There'd been a time, in the long-ago days of peace, when Caparelli's entry would have brought everyone in the Pit snapping to attention. That, however, had been one of the first casualties of the Havenite War. It also happened to have been one that Givens strongly approved. Neither her dignity nor Caparelli's were so in need of bolstering as to make all that formality and saluting necessary, and both of them worked day in and day out with the people who crewed the Pit. Better to let those people get on with their jobs rather than worry about properly abasing themselves.
   Caparelli obviously agreed, for he had officially ordered that no one was to interrupt his or her duties just because the uniformed commander of the Manticoran military had entered the room. Which was not to say that Rear Admiral of the Green Bryce Hodgkins, commanding the current watch, didn't immediately hustle over to greet the First Space Lord in quiet tones.
   Givens followed Hodgkins rather more sedately, and Caparelli nodded to her. She nodded back, and hid a small smile at the utter predictability of it all. He couldn't possibly read all the reports she and her ONI analysts provided every morning. No one could. Hell, she couldn't, because there simply weren't that many hours in a day. But she also knew he did read every word of the digest of précis which accompanied each day's data chips, and that he somehow made time to read all the reports which the digest suggested to him were truly critical. Of course, that process relied on his personal judgment, but that, too, was part of the massive weight of his job. In the final analysis, someone had to decide what were the truly critical elements, the threats which must be countered and the opportunities which must be seized, and whatever the official flowcharts might indicate, that someone was Sir Thomas Caparelli. If his civilian bosses disagreed with his decisions, or their results, they could always replace him. Until they did, he was the one who had to call the shots.
   It was not a pleasant prospect, yet whatever some of Caparelli's prewar critics might have had to say about his intellectual stature, he'd demonstrated what Givens considered to be several priceless talents since the shooting started. High on the list was the ability to rely on the judgment of the people who prepared his daily intelligence summaries and not bury himself trying to read every single report. She supposed some might argue that he managed that only because he was such a stolid, unimaginative, boring sort of person. Of course, some people could argue that Gryphon had a pleasant and salubrious climate.
   In fact, Givens was convinced, he managed it through iron self-discipline. His truly was a stolid, plugger's personality, yet he'd shown plenty of imagination and a few flashes of what could only be called genius since the war's start. He'd also learned to delegate, and to trust the people to whom he delegated a responsibility... and how to bring the ax down on any unfortunates who proved unworthy of the trust he reposed in them. The fact that his subordinates knew he relied upon them and could be relied upon, in turn, to back them to the hilt, had built a loyalty to him which Givens had seldom seen equaled. It also allowed his staffers and the staff of the Pit to polish off prodigious workloads with the efficiency of a beautifully designed machine which had worn away every rough spot.
   And along the way, a few traditions had developed. One of which was that every Tuesday and Thursday, at precisely ten hundred hours, Sir Thomas Caparelli would just happen to walk into the Pit while Patricia Givens just happened to be there. They'd been doing it every week for years now, yet it never showed up on the official agendas their yeomen and flag secretaries meticulously maintained. Not because there was any reason they shouldn't put their heads together, and certainly not because they thought anyone would fail to notice they were doing it. It was simply one of those things that had grown up so naturally that neither had felt any need to make it official.
   "Morning, Pat," Caparelli said quietly as Hodgkins returned to his duties and Givens took his place.
   "Good morning, Sir."
   She waved one hand in a small, inviting gesture towards the master tank, and Caparelli walked to the console reserved for his use whenever he visited the Pit. He seated himself, and Givens stood by his right shoulder. She had her own console, a few meters from his, but she seldom used it during their regular "unscheduled" meetings, and she folded her hands behind her while she watched him tap keys and study the results.
   He brought himself up to date on the shipping movements and deployment orders which had been executed since his last check, then leaned back and rubbed his eyes wearily. He'd been doing a lot of that since the Peeps hit Basilisk, Givens reflected, keeping her own expression serene. It wasn't particularly easy. Thomas Caparelli was the bedrock upon which the Navy rested, and she didn't like the thought that that rock might be eroding under the strain.
   "Anything special come in overnight?" he asked, still rubbing his eyes, and she nodded, even though she knew he couldn't see her.
