And the fact that they're specifically split between the squadrons which just happen to contain Lester's and Giscard's flagships hasn't passed unnoticed, the citizen commissioner thought grimly. I doubt that was McQueen's idea, either, and I know Lester would just love to "adjust" fleet organization a bit to get rid of them, but neither he nor Giscard dare do such a thing any more than McQueen would have dared to turn down Saint-Just's "reinforcements" in the first place.
   He sighed. In a perfect universe, the revolution would long since have been brought to its successful and triumphant conclusion. In the one in which he actually lived, men and women he liked and admired, like Lester Tourville and Shannon Foraker, were in at least as much danger from the people who were supposed to be running the Republic they served as from the people who were supposed to be trying to kill them. Had those men and women truly been enemies of the People, that would have been one thing. But they weren't. And for that matter, Honeker was no longer as certain as he once had been that he — or Rob Pierre or Oscar Saint-Just — actually knew what the People truly wanted!
   And so he'd found himself forced to choose between people he knew were fundamentally decent, honorable, and courageous enough to risk their lives in the thankless task of defending the Republic and people who could be guilty of the ghastly excesses being reported by the escapees from Cerberus and Camp Charon. He shouldn't have had to do that... and the fact that he'd been forced to do it after all shouldn't have put his own life in danger. But he had, and it had, and he sometimes wished he could come right out and tell Lester where he stood. Yet he couldn't quite do that, even now. And it didn't matter, for he was quite sure Lester had figured it out for himself.
   He just hoped Oscar Saint-Just hadn't!


   "Oh, what a clever, marvelous, disgusting little girl you are!"
   Allison Harrington told the baby in her lap enthusiastically. "Now if only you were equally clever in ways that didn't make messes, you'd be the perfect daughter. As it is—" she leaned forward, pressing her lips to the little girl's stomach and blowing to produce a fluttering sound that made her daughter squeal with delight "—you're still just almost perfect!"
   Faith gave a delighted squeal and did her level best to grab her mother's hair and pull, but Allison avoided the pink, chubby fist and distracted her with a shrewd tickle. Faith squealed again and produced a duplicate of the splendid bubble of drool which had prompted her mother's original compliment, and Allison laughed and reached for a cleansing tissue. An arm in a jade-green sleeve reached over her shoulder to offer one, and she looked up with a smile of thanks. Corporal Jeremiah Tennard, already assigned, despite Allison's vehement protests, as Faith's personal armsman responded with a smile of his own, but it didn't do much to offset the harried look in his eyes.
   Which only made Allison smile even more sweetly at him before she turned back to the task of mopping up Faith's handiwork.
   She'd just finished that task when an air car settled into one of the VIP terminal lounge's parking slots just a bit more rapidly than the traffic regs truly approved. A musical tone and a subdued flash of green light indicated that the car's owner's account had been debited for the appropriate use fee, and a boarding tube extruded itself from the slot's outer wall to the car's starboard hatch. A moment later, the car door opened and another man in the green-on-green of Harrington Steading stepped out of it.
   "Hello, Simon!" Allison greeted the newcomer cheerfully. Simon Mattingly had been promoted from corporal to lieutenant when the Steadholder's Own section of the Harrington Guard was expanded to provide Faith and James with their own, dedicated security teams. It hadn't changed his duties as second-in-command of Honor's personal team — or, rather, it hadn't kept him from being reassigned as Andrew LaFollet's second-in-command as soon as Grayson discovered LaFollet (and Honor) were still alive — and Allison was happy for his advancement.
   Her happiness would have been completely unflawed but for the reason the Steadholder's Own had been expanded. It was absolutely ridiculous, in her calmly considered opinion, for a child barely ten months old to already have no less than four trained, lethally competent, armed-to-the-teeth, omnipresent bodyguards. James was luckier; he had only two armsmen assigned to his security detail, since Grayson law regarded him primarily as a spare, albeit a welcome one.
   For once in her life, however, not even Allison Chou Harrington's intransigence had been enough. The fact that the Conclave of Steadholders had accepted Faith as Honor's heir, formally named Howard Clinkscales her regent, determined the composition of her Regency Council (which had not, as originally structured, included the Steadholder Mother), and transferred the Harrington Key to her as the second Steadholder Harrington had represented an enormous concession on the Conservatives' part. Of course, all those arrangements had come tumbling down when Honor turned out to be alive after all, but Faith remained her legally designated heir, and Allison was well aware that most of the steadholders, even those who belonged to what passed for the Keys' liberal wing, would really have preferred for her to be clever enough to have made sure James was born first. Since she'd been so inconsiderate as to produce a girl child first, however, and since Protector Benjamin had insisted, they had grudgingly agreed that it was time to allow female children to inherit their fathers' keys. They'd insisted on grandfathering in a stipulation to guarantee the succession of the sons of those among them who'd already produced male heirs, even if, as most Grayson men did, those sons had older sisters, and they'd specifically exempted the protectorship itself, despite Benjamin's best efforts, but they'd accepted yet another of his reforms.
