene smile then eyed a gate into the yard. She weighed the snowball carefully and then flung it up on a high arc towards the gate as it began to swing open.

The snowball splattered on the shoulder of Victor Steiner-Davion's immaculate Field Marshal's uniform and he paused in the doorway. The short prince swept the yard with sharp eyes, lingering on Omi for a moment - Isis was amused to see that the Kurita folded her hands to hide the traces of snow on her gloves - and then at the children.

"Who threw that?" Victor asked mildly.

The children all looked at each other, clearly mystified. Kit even hid the snowball in his hand behind his back for a moment.

"Well then." And then the conqueror of the Clans reached over to a snowbank and began deliberately packing his own snowball together. "This means war." He didn't manage to throw his own snowball before one of the other children had the boldness to throw their own at him.

Isis gave Omi a disbelieving look and got an amused look of satisfaction in return.


Chapter 7

The Triad, Tharkad

Donegal Province, Federated Commonwealth

17 November 3064

To some the election of the First Star Lord might have seemed a minor event, given the largely honorary nature of the role. Even under the First Star League, the post had been first among equals and the margin of distinction had been shaved razor thin now… but to men and women whose ancestors had fought for generations over the title, securing was a very real political prize.

"I believe we should elect the new First Lord before discussing the admission of new members," Theodore Kurita began. "It would be best for the First Lord welcoming to be the one who they will be working with over the years of their provisional membership." And since they would be provisional members with no vote until the next Whitting Conference, their attendance wouldn't change the election.

Sun-Tzu Liao steepled his fingers. "Shouldn't they at least have their say, even if they cannot vote on the matter?"

"Trying to win points from his allies?" asked Victor in a low voice from next to Peter. "He can't be elected himself."

Peter shrugged. "Both positions have merit," he told the rest of the council diplomatically. "What's your feeling, Captain-General?"

"On balance, I believe representation of their interests sends a better signal, Lord Steiner-Davion. And it is, of course, the originally scheduled agenda."

"Let us by all means not confuse the schedule." Peter said, rubbing his jaw. "Do you wish a formal vote, First Lord?"

"No, I concede the point." Theodore shook his head. "Very well, we have before us the motion to admit the Taurian Concordat as a member of the Star League on a provisional basis for the next three years, to be elevated to a full member or expelled from membership at the first meeting of the Fourth Whitting Conference. Protector Shraplen has signed the treaty today, is it your will to accept Taurian membership?"

The decision was unanimous, it had been discussed already and copies of the treaty were placed before each lord to sign and then pass to their left, until all the copies had been signed. The tables had already been rearranged so some of the treaties had to be carried by the left-most aide at a table past a vacant space.

The first space was filled as Grover Shraplen was invited to take his seat, followed by the rest of the Taurian delegation, and then the entire dance was repeated with Emma Centrella on behalf of the Magistracy of Canopus.

"Are we sure that the Word of Blake shouldn't be admitted on the same basis?" asked Thomas Marik mildly before the third member was put to the vote. "An advisory membership like ComStar's may be less than equitable since we have all recognised the Word as the legitimate government of Terra."

"ComStar's advisory position is on the basis of our neutrality," observed Gavin Dow from the ComStar desk. As had become traditional, the Precentor Martial spoke for the organisation when it came to the Star League Council with the Primus not even attending. "If the Word of Blake wish to assert that they aren't neutral then full membership may be offered, but in that case, would you trust them with your communications."

"I already do," Thomas pointed out, but other people behind the Free Worlds League desk seemed less sanguine.

Theodore shook his head. "This has already been discussed. Your votes please."

Dow would clearly have voted against ComStar's rivals being admitted but even with Sun-Tzu abstaining there were four votes in favour so ComStar wouldn't be called on to break a tie today. William Blane moved from the table from the Free Worlds League to take the central seat at the one bearing the banner of the Word of Blake, joined by aides and advisors who - according to Peter's briefings - represented at least four different factions within the organisation.