   "Several items, actually," she replied. And that, of course, was the real reason for their "coincidental" meetings. Caparelli had developed a special trust in her and in her feel for which straws in the wind might be truly important. It was one thing to read digests and summaries, but the First Space Lord wanted her input, personally and directly, so he could listen for the tone of voice or watch for the flicker of expression which no summary could possibly communicate. Moreover, he knew ONI was a bureaucracy. Givens was its head, and he knew she kept a firm hand on the reins, yet the analyses handed to him represented the consensus of a bureaucracy (or as close to a consensus as ONI's sometimes fractious analysts could come), which might or might not be identical with the views of its head. At their twice-a-week meetings, he could pick her brain, be sure he had her views on a given subject, and give her the opportunity to tell him what she, personally, believed to be of special importance.
   And he could do it without stepping on the toes of her section chiefs by officially asking her to second-guess their reports. It would have been entirely appropriate for her to critique them, however officially he wanted it done, but she believed he was right about the way in which the informality of the method they'd actually worked out contributed to the smoothness with which the entire machine ran. It was probably a small point, one of those "minor details" people brushed aside, but that was another of Caparelli's strengths. He recognized the importance of details and had a positive knack for dealing with them without letting them bog him down in minutiae.
   "Ah?" He lowered his hand and quirked an eyebrow at her.
   "Yes, Sir. For one thing, we've got more reports of units being withdrawn from secondary Peep systems near the front. I know." She made a brushing motion with the fingers of her right hand. "We've been hearing a lot of those sorts of reports, especially since the Basilisk raid. And I know there are always ship movements in any navy. I even know that analysts — like me — have a tendency to look on the pessimistic side in evaluating routine movements, especially after McQueen hit us so hard. And," she admitted, "after I supported the view that the Peeps would be institutionally incapable of giving her the authority to use her talents so effectively against us. But I honestly don't think I'm being influenced by a need to cover my backside because I screwed up once before."
   "I didn't think you were," Caparelli said mildly. "And you were hardly alone in doubting that Pierre and Saint-Just could or would risk easing their own grip on the Navy to let her run her own war plans. I agreed with you, for that matter. Although—" he smiled crookedly "—Admiral White Haven didn't, as I recall. Worse, he specifically warned me that we were all going off the deep end. A bad habit of his, being right."
   "He's been wrong a time or two himself, Sir," Givens pointed out. She liked and respected Hamish Alexander. But as she'd watched Caparelli bear up under his responsibilities, she'd come to the conclusion that, for all his brilliance, White Haven would have been a poorer choice than Caparelli as a wartime First Space Lord.
   She'd been surprised when she realized she'd come to feel that way, but reflection had only strengthened the feeling. White Haven was brilliant and charismatic, but he had no patience with fools, he was far less accustomed to (or possibly even capable of) delegating important tasks, and sometimes he became a victim of his own brilliance. He was accustomed to being right, and people around him also became accustomed to it. Partly, Givens knew, because that was the normal state of affairs... but it also happened because he was so self-confident, he simply overwhelmed everyone else. And because he entered so passionately and completely into any debate. He enjoyed stretching his mind and wrestling problems into submission, and he expected his subordinates to feel the same. But not everyone's brain worked that way, and some inevitably felt intimidated or threatened by the vigor with which he required them to defend their conclusions. They shouldn't have. They were supposed to be adult, responsible officers of the Queen's Navy, after all. But that was an ideal which all too often failed of attainment in the real world, and while Givens knew he would never punish someone simply for disagreeing with him, not all his subordinates shared her assurance of that. It was a brave staffer who openly challenged his views, and that, coupled with his confidence in his own judgment, created an occasional case of tunnel vision. Like his initial resistance to the new LAC carriers and superdreadnought designs. He hadn't even realized he was being doctrinaire and closed-minded, because no one junior to him had possessed the gall to tell the man universally regarded (even, albeit unwillingly, by Sonja Hemphill and the rest of the jeune ecole ) as the RMN's premier strategist that he was being an idiot.
   But no one was afraid to offer a divergent viewpoint to Thomas Caparelli. He might or might not agree with it, but Givens had yet to see him brush a differing view aside. And if he lacked White Haven's brilliance, he also lacked the earl's occasional abrasiveness. Coupled with his unflinching integrity, self-discipline, and determination, that made him, in her opinion, the best possible choice for his present duties.