   And blamed it on "those Harrington" women just like the others, too! Allison chuckled a bit sourly in the depths of her mind. Gave in more gracefully than I'd expected, though. But, then, that was when everyone knew Honor was dead, and none of them wanted to risk their steaders' fury by seeming unreasonable about the succession of her steading. Not to mention the fact that they had another twenty T-years before Faith would be old enough to carry the Harrington Key in her own right. Now Honor's back, and half of them seem to think she deliberately arranged to get herself sent to Hell as some fiendishly clever stratagem to "sneak" a female heir in on them! And, of course, I must have been the Machiavellian mastermind behind the whole plot because — for some reason only they could possibly come up with — Alfred and I intend to keep Harrington Steading under our despotic thumbs. Howard and Benjamin's insistence that Alfred and I both had to hold seats on the regency council only proves we do.
   She shook her head. It wasn't as if their acceptance had done her, her husband, or their younger daughter any tremendous favors, and if she had anything to say about it, Faith Katherine Honor Stephanie Miranda wasn't going to grow up thinking they had, either. Bad enough Grayson had dumped the job of steadholder on one of Allison's daughters without Mueller and his pompous old farts patting themselves on the backs for their generosity in saddling poor Faith with the same job! Not that a single one of them seemed capable of stretching his atrophied little mind around the concept that not everyone in the universe was driven by a desire for power over the lives of others.
   Still, Allison supposed she might have been just a teeny-tiny bit more tactful about her response to Mueller's fatuous, gushing insincerities over her "heroic daughter's tragic murder" at the formal dinner which had followed Faith's succession to Honor's Key. It was remotely possible, she conceded, that Hera would never have considered climbing the steadholder's back unannounced if she hadn't caught the spike of Allison's emotions when Mueller made his way over to admire Faith and James after delivering his speech. And it could be that Nelson wouldn't have somehow gotten himself tangled up in Mueller's feet when the steadholder squeaked and tried to leap away from the completely unexpected weight and needle-sharp claws scurrying up his spine. Not that Hera had hurt him in the least. She'd been very careful and clever, never breaking the skin even once, despite the havoc she'd "accidentally" wreaked on his formal attire's expensive tailoring. But they were only 'cats, after all. Allison had heard more than enough about Mueller's comments to cronies about the foreign "animals" with which Honor had seen fit to contaminate Grayson, but for some reason he'd seemed mildly irritated when she smiled sweetly and pointed out that one could scarcely expect such simple little foreign creatures to understand all the nuances of civilized behavior.
   Or perhaps it hadn't been her smile that upset him, she reflected. Perhaps it had been the involuntary gust of laughter none of the other guests, most of them his peers and members of their families, had been able (or willing) to stifle. Despite anything Mueller and his intimates might say among themselves while they vented their ire over the changes "those foreign women" had wreaked on Grayson, everyone on the planet knew that whatever else treecats might be, they were scarcely "simple little creatures" who had "accidents" of that sort at formal gatherings.
   Allison heard later that Mueller had chosen to inform one and all that he put no faith whatsoever in the rumor that the Steadholder Mother had deliberately set the vicious beasts on him. As for her frivolous behavior after they escaped her control, that had undoubtedly been a consequence of post partum depression and so must be excused by any true gentlemen. It was even possible that one or two of the most brain-dead of his conservative henchmen had believed his version of the reason Allison had been "out of sorts," but no one else had, and she knew there'd been intense speculation about just why the 'cats had taken him in such disfavor. And why the Steadholder Mother shared their loathing for him. For the most part, the speculators seemed to have concluded that Allison must have had an excellent reason, and the whispered debates over what he could have done to her (or her daughter) to deserve such public humiliation continued.
   Not that anyone would ever dream of asking Allison directly. Which was just as well, since she wouldn't have told them. Or she thought she wouldn't have, at any rate, for she wasn't absolutely positive. She knew she shouldn't, for the information had been privileged, and there was no proof in the legal, courtroom sense. But unlike most people on Grayson, neither Howard Clinkscales nor Benjamin Mayhew had ever been satisfied that William Fitzclarence had acted alone in hatching the plot to assassinate Honor which had come so close to succeeding... and had succeeded in killing Reverend Hanks and ninety-five Harrington steaders. Each of them, without mentioning it to the other (or to Honor), had used his own security forces to keep a quiet investigation going, and each of them had independently concluded that Mueller had been involved right up to his neck.
