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"Actually," Lantu said, "I must confess to a bit of hope."

The first admiral's almost whimsical smile was a far cry from the tortured expression he'd worn before his personal extermination of the Prophet and his entourage, and Antonov envied him. Kthaara'zarthan envied him even more, but he was content. His defargo had been present if he couldn't be, and he'd almost purred as he made Lantu relive every moment of the encounter. The bared-fang grin of total approval he'd bestowed on his one-time mortal enemy had surprised even Antonov; the rest of Second Fleet's senior officers were still in shock. And when Tsuchevsky had caught the Orion initiating the Theban into the pleasures of vodka-!

"You must?" Antonov asked, suppressing yet another ignoble urge to twit his vilkshatha brother.

"Indeed. Aside from his religious fervor, Ganhad is no fool. Once you get past his ranting and raving, it looks as if he recognizes the reality of his helplessness, and unlike his predecessor, he truly cares about the People. That should make some sort of settlement possible."

Antonov grunted and turned his glass in his hands. Delighted as he was by Pericles Waldeck's fall from power, the chaos on Old Terra had dumped yet another pile of manure in his lap. President Sakanami's administration had been devastated by Howard's Assembly revelations. One or two LibProgs were actually muttering about impeachment in the apparent hope of saving themselves by poleaxing their own party's president, and his cabinet was a shambles. Of all the pre-war ministers, only Hamid O'Rourke remained. Waldeck and Sakanami had gone behind his back to transmit Aurelli's pre-Lorelei orders via the minister for foreign affairs, and his work since the Peace Fleet massacre, especially as Howard's ally within the cabinet, had won widespread approval. There was even-Antonov grinned at the thought-talk of running him for president. One thing was certain; no one would be renominating Sakanami Hideoshi!

Meanwhile, however, the confusion left the foreign affairs ministry a total, demoralized wreck, too busy defending the careers of its survivors and fending off Assembly "fact-finding" committees to worry about diplomacy. And since he'd done so well fighting the war, the politicos had decided to let Ivan Antonov end the war. After everything else they'd saddled him with in the last two and a half years, the vlasti had decided to make him a peace envoy!

"No, really." Lantu's improbably long arm stretched out to refill his own vodka glass. "You're not going to get him to accept unconditional surrender, and if you show a single sign of weakness or wavering he may be able to convince himself 'Holy Terra' is intervening on his side and turn stubborn, but otherwise I think he'll accept the terms you actually plan to offer."

"The terms you plan to offer," Antonov corrected for, in a sense, that was no more than literal truth. Lantu's personal familiarity with the Synod's members had guided the careful crafting of a package both sides might be able to live with, though the prelates' reaction, had any of them suspected who the infidels' advisor was, scarcely bore thinking on.

Lantu gave him a small, Theban smile and shrugged.

"Actually, Admiral, I believe the first admiral is correct." Winnifred Trevayne's diffidence couldn't quite hide her delight. She was in her element analyzing the Theban responses-which, Antonov reflected, probably said something unhealthy about her intellect. "The new Prophet will undoubtedly rant and rave, but he has no realistic option. He knows that. If he didn't, he wouldn't have agreed even to meet with you, and I think he's afraid you're going to demand something far worse. No doubt he's screwed himself up to accept martyrdom rather than that something worse, and when you start turning the screws, he's going to be certain that's what's coming. Which means that when you offer him the rest of the terms Admiral Lantu's suggested they'll seem so much better than his expectations he'll jump at them." She smiled slightly. "In fact, he'll probably think you're a fool for letting him off so lightly."

"You do great things for my self-esteem, Commander," Antonov growled, but his eyes gleamed appreciatively.

"Well, sir, it's not really that different from a military operation, is it?" she replied. "We don't care what they think of us. We only have to worry about what they do."

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE The Terms of Terra | Crusade | * * *