   "I know he's been wrong on occasion," the First Space Lord agreed now. "But they're rather rare occasions. And this wasn't one of them."
   "No. No, it wasn't," she admitted.
   "Oh, well." Caparelli turned his chair to face her, cocked back comfortably, and folded his arms. "Tell me why these new Peep movements seem particularly significant."
   "For several reasons," Given said promptly. "First, we're seeing ships of the wall being pulled in this time, not just battleships from their rear areas. They're still coming from secondary systems, yes, but this time around some of them are systems where one would expect them to worry seriously about the possibility that we might pounce with raids of our own, not just ones where they'd left a couple of battleships on station to depress any local temptation towards civil unrest or disloyalty to the New Order.
   "In addition, my latest reports indicate that they've actually pulled at least one squadron of superdreadnoughts out of Barnett." Both of Caparelli's eyebrows rose at that, and she nodded. "Given how hard McQueen's worked at reinforcing Barnett, that represents a major change of policy.
   "There are also some indications that units of StateSec's private navy are being diverted to regular fleet duty. There could be several reasons for that, including a desire to have a few politically reliable ships positioned to watch the flagships of admirals whose accomplishments might be beginning to make them look like threats to the Committee. But it's also possible that it represents a rationalization and concentration of their total strength, whether it's officially SS or People's Navy, as a preliminary to a major operation somewhere. I, for one, think that's something they ought to have done years ago. Of course, I also thought it was stupid to let their security service build a navy of its very own in the first place, so I may not be the best judge in this instance. But whatever their thinking, we've got confirmation from three separate sources — including one ONI has been nursing for years inside their naval communications structure — that StateSec capital ships are being assigned to Tourville and Giscard. Neither of whom," she added dryly, "appears to have been properly appreciative of the reinforcement.
   "Finally, I got a report yesterday from another of our sources in Proctor Three."
   Caparelli cocked his head and pursed his lips. Proctor Three was one of the three main naval shipyards in the Haven System — which, by definition, made them the three largest yards in the entire PRH.
   "According to our source," Givens went on, "the Peeps have made a major, and successful, effort to clear their repair and refit slips. Our source—" even here, and even with Caparelli, she was careful to give no clues to that source's identity, including even his (or her) gender "—isn't highly placed enough to be privy to the reasons for that effort. But our source's personal observation confirms that they seem to've gotten an awful lot of capital units off the binnacle list and back to the fleet over the past few months. That sort of surge must've required a major commitment of time, manpower, and resources, which suggests that they must have skimped somewhere else to get it done. And if they've sent that many ships back to active duty and they're still pulling even more ships in from less critical systems, then my feeling is that they have to be concentrating a powerful force somewhere for a purpose. And," she added dryly, "I didn't much care for what they did the last time they managed to assemble a striking force like that."
   "Um." Caparelli unfolded one arm to rub his chin, then nodded. "I can't fault you there," he said. "But how reliable is your data?"
   From some people, that might have sounded challenging, or like a dismissal of her argument. From Caparelli, it was only a question, and she shrugged.
   "All of our data is weeks, even months, old," she admitted. "It has to be, over such distances, and the fact that agent reports have to be transmitted clandestinely slows things even more. And there's always the possibility of disinformation. We've done that to the Peeps a time or two, you know, and however heavy-handed and brutal State Security may be, the people running it have a lot of experience dealing with internal security threats. Like spies.
   "Having said all that, I think it's basically reliable. There are going to be some errors, and it's seldom possible to conclusively confirm or deny the reliability of any given report. Taken as a whole, though, I think the picture that's emerged is pretty solid."
   "All right." Caparelli nodded. "In that case, what do you think they — or McQueen, at least — is planning to do with them?"
   "That, of course, is the million-dollar question." Givens sighed. "And the only answer I can give you is that I don't know. Before they hit Basilisk and Zanzibar, I'd have felt a lot more confident predicting that they were thinking in terms of something along the frontier, but now—?"
   She shrugged, and Caparelli snorted.