   If there'd been even a speck of hard proof, Allison knew, Samuel Mueller would have been a dead man, steadholder or no. But he had a very clever, calculating brain behind that genial and bombastic facade. And because he did, there was only a handful of circumstantial evidence which was highly unlikely to stand up in court, especially against one of the Keys. And the fact that Mueller had emerged as the clear leader of the Opposition within the Keys made it unthinkable for the Protector or the Regent of Harrington Steading to make public accusations which wouldn't stand up in court and could all too easily be construed by a defense counsel (or a politician) as nothing more than a partisan attempt to blacken a political opponent.
   Allison understood that, just as she understood why Benjamin and Clinkscales forced themselves to treat Mueller as if no suspicion of his treason had ever so much as crossed their minds. No doubt they were watching like hawks, praying he would stray into similar territory once more so they could bring the hammer down properly, but that would be then, assuming the happy day ever actually arrived, and now was now.
   Fortunately, Allison was under no such constraint to be pleasant, and she rather hoped the man would be foolish enough to give her another opportunity to humiliate him. And she also had to wonder if he even began to suspect how fortunate he was that Hera and Nelson had settled for demolishing only his clothing and his dignity.
   Still, satisfying as it had been, it had also been an open declaration of war between her and Mueller. Under the Grayson code of conduct, he was required to treat her with exquisite courtesy, in public, at least, despite how livid he must be. For once, Allison had found the constraints of Grayson's quaint, antiquated sexism rather enjoyable, and she occasionally entertained herself with the hope that enough concentrated bile would finish off the miserable, small-souled cretin once and for all. The thought of him perishing in a purple-faced, frothing fit was one to warm the cockles of a mother's heart, and she'd taken shameless advantage of the rules which gave her the advantage.
   But Mueller was no slouch at fighting dirty, either. Everyone in the Keys had known Allison was prepared to wage a spirited battle against the creation of dedicated security teams to haunt Harrington House's nursery. Mueller certainly had... and he'd made himself the point man in insisting that the letter of the law be observed where Honor's heirs were concerned. After all, he'd pointed out, everyone on the planet had suffered a bitter personal loss in Lady Harrington's tragic and brutal murder. It therefore followed that Grayson as a whole had a responsibility to protect and cherish the tiny baby girl upon whom Honor's titles and responsibilities had devolved and in whom so many hopes reposed, and no chances at all could be taken with the infant steadholder's safety.
   Allison doubted she would have won the argument anyway, but she might at least have gotten by with the assignment of a single armsman to each of the twins. Mueller would have none of that, however, and even some of her closer Grayson friends had agreed with him, if not for the same reasons. And, truth to tell, she'd found it appallingly easy to become accustomed to the intrusion of no less than six bodyguards into the household which had consisted for so long only of her and Alfred during Honor's long absences. She hadn't accepted it, precisely, but the day-in, day-out persistence of the situation had given her no real choice but to develop a sense of toleration.
   It helped that Jeremiah and Luke Blacket, the senior armsman assigned to James, were both pleasant individuals. They were soft-spoken, unfailingly courteous, helpful, genuinely attached to their infant charges... and very, very dangerous. Allison had spent too much time with her own daughter not to recognize the wolves behind the gentle exteriors those tough, lethal youngsters presented to the rest of the universe, and she was not immune to the effect of knowing either or both of them would unhesitatingly die to protect her children. Or her, although it was still hard for her to accept the possibility that anyone might want to hurt her as anything other than some intellectual possibility on a par with personally experiencing the energy death of the universe.
   But Samuel Mueller hadn't gotten behind and pushed so hard because he felt nice. He'd done it because he'd known how hard Allison was resisting the notion, and she'd made a mental note to add that to the debt he'd already incurred with her, for, in the words of the ancient Terran song, she had a little list. Oh, she had a little list...
   Knowing why he'd worked so hard to bring the situation about also made it even harder for her to tolerate the restrictions the twins' status (and guardians) had imposed on her own life. It simply wasn't done for the mother of a child steadholder to go shopping on a whim or an impulse. Nor did she decide to change any other part of her schedule without warning people ahead of time so that all the security arrangements could be put in place, usually in triplicate. Allison was too intelligent to doubt the necessity of those arrangements. God knew people had tried hard enough to kill her older daughter over the years, usually for what they considered excellent reasons, and there were more than sufficient cranks, eccentrics, and outright loonies who might take it into their heads to kill the first female steadholder's female heir. Nuts didn't need religion to make them nuts, Allison had long since decided, but it did seem to give them a certain added sense of commitment to whatever goals their nutdom decided to embrace.