"And with our last business prior to the election cleared," declared Theodore, "I formally relinquish the position of the First Lord so that my successor can be elected."

Peter had missed the last election but he'd seen pictures and the last three years had aged Theodore markedly. Whether that was serving as First Lord or not was had to say - he had fought two wars, even if one had been undeclared - but on balance it was most likely losing his wife during the war with the Ghost Bears that had worn him down. She hadn't even died in battle, she'd committed seppuku after half her regimental commanders decided that Coordinator's wife or not they couldn't accept that a woman was competent to plan an offensive.

One more sign that the 'bad old days' of the Combine were by no means as far away as Victor thought, in Peter's opinion. Theodore had certainly handled it like his father had, by inviting them to commit seppuku in the gardens of the Imperial Palace. With chopsticks rather than their swords, according to some reason. Then again, his grandfather would have probably just lined them up against a wall and had them shot so that was progress, after a fashion.

"May I be the first to thank you for your distinguished service in the position," Thomas offered as Theodore returned from the podium and Gavin Dow replaced him. The Coordinator chose to dignify the blatant flattery with only a polite nod.

"Sun-Tzu made a point of nominating Katherine as his successor," Victor recalled. "He wanted it to be a tradition. Glad to see that Theodore isn't continuing it."

"Ladies and gentlemen." Dow cut straight to business, not consulting any notes. Then again, it wasn't a great feat of memory. "Who is nominated for the office of First Lord?"

Christian Mansdottir cleared his throat. "I think the candidate is obvious, my lords. Tharkad has hosted these deliberations three times now and Prince Victor led the SLDF to victory over the Clans. Surely we owe it to House Steiner-Davion that their leader should hold the office."

There was a muted chuckle from the Liao desk and all heads turned towards the Chancellor. The thin man waved his hand dismissively. "Please continue, General. I will be most interested in how you credit the Archon-Prince with affairs none of his doing."

Peter rose to his feet. "I am honoured by the nomination, Lord Mansdottir, and I hope to live up to your high expectations. Nonetheless, my realm is currently recovering from a Civil War and I am only a few months into my reign. It is quite understandable that some of the Council will wish longer to take my measure before entrusting me with the responsibilities of First Lord. Rather than prolong the debate, I ask that you withdraw the nomination. If you still feel me worthy in three years then I would count it as high praise."

The Rasalhaguan nodded. "Your humility does you credit and I believe you underestimate yourself, Lord Steiner-Davion, but I will accept your preference in this matter."

"I'm pretty sure Theodore would have backed you," Victor muttered.

"I doubt it." Peter glanced across at the Coordinator. "I'm not his son-in-law in all but name and I didn't quash James Sandoval, which makes him neither personally nor politically inclined to back me. And I don't really need the extra work."

And without Theodore's support, he'd need either Thomas or Sun-Tzu to vote for him. Neither seemed likely and any price for their support wouldn't really be worth it for what was a mostly honorary post. Katrina had campaigned relentlessly to secure the post and that wasn't an example he wanted to follow. Besides, three years wasn't that long.

The Magestrix of Canopus cleared her throat. "I believe I am free to make a nomination," she said in a throaty voice, "although I have no vote as yet."

Dow nodded. "That is correct, Magestrix."

Emma looked around the chamber before speaking further. "While it may concern certain of my late mother's allies in Andurien, I wish to nominate Captain-General Thomas Marik. He has proven an able administrator and war leader over almost thirty years, a record to be respected, and he is the only lord on this council still holding his seat from the First Whitting Conference who has not thus far held the position. It seems reasonable to redress this."

Sun-Tzu chuckled again. "Due to personal issues between myself and House Marik, I abstain on this nomination." He rose to his feet. "In fact, I abstain entirely from this matter. Elect who you please - and as this is the last matter to be debated, I will withdraw to my quarters. I have a long voyage back to Sian and wish to be well-rested."