   "Let's not double-think ourselves into indecision, Pat. Yes, they hit us with a deep, rear-area operation and got away with it... once. Actually, when you look at it, they took fairly heavy losses, especially at Hancock, and the physical damage to our infrastructure wasn't really all that bad except at Basilisk. The morale and diplomatic consequences were a whole different kettle of fish, of course, and I'm certainly not trying to minimize them. They were bad enough to throw us back on the defensive, after all. But we have to remember the way things probably look from their side of the hill, not just the way they look to us. They have to be nervous over what we did to them at Hancock, and they also have to know we've redeployed to make similar deep raids extremely risky in the future."
   "I can't argue with that, Sir. Not logically, anyway. But I think we have to allow for the possibility that they might try a similar operation again, despite the risks."
   "Agreed. Agreed." Caparelli nodded briskly, then turned his chair back to his console and waved out over the tank's huge holo display. "On the other hand, though, they've got all that area out there to pick from, and the further they get from our core systems, the greater their operational freedom and the lower their risks.
   "If they wanted the lowest-risk operations, they'd stick to the frontier systems like Lowell or Cascabel," he went on. "That would continue to push the pace, but in a way that let them concentrate against relatively weak picket forces if they pick their spots with even a little care. It wouldn't hurt us much, but it would let them blood their new units and build experience and confidence without facing the likelihood of major losses. And it would let them continue to inflict a nagging little stream of losses on us.
   "If they're feeling a little more adventurous but still want to avoid major risks, they could go for something closer in to Trevor's Star, like Thetis or Nightingale or Solon. That would nibble away at Trevor's Star's periphery — almost a mirror image of the way White Haven nibbled at them to pull them out of position when he took Trevor's Star in the first place — but without exposing the rear of any forces they commit. And they have to know how sensitive we are about the system, so they could reasonably anticipate that an open threat to it would rivet our attention even more firmly to defending ourselves there rather than attacking them at some spot of our choosing.
   "Or they could get really frisky and strike somewhere between Trevor's Star and here. The most logical target would be Yeltsin, but they'd have to feel extremely nervous about committing to an attack there, given what's happened to every force which has attacked the Graysons in the past. I doubt McQueen's particularly superstitious, but she has to've come to the conclusion that something about that system is just plain bad luck for the People's Navy." He showed his teeth in a thin, ferocious grin then went on.
   "Failing that, they might swing way down on the flank and go for Grendelsbane or Solway. Losing the satellite yard at Grendelsbane, in particular, would hurt worse than anything they've done to us except Basilisk. Hell, in terms of actual impact on our war-making ability, losing the yard there would hurt worse than Basilisk. More importantly, taking out either of those systems would also represent another major defeat for us that they could trumpet to their public — and ours — as `proof' we're losing the war. Not to mention the fact that it would also let them begin cutting in between us and Erewhon, and Erewhon is damned near as important to the Alliance as Grayson.
   "What they're not going to do is go to all the effort and strain of assembling a major striking force and then throw it straight at one of the systems where we've reinforced most heavily." He shook his head. "Nope, if they're smart — and smart is one thing Esther McQueen most certainly is, unfortunately — they'll be looking for a target they can hit without incurring an unreasonable risk and sill ratchet up the pressure on us again. And if their intelligence types are still groping trying to figure out what Truman did to them in Hancock like we hope, that should encourage them to be even more cautious."
   "It could also encourage them to probe more aggressively, instead," Givens pointed out. "They may not know what happened, but they know they ran into something out of the ordinary. If I were McQueen, I'd want to find out what that something was as quickly as possible. And I'd be willing to spread my effort wider in hopes of drawing a fresh attack from whatever it was, even at the risk of substantial losses to my probes, because until I had positive data on its capabilities, I wouldn't dare contemplate any operations on a decisive scale."
   "I considered that, and you may be right," Caparelli agreed. "On the other hand, if they were going to probe aggressively, they should already have started, and so far they've restricted themselves to going after targets that aren't important enough that we would have been likely to station our `secret weapons' to protect them. That's one reason I've insisted so strongly on holding the carriers back and not using the full capabilities of the Har— uh, Medusa —class ships unless we had no choice. The more uncertainty we can generate, the better, and White Haven was right: we need those weapons available in sufficient numbers to be decisive before we commit them at all."