   So, yes, she understood why Jeremiah and Luke got so politely exasperated with her from time to time. She meant to be good — usually — but there were limits to how far she was prepared to go in becoming a prisoner of her own or her children's bodyguards. Every so often it became necessary to point out once again where those limits lay, and the Steadholder's Own had quickly learned that the Steadholder Mother, as seemed to be the case with all Harrington women, had a whim of steel.
   Which explained Mattingly's resigned expression. Allison didn't need Honor's ability to sense others' emotions to know exactly what was going on behind the fair-haired armsman's gray eyes.
   "Hello, My Lady." His response to her greeting was pleasant and courteous... and it, too, carried more than a hint of affectionate resignation. "I got here as quickly as I could," he added just a tad pointedly, and Allison's smile turned into a grin.
   "I'm sure you did, Simon," she said, patting him on the arm with a fond, maternal air. He took it much better than some other Grayson males might have. Unlike most of them, he'd fully adjusted to the notion that the youthful, beautiful woman before him was several years older than any of his own grandmothers. But, then, he'd spent more time with Honor than most Graysons, and Honor looked even younger than Allison did.
   "Was the traffic very bad?" she went on, and he shook his head.
   "No worse than usual, My Lady. As I'm sure you anticipated." Another air car slid into the slot on the far side of the one in which Mattingly had parked and disgorged four more men in Harrington green. They nodded very respectfully to the Steadholder Mother and somewhat more casually to Tennard, and then fanned out, joining Blacket and the other four members of the twins' joint security team.
   The lounge, Allison observed, had begun to seem distinctly overpopulated with pleasant young men with green uniforms and guns, and she watched an expensively dressed Manticoran couple ease away from them. She doubted the man and woman even realized they were doing so, but they responded on an unconscious level to the politely alert guard-dog mentality of the Harringtons.
   "You brought them along to make a point, didn't you?" she asked Mattingly in a tone of laughing accusation.
   "Make a point, My Lady? Why ever would I want to do something like that? For that matter, what point could I possibly be trying to make?"
   "I suppose I ought to have called it a counter point," Allison conceded pleasantly.
   "Well, it would have helped if you'd warned us ahead of time of your travel plans," Mattingly agreed. "Or if you'd sent a com message ahead when the Tankersley came out of hyper. Or, for that matter, if you'd even commed when the shuttle picked you up to deliver you to the port, now that I think about it. Comming us after you're already down in a public place with only the children's travel team for coverage comes under the heading of what we security people consider A Bad Thing, My Lady."
   "Goodness, you are ticked!" Allison murmured so wickedly Mattingly laughed despite himself. She patted his arm again, and her voice softened. "I know I can be a trial, Simon. But all of these guards and guns and no privacy at all... It's a bit much for a girl from Beowulf, you know."
   "My Lady, I'm not `ticked,' " Mattingly told her. "If I thought it would do any good, or that there was even a remote possibility of changing you, I probably would be ticked with you. But you're your daughter's mother, and Andrew and I have had plenty of experience trying to make her security conscious. We got to her when she was younger than you, too. And since we haven't seemed to make a great deal of progress with her, I don't see why we should be surprised when we don't make any with you when you're so much more... um, mature and set in your ways. Which, of course—" he flashed her a blindingly white smile "—doesn't mean that either Andrew or I — or Jeremiah or Luke, I'm sure — have any intention of abandoning the effort."
   "Oh, I'd be disappointed if you did!" Allison said earnestly.
   "I know you would, My Lady. It would take all the fun out of it," Mattingly observed, and looked across at Tennard. "Baggage, Jere?"
   "Checked through the diplomatic section. The LCPD and Port Security have two men on the storage area to back up the electronic surveillance. They'll ship it out to us when we com for it."
   "Good. In that case, My Lady—" the lieutenant turned back to Allison "—your air car awaits. The Steadholder is out on Saganami Island right now. She would have cleared some time to greet you if she'd known you were arriving," he couldn't quite resist adding, "but she asked me to tell you she'll join you at home for a late lunch. And your husband is also on-planet at the moment. I understand he'll be joining you at the new house this evening, though he may not make it before supper."
   "Good!" Allison might find all the security constraining, but she had to admit that her life ran far more smoothly now that someone else was in charge of her schedule. Partly that was because security personnel liked how much easier their own lives were when things ran without hiccups and went to considerable lengths to make sure that they did. But she also knew it didn't all happen that way simply because it made guarding her and her children easier. All these fit young men in green were so happy to run errands and see to all the irksome details of travel because they were deeply and personally devoted to her daughter and her daughter's family, as well.