Emma stared at her neighbour, a 'was it something I said' look in her eyes for an instant. She either hadn't been forewarned of this or was an excellent actor. It could be either. On the other side of the Capellan table, Grover Shraplen broke off from a thoughtful examination of Peter and seemed similarly unsettled as the Chancellor left the ballroom, trailed by the other Capellans present.

Whatever Sun-Tzu was up to - and he was far too skilled a politician not to be up to something - he'd reduced the votes to four, meaning ComStar would be breaking ties, Peter reflected. That meant Thomas needed three votes including his own because ComStar couldn't vote for the Free Worlds League while they remained the biggest patron of their rival Word of Blake.

"That was… unexpected," Thomas said, looking after the departing Chancellor for a moment. "I trust that you won't consider me immodest if I don't follow your example, Peter?"

"Not immodest, no." Peter glanced across the room at him. "Indeed, your position is almost the inverse of mine. I've just completed a civil war and you appear to be about to begin one."

"Rumours of our internal divisions have always been exaggerated in other states."

"Yes, but usually those divisions aren't the result of the Captain-General having lied about his identity for his entire reign."

The unscarred side of Thomas' face went white and then red as Peter brutally brought the matter into the public eye. Notably, no one at the table seemed even remotely surprised. "I… you…"

"Who leads the Free Worlds League is absolutely none of my business," Peter continued with less than total honesty. "But if the First Lord tries to use the SLDF to win a civil war in his own realm then that affects us all. And your identity is the key issue that the Free Worlds League may fracture over. If you weather the storm then your other qualifications are excellent, but I don't favour propping you up."

Theodore cleared his throat. "Since any of us could die in office or face unexpected developments in the next few years, I don't find your arguments compelling, Lord Steiner-Davion."

"That is your right, sir."

"Does anyone else wish to speak on the matter?" asked Dow. "In that case, your votes, please."

Thomas and Theodore voted aye and Peter nay. All eyes went to Mansdottir, who hesitated. He couldn't win really - either way he would be disagreeing with one of his small realm's powerful neighbours. The hesitation was brief though and he looked to his side. "Our Elected Prince will vote on this matter for Rasalhague."

Ragnar Magnusson stood, wearing crisp Ghost Bear dress uniform. "The duplicity in the Captain-General's identity is something I am uncomfortable with. It would be a capital offense under the laws I have spent the last decade upholding," he said firmly. "Rasalhague votes nay."

The Captain-General lowered his head and said nothing.

"Who else is there?" asked Grover. "The five great houses have all either served already, been voted down or rejected nomination."

Peter nodded. "That being the case, I nominate the head of the other remaining member state. General Mansdottir, do you accept nomination."

The regent gave him a rueful look. "Yes, Lord Steiner-Davion."

"I second the nomination," Theodore agreed firmly - tacitly confirming he wasn't going to take too much offense at the disagreement over Thomas' election.

Dow nodded. "The votes please."

Three votes would have carried the matter anyway but Thomas added his own with some attempt at graceful acceptance of defeat and Mansdottir accepted his election with a few short words couched in generalities, clearly not having expected this. Ragnar was beaming from beside him.

"While there is nothing further for debate," Peter offered as the new First Lord returned to his seat, "There is a small presentation I wish to make to our new provisional members." He smiled slightly. "I didn't offer these earlier in case it seemed I was trying to buy votes."

Servants carried small computer cores into the room and handed them off to Canopian and Taurian aides.

"May I enquire as to what is on this?" asked Shraplen, looking at the core as if it were a ticking bomb.

"You may have heard that during the Civil War my sister Catherine obtained an old Terran Hegemony computer," explained Peter calmly. "So far as we can determine, it holds data their intelligence gathered on other states' military hardware including schematics, construction data and detailed analysis of both recorded performance and salvaged examples. Almost four hundred years of it. I had our own analysts compile all data regarding your respective state's and you'll find it on the cores." He sat back in his chair. "Some of it may be of no more than historical value, but it is your heritage so it seems only right to return it to you. And if you find use for it, so much the better - NAIS is currently working to some former Federated Suns early BattleMech designs for modern service so the potential exists."