   "Which is why I'm still worried about probing attacks by the Peeps," Givens countered. "McQueen has to suspect that that's exactly what you're up to. Or what you could be up to, at any rate."
   Caparelli gazed into the tank for several silent seconds, then shook himself.
   "What I really want to see is whether or not she changes her pattern," he said slowly at last. "She won a big dividend by splitting her forces for her first offensive, but she also ran the risk of defeat in detail... which is exactly what happened at Hancock, actually. Overall, it worked out for her by letting her hit us in so many places at once. Even without the Basilisk damage, the sheer astrographic scale of her ops area would have created enough consternation on our side to make all her losses worthwhile. If nothing else, she won months to continue to build up her forces and train her crews without heavy losses defending against our attacks.
   "But she knows we've redeployed extensively. If she's content with hitting only low-priority, frontier systems, she can still operate spread out and split into smaller forces without too much risk. If she's willing to come further into our yard and go for more important real estate, though, she's going to have to concentrate and pack a lot more punch into each attack.
   "Frankly, I think seeing which way she jumps in that regard would be almost as important as seeing where she jumps. More of the buckshot pattern, with smaller forces spread over broad but strategically less vital areas would probably indicate she's still feeling her way, not yet ready to commit to a serious offensive. But concentrated forces, hitting deeper behind the frontier—" He shook his head. "That could be a bad sign, an indication that she's confident enough, or that Pierre and Saint-Just are pushing her hard enough, to be getting ready for an offensive they intend to be decisive."
   "And if they are?" Givens asked quietly.
   "If they are, I'd expect to see them hit us in at least two or three places," Caparelli said flatly. "Not core systems, but important enough to have serious pickets. That would give them the opportunity to inflict worthwhile attritional losses, and if they picked systems that really were important, we'd have to respond by counterattacking, assuming we lost control of them, or at least by reinforcing even further if we managed to beat off the attack. And I'd want spots far enough apart that we couldn't respond by establishing a local response force at some central node. I'd look for targets spread out too far to make offering one another mutual support against future attacks practical. More important, I'd want the Alliance thinking in terms of multiple axes of threat — to put our strategists between Scylla and Charybdis if we try to redeploy to cover them all."
   "Makes sense," Givens acknowledged after a moment, and inhaled deeply. "Care to place any bets either way?"
   "Not me." Caparelli shook his head again. "I think you're right, that they are planning some sort of fresh offensive. That's the only explanation for the movement reports you've received that really makes sense. I'll want to look at your best estimate of the hard numbers, but it sounds to me like they're probably thinking in terms of one or two heavier attacks. I'm not about to start trying to redeploy on a `hunch,' and I'm certainly not psychic enough to predict their specific targets, but I'm leaning towards operations down Grendelsbane way. I doubt they'll hit the fleet base directly — not unless they've pulled in a hell of a lot more of the wall than you seem to be suggesting — but I won't be at all surprised if they try to make us nervous about our access to Erewhon. And even if they're really planning on going after Trevor's Star from Barnett sometime soon, drawing our attention around to the southeast first could only help them out there. At the very least, it would have us looking over our shoulder at the fresh threat."
   He paused, rubbing thoughtfully at a craggy chin, then nodded firmly, as if settling an inner debate.
   "Of the various things they can do, I think hitting us in the southeast is probably the most dangerous from our viewpoint. On the other hand, if we can get them to concentrate their efforts there while we look elsewhere, we could turn that around on them, now couldn't we? In the meantime, though, I suppose we should take a few precautions. Let's see if we can't shake loose a squadron or two of our Medusas —or the Graysons' Harringtons —" he added with a small, wicked smile "—and reinforce the flank. Even a couple of them in the right place at the right time could be a rude surprise to a Peep attack force, but they won't look so overwhelming, especially if the local system COs are sneaky about their firing patterns, as to scare the Peeps back into their shells."
   "Back into their shells?" Givens repeated with a quizzical smile, and cocked her head as he looked at her. "Everyone else in the Alliance is sweating what the Peeps are going to do to us next, and you're worrying about scaring them back into their shells?"