   "In that case," she said, scooping Faith back up, "let's be going. Ready, Jenny?"
   "Yes, My Lady," Jennifer LaFollet replied, and climbed out of her chair with James.
   Allison had fought to the last ditch against the imposition of a proper Grayson maid, but, like the battle against personal armsmen, it had been one she was doomed to lose. That had become abundantly clear when she became pregnant and even Katherine and Elaine Mayhew began dropping pointed hints about how useful a maid would be as a nanny, especially with twins, since her and Alfred's persistent monogamy deprived her of sister wives to help carry the load.
   She knew Honor had put up the same dogged resistance and suffered the same ultimate defeat, and she also knew how well Honor's relationship with Miranda LaFollet had worked out in the end. That being the case, she'd decided to keep the position in the family, as it were, and selected Miranda's cousin Jennifer for the role. Jennifer was more than ten years younger than Miranda. Indeed, at twenty-six T-years she'd received the original, first-generation prolong treatments, which Miranda had been just too old to physically accept when Grayson joined the Manticoran Alliance, but she shared a great deal of her cousin's quietly determined, competent personality. She looked a lot like Miranda and Andrew, as well, with the same auburn hair, although her eyes were green, not gray, and she was a bit taller than Miranda.
   And, as Katherine and Elaine had suggested, she'd proved a godsend with the twins. Especially, Allison had discovered, when Alfred had accompanied Honor back to the Star Kingdom and left her to cope with both babies.
   Now Jennifer glanced one last time around the terminal lounge, making sure they hadn't forgotten anything — as though this bunch of armed-to-the-teeth adolescents would let me do anything as normal as forgetting something in a terminal! —and joined Allison at the tube to Mattingly's car. Yet another Harrington armsman looked across from his place at the controls and smiled a greeting, and Allison sighed while the oversized cavalcade got itself organized around her.
   I seem to recall thinking, once, how grateful I was that Honor's armsmen were so much less intrusive about guarding Alfred and me than they'd been about guarding her. She looked around the lounge at the eleven uniformed men surrounding her and laughed out loud. I guess God was listening. I always did figure He had a peculiar sense of humor!
   Mattingly glanced questioningly at her, but she only shook her head and made a little shooing motion with her free hand. He smiled and obeyed the gesture, and Allison Harrington — and friends — filed into the two outsized air cars and headed for the modest little fifty-room mansion the Crown had deeded over to Duchess Harrington as a sign of its high regard.


   "The Prime Minister is here, Your Majesty. He wonders if he might have a moment of your time."
   "He does?" Elizabeth III looked up from the cards of her hand. "Oh, good! I mean, shucks, it looks like I'll have to go take care of business, Justin."
   "Oh, really?" Justin Zyrr-Winton, Prince Consort of the Star Kingdom of Manticore, leaned back and regarded his wife from under lowered brows. "I have to say this sudden urgent affair of state — I assume it is an urgent affair of state, Edward?" He glanced at the liveried servant who'd entered the card room with the announcement, and a suitably serious-looking Edward nodded solemnly. "Thank you." The Prince Consort returned his gimlet gaze to his wife. "As I say, I find this sudden urgent affair of state just a tad suspicious, Beth. Don't you, Roger?"
   He turned to Crown Prince Roger... who looked back as solemnly as Edward.
   "I don't know, Dad," the seventeen-T-year-old prince said in a considering sort of tone. "It could be a genuine matter of state, I suppose. They do happen from time to time, or so I've been told. But the timing is just a little suspicious."
   "Oh, come on, Roger!" His younger sister, Princess Joanna, looked up from her book viewer. "I'll admit Mom has all the sneaky Winton genes. And I'll admit she doesn't like to lose. I'll even admit the Opposition may have a point when they accuse her of being `devious.' But even granting all that, how could she have known ahead of time that she'd need an interruption to save her? I mean, she'd have to be psychic to know Dad was going to be dealt a double run this hand!"
   "Ha!" Her father's lordly disdain could not have been bettered by the pampered scion of the most nobly born family of the Star Kingdom, despite the fact that, by law, Elizabeth had been required to marry a commoner. "You're forgetting the security systems, Jo. Do you really think someone as underhanded as your mother would fail to have the systems on-line during a crucial operation like a pinochle game? She's probably wearing an earbug right now so that her sinister minion in the PGS can use the security cameras to read Roger's and my cards to her! And no doubt those same sinister minions commed the Prime Minister and told him to hurry right over before I trounced her."
   "That, my dear, is carrying paranoia and suspicion of those in power entirely too far." Elizabeth managed to make her tone admirably severe despite the smile hovering on her lips. "Besides, if it were that important to me to win — which, of course, it isn't, the drive to win in all ways and at all costs being foreign to my sweet and compliant nature — I wouldn't use Allen to get me out of the game. I'd simply have you arrested for high treason or some other trumped-up charge and flung into the Citadel to languish miserably in some cold, dark, dank cell."
   "I don't think so!" Justin told her with spirit. "First, the Citadel is climate controlled; it doesn't have any cold, dark, dank cells. And second, even if it did, we live under a Constitution, we do, and it specifically limits what tyrannical monarchs can do to their subjects on a whim!"
   "Of course it does," his wife purred, while the treecat on the back of her chair bleeked laughter at the one on the back of Justin's. "The problem, oh feckless one, is that before your lawyer can apply for a writ of habeas corpus and protest my tyrannical ways, said lawyer has to know you're in prison in the first place. And for all the skill with which we Wintons have played the benevolent, law-abiding monarchs for so long, there have actually been whole generations of secretly held prisoners, victims of our evil autocracy, who lingered wretchedly until their miserable deaths, forgotten and alone in the unhallowed cells of our tyrannical rule."
   "That was very good, Beth!" Justin said admiringly. "But I doubt you could get it all out in order again."
   "I don't have to," she told him, elevating her nose disdainfully. "I'm the Queen, and that means I can do anything I want," she said snippily, then grinned broadly. "It's good to be the Queen, you know."
   "It's better to be Prince Consort," Justin told her, reaching up and back to rub his own 'cat's ears. Monroe buzzed a happy purr and slithered bonelessly forward over his shoulder and into his lap to demand more serious petting.
   "And why might that be?" Elizabeth asked suspiciously.
   "Because while you go deal with whatever it is that brings Allen here, I can stay here, basking in the esteem of our devoted children and scratching Monroe's chest... while I stack the cards for the next deal."
   " `Esteem of our devoted children'? Yeah — right!" Elizabeth hooted with laughter, and the aforementioned devoted children grinned at her. "Actually, they're both in my pay," Elizabeth went on, rising and reaching for Ariel. "They'll inform me instantly if you try to stack my deck. And if they don't, I'll just have PGS run the imagery from the security cameras and prove all three of you are conspiring against your monarch. With—" her tone lowered ominously "—fatal consequences for the conspirators!"
   "Curses, foiled again," Justin murmured, and his wife leaned over to kiss him before she turned back to the servant.
   "All right, Edward," she sighed. "Lead me to the Duke."
   "Of course, Your Majesty. He's waiting in Queen Caitrin's Suite."
* * *
   A neatly bearded man of medium height stood outside Queen Caitrin's Suite. He was dark-complexioned and a bit on the stocky side, and he wore the uniform of a Palace Guard Service major. He wore a red-and-white aiguillette that indicated his assignment to the Prime Minister's office, the name plate above his breast pocket said "Ney, Francis," and his expression did not encourage familiarity. It was hard to say whether that was deliberate, or simply the way nature had put his face together, although there were those among his acquaintances who knew which they thought it was. But however grim and focused he might look to others, Elizabeth smiled as she saw him.
   "Hello, Frank," she said, and Ariel twitched his whiskers in greeting.
   A very small twinkle showed at the backs of the major's eyes as the 'cat bleeked a welcome to him, but the twinkle never touched his expression. Elizabeth didn't mind. She'd known Frank Ney since she was a child, and she was not among those who called him antisocial. He was certainly... prickly, with opinions that had been cast in battle steel. That much she was willing to concede. But he was also from Gryphon's Olympus Mountains, whose yeomen had a long history of friction with their local aristocracy, which explained a lot of his taciturn personality and general distrust of those in authority. Which might seem odd in a man who'd volunteered fifty years before to protect the monarch and senior members of her government, but made perfectly good sense to anyone who knew him. And truth to tell, the Crown had a long history of supporting Gryphon's commoners against Gryphon's nobility, which produced a fierce loyalty to the current monarch. It also explained why half of Gryphon's aristocrats were card-carrying members in good standing of the Conservative Association. (The percentage probably would have been higher, but the Association was far too liberal and namby-pamby for the truly conservative members of the Gryphon peerage.)
   At any rate, Elizabeth knew better than most that Ney certainly wasn't antisocial. Cantankerous, stubborn, overly focused, and often infuriating to those who collided with his inflexible principles, yes. But not antisocial. Besides, he was very good at his job, and she'd been delighted when the Prime Minister tapped him to head his own security force.
   "Hello, Your Majesty," the major replied to her greeting, and a smile — a small one perhaps, and fleeting, but incontrovertibly a smile — flickered on his lips.
   "Is he keeping you busy?" She twitched her head at the closed door, and Ney chuckled.