   "Of course I am." Caparelli sounded almost surprised, as if whatever he was thinking ought to have been as blindingly obvious to her as it was to him. "If they're really worried about what our new hardware can do to them, then they'll probe, but they'd have to be planning on probing across a hell of a broad front to be pulling in the tonnage you're talking about. No, this sounds a lot more like the preliminary for a narrow-focus operation of some sort, not a scattergun series of small probing actions."
   "And?" Givens prompted in a respectful tone when he paused.
   "And if I'm right, if this isn't just the preliminary to a spread out series of small-scale probing attacks, then Esther McQueen is about to screw up by the numbers," Caparelli said, with an evil smile, "and I don't want to scare her into doing the smart thing, instead. She ought to be probing until she knows what happened to her. If she comes in full bore, then that suggests a certain degree of... overconfidence, shall we say? And I want to encourage that overconfidence just as much as I can right now. Whether it's on her part or on the part of her political superiors doesn't really matter, either, in this instance. What matters is that the Peeps may be about to come rushing in where angels fear to tread... and our carrier groups and pod SDs are just about ready. All I really want is for her to stick her neck out, put herself badly enough off balance and concentrate her forces sufficiently in one ops area that I can capitalize properly when I pull the trigger someplace else. Oh, I do want one other thing. I want her to wait just long enough for us to completely finish working up the current group of carriers and for the Ghost Rider EW platforms to reach full deployability. If she'll just give me both of those things, as well, then I will die a happy man, because before I do, I will by God kick the Peeps' worthless asses all the way back to Haven!"


   "Excuse me, Milady. The lawyer you were expecting is here."
   "He is?" Honor looked up from the chessboard as James MacGuiness entered the library to make his announcement. Andrew LaFollet had followed him in from the hall, and she smiled broadly at both of them. "Thank God!"
   She looked back at her mother.
   "I'm afraid business calls, Mother," she said with exquisite politeness. "Much as I deeply regret the interruption, it seems I have no choice but to concede the game. Although, of course, I would have won if not for the way duty has called me away."
   "Oh?" Allison cocked her head, and her eyes glinted. "And precisely what aspect of the endless chain of defeats you've suffered at my hands over the years gives you the least cause for such airy optimism?"
   "As a mature and reasonable woman, I decline to enter into such a petty debate," Honor declared, and Nimitz bleeked a laugh as she lifted him from his perch. Samantha laughed as well, but more quietly. She was curled up in the crib with Faith, resting her chin on the baby's chest and sending the subliminal, soothing buzz of her purr deep into the child. Over the centuries of 'cat-human bonding, the two-legged side of the process had discovered that 'cats made superlative babysitters. They might be too small to pick a child up, but that didn't mean they couldn't cuddle, and no human could be as sensitive to an infant's moods and needs. Then, too, for all its diminutive size, a 'cat was formidably armed and perfectly willing to use its weaponry in defense of its charge. Besides, they loved babies, whether they had six limbs and fur, or only two legs and no fur at all, and babies actually seemed to be able to "hear" the 'cats in a way adults could not.
   Now Honor paused, waiting to see if Samantha wanted to accompany her and Nimitz, but the female 'cat only flicked an ear, radiating a gentle sense of contentment, and then closed her own eyes once more, as if to share Faith's slumber.
   "Goodness," Allison murmured respectfully. "I was never able to keep a child that quiet. And I don't remember Nimitz's managing it with you, either. Although," she added thoughtfully, "that was probably because he got to you too late, after you were already set in your obstreperous ways."
   "Obstreperous, is it? I'll remember that."
   "Small minds fixate on small things, dear," Allison said airily.
   "Indeed they do," Honor replied with deadly affability, and her mother laughed. "Would you care to sit in on this?" Honor went on. "I don't know how interesting it would be, but you're welcome to come along."
   "No, thank you. Actually, if Sam is going to keep an eye on Faith, I think I'll just leave James with Jenny, grab my suit, and spend a few hours down on the beach."
   "Your `suit'?" Honor snorted, and glanced at LaFollet. The major looked back, with an equanimity he would never have displayed if he'd found himself trapped in the middle of such a conversation a few T-years earlier, and she grinned. "Mother, I've seen you swim, and I don't recall any suits being involved. In fact, I seem to remember certain comments of yours on backward, barbarian, repressive cultures."
   "That was before I found myself forced to associate with an entire household of Graysons, my dear." Allison grinned wickedly at LaFollet. The armsman's eyes twinkled back at her, and she chuckled as he made the gesture a Grayson sword master used to indicate a touch in the fencing salle. "And I've seen you swim, too, you know," she went on, "so don't get snippy with me, young lady! I happen to know the suits you introduced to Gryphon were a lot more, um, modest than anything you ever wore back home or at Saganami Island!"
   "But at least I always wore something," Honor replied serenely.
   "So did I — exactly what God issued me at birth. And if it's good enough for Him, then it ought to be good enough for anybody else. Especially—" Allison drew herself up to her full diminutive height and preened comfortably "—when it looks so good on me."
   "I don't know how Sphinx survived you, Mother," Honor said mournfully. "And when I think of the effect you're bound to have on Grayson now that you've been unleashed on my poor Harringtons, my blood runs cold."
   "We'll survive, My Lady," LaFollet assured her. "Of course, I understand that since your mother arrived, Lord Clinkscales has been insisting on cardiovascular exams for any visitors to Harrington House. Something about liability concerns, I believe."
   "I know," Allison said wickedly. "Isn't it wonderful?" LaFollet smiled and both Harringtons laughed, then Allison made shooing motions. "Go on — get! Never keep a lawyer waiting. They have friends in low and infernal places."
   "Yes, Momma," Honor said obediently, and turned to follow MacGuiness from the room.
* * *
   The man who turned towards her as she and LaFollet entered her office had a face which might charitably have been called "rough hewn," although some might have been tempted to use a less complimentary phrase. He was on the small side, little more than six or seven centimeters taller than her mother, and impeccably groomed. Indeed, he was a little on the dandyish side, and obviously sufficiently well off that he could have had his face biosculpted into surpassing handsomeness. That he had not so chosen said interesting things about his personality, and what Honor tasted of his emotions only confirmed that first impression. He radiated an air of self-possession even a 'cat might have envied and carried himself like the high-priced courtroom specialist he was, yet anyone who mistook him for a soft, citified type would undoubtedly learn to regret it. There was a toughness behind the brown eyes at odds with the manicured, well-groomed exterior, and Honor liked the taste of his emotions as he regarded her calmly.
   "Good afternoon, Mr. Maxwell." She crossed the office, set Nimitz on her desk, and turned to hold out her hand. "I'm Honor Harrington."
   "So I see," he said, smiling as he clasped the offered hand. She cocked an eyebrow, and he chuckled. "I've seen you often enough on HD since your return, Your Grace," he explained. He tilted his head back to gaze up at her and pursed his lips. "It's odd, though," he murmured. "Somehow I thought you'd be taller."
   "You did, did you?" Honor moved behind her desk, waving him into a facing armchair as she went. She seated herself and waited until he'd followed suit, then tipped her chair back. "Willard warned me you had a sense of humor," she remarked then.
   "Did he?" Maxwell smiled. "Well, he's told me quite a few things about you, as well, Your Grace. None, I hasten to add, confidential. I'd say you've impressed him quite favorably, over all. Especially after that business at Regiano's."
   "He was impressed with the wrong person then," Honor said uncomfortably, the live side of her face tightening as she recalled a crowded restaurant and the shouts and panic as pulser darts screamed across it. "Major LaFollet—" she gestured briefly to the Grayson "—and my other armsmen were the ones who actually saved Willard and me both," she said, and her face tightened a bit more, for of the three men who had saved her life that dreadful day, only Andrew LaFollet was still alive.
   "He told me that, too. I think it was your sangfroid he admired, actually. And the way you finally settled the account. I don't really approve of dueling, Your Grace, but in that particular case, I was happy to make an exception. I once represented a young woman who— Well, never mind. Let's just say Pavel Young was not a nice person, and it stuck in my craw to have to negotiate an out-of-court settlement with someone like him."
   His tone was light, conversational, but the emotions behind it weren't, and Honor nodded mentally. This was a man who did what he did because he believed in it, and she liked the taste of his determination and passion.
   "I hope to avoid involving you in anything quite so dramatic as all that, Mr. Maxwell," she told him with one of her crooked smiles. "I believe Willard said he was going to bring you up to speed in his letter. May