   "Not as busy as I try to make him think, Your Majesty. I'm managing to make him slow up at least a little by making him feel guilty over how hard he drives the rest of us. Pity I can't convince him to do the same thing to go a little easier on himself sometimes."
   "I know." Elizabeth sighed, then reached across and patted the major on the shoulder. "Keep trying though, Frank. And I hope he realizes how lucky he is to have someone like you around to nag him."
   "Please, Your Majesty!" Ney's discouraging expression was back in full force. "Not `nag'! I prefer to think of it as offering... ah, directed encouragement."
   "That's what I said: nag," Elizabeth replied. Ariel bleeked laughter from her shoulder, and the major chuckled and reached back to press the door button for her.
   Allen Summervale, Duke of Cromarty and Prime Minister of Manticore, rose, courteously but without haste, as Elizabeth entered Queen Caitrin's Suite with her 'cat.
   "Hello, Allen." The Queen smiled warmly and walked across to give him a hug. That wasn't exactly protocol, but she and her Prime Minister had known one another a long time. Indeed, he'd been a member of her regency council when she ascended the throne as a grief-stricken teenager following her father's untimely death, and in many ways, he had become a surrogate father to her. He was also the man who'd run the Star Kingdom in her name, working in partnership with her to overcome, circumvent, buy-off, or bully all opposition to the naval buildup her father had begun... and which had, so far at least, prevented the Star Kingdom's destruction.
   "And what brings you calling on a Sunday afternoon?" she asked as she released him and waved him back into his chair. "I assume it's not all that urgent, or you would have commed to save time. On the other hand, you obviously regard whatever it is as being at least a bit out of the ordinary, or you would have let it wait till Monday."
   "Actually, it is a bit urgent, although not in the sense of requiring an immediate response," he told her. "But it does have a certain potential to complicate our lives in a major way. Especially when the Opposition gets wind of it... assuming their spies haven't already alerted them."
   "Oh, my." Elizabeth flopped into her own chair and hugged Ariel to her chest. "Why do you persist in bringing me news like this, Allen Summervale?" she demanded. "Just once I'd like you to come to the Palace, poke your head in, and say `Just dropping by for a visit, Your Majesty! Nothing at all new to worry about. Have a nice day!' "
   "That would be nice, wouldn't it?" Cromarty agreed wistfully. But then he shook himself. "Nice, but not likely to happen any time soon, I'm afraid."
   "I know." Elizabeth regarded him with a fond smile, then sighed. "Go ahead and let me have the bad news."
   "I'm not certain it is `bad' news," he said judiciously. "In fact, it could be very good news, in the long run."
   "But if you don't get to the point, not even Major Ney will be able to keep it from being very bad news for you in the short run," Elizabeth said pointedly, and he chuckled.
   "All right, Your Majesty. In a nutshell, we've just received a formal request from the President of San Martin."
   "Formal request?" Elizabeth frowned, and Ariel cocked his ears at the Prime Minister. "What sort of formal request?"
   "It's a bit complicated, Your Majesty."
   "It always is on San Martin," Elizabeth pointed out dryly, and the Duke smiled in rueful agreement.
   San Martin was one of the heaviest-gravity worlds ever settled by humanity. In fact, at 2.7 standard gravities, it might well be the heaviest. The planet was so massive its colonists had been restricted solely to its mountainous peaks and plateaus despite the fact that virtually all of them had been descended from people genetically engineered for high-grav environments centuries before San Martin was settled. Fortunately, San Martin was a very large planet which had a lot of mountain ranges, several of which put Old Earth's Himalayas and New Corsica's Palermo Range to shame.
   There had to be something about mountains that put its own impression on the human genotype, Elizabeth reflected wryly. Even here in the Star Kingdom, people from places like the Copperwalls or the Olympus Range seemed to be stubborner and stiffer-necked than their lowland friends and relations. And since San Martin had the most spectacular mountains known to man, it was no doubt inevitable that its inhabitants would be among the most fractious people in the history of mankind.
   Which they were. In point of fact, they made Major Ney seem downright malleable and easily led, which was no doubt the reason they'd fought so stubbornly — and hopelessly — when the PRH moved in on Trevor's Star thirty-three T-years before.
   Some had reached accommodations with their conquerors in the intervening decades, of course. Some had been outright collaborators, and some, as on any conquered planet, had actually found their spiritual home in the ranks of their conquerors. But the vast majority of the population had regarded anyone who had anything to do with the Peep occupiers with contempt, and they hadn't been shy about making their... displeasure with such souls known.
   As a result, both the old Office of Internal Security and its StateSec successors had been forced to maintain a large presence on the planet. Worse, from the Peeps' viewpoint, thirty-odd years was nowhere near as long a time for a planet to be occupied as it had been in pre-prolong days, and far too many San Martinos for the Peeps' peace of mind had very clear, adult memories of what life had been like before the Peeps arrived to rescue them from the twin curses of prosperity and independence.
   Since Admiral White Haven had taken the system away from the Peeps, it had been the Alliance's turn to deal with the stubborn mountaineers, and the process had been... interesting. It wasn't that the San Martinos were fond of the Peeps or wanted StateSec back, because they certainly weren't, and they certainly didn't. But the provisional government which had been set up under the aegis of the Allied occupation had encountered its own difficulties, because, having endured occupation by the PRH for so many years, the people of San Martin had no desire to be dictated to, even gently, by anyone, including the people who'd liberated them. They wanted control of their home world back, which was only reasonable, in Elizabeth's opinion.
   The Alliance had no problem with that, but the San Martinos themselves and their constant internal bickering had created endless difficulties. Observers from Zanzibar and Alizon had been particularly dismayed by the liveliness of the exchanges, and even the Grayson delegates to the commission overseeing San Martin's return to self-government had experienced reservations about turning the planet back over to its owners. It might be their world by birth, but most of the commissioners seemed to feel the Allies had a responsibility to protect them (and their helpless planet) from their own excesses.
   The Manticoran and Erewhonese commissioners had been less worried, mostly because they had rather more experience at dealing with energetic electorates of their own. The fine old art of political hyperbole, viewing with alarm, and vilifying one's political opponents had been a part of Manticoran political life almost since the Star Kingdom's inception. Erewhon wasn't far behind, and for all their enthusiasm, the San Martinos were scarcely in the same league as Manticoran or Erewhonian machine politicians out to demonize their foes. As long as no one was actively shooting at anyone else, the Manticorans and Erewhonese were reasonably content to adopt a wait-and-see attitude, and they'd concentrated their prophylactic efforts on providing transport off planet for any of the old regime's sympathizers who preferred to be somewhere else when their somewhat irritated friends and neighbors resumed self-government. No one had used any threats to compel Peep sympathizers to refugee out, but the Allies' San Martin Reconstruction Commission had found a great many people who'd been downright eager to accept their transportation offer.
   In the event, that waiting attitude had proven the wiser course, if not precisely for the reasons the commissioners had thought it might. The provisional government had just started wrangling about the details for arranging the first planetwide election when Honor Harrington was captured by the Peeps, and they'd still been wrangling when she returned from the dead. That much hadn't surprised anyone in the Alliance. Indeed, what had almost stunned those who'd become accustomed to the debates, arguments, shouting matches, and occasional fistfights which formed the bone and sinew of the San Martin political process had been the screeching speed at which those debates had come to an end with the return of Commodore Jesus Ramirez from Cerberus.
   No one, including Ramirez, could possibly have predicted the effect of his return. In some ways, the San Martinos had been even more infuriated than the Allies by the Peep claim to have executed Harrington. Perhaps it was because it resonated so painfully with their own memories of what it was like to live under StateSec's heel, Elizabeth reflected. But whatever the cause for it, San Martin had been the scene of spontaneous, planetwide celebrations when the Elysian Space Navy sailed into the Trevor's Star System. Not even the fact that their world had been forced, temporarily at least, to somehow absorb, house, and feed the better part of half a million strangers with literally no warning at all had damped the San Martinos' jubilation.
   Then they'd discovered exactly who the "Commodore Ramirez" who'd served as Harrington's second-in-command was. He was Jesus Ramirez, nephew of the last preconquest planetary president and the last uniformed commander of the San Martin Space Navy. The man who'd forced the People's Navy to pay at a rate of three to one for every San Martin ship destroyed, and who had successfully covered the final evacuations to Manticore (and, everyone thought, died in the process) as the Peeps closed in at last.
   The Ramirez family had not fared well during the occupation. President Hector Ramirez had been "shot trying to escape" within a month of being forced to sign the planet's capitulation. His brother Manuel, Jesus' father, had been convicted of "terrorist activities" and shipped off to Haven. InSec apparently had intended to use his immense popularity to encourage his countrymen to behave themselves and stop blowing up InSec Intervention HQs, but the plan had backfired when he died within two years. Given the fact that a dead hostage wasn't particularly useful, it was probable that in this instance the Peeps had told the truth about a prisoner's death being due to natural causes. Unfortunately, no one on San Martin, least of all Manuel's surviving uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, in-laws, and acquaintances, had believed a word of it. Manuel and his brother had become martyrs, and their surviving family members had been at the heart of the local resistance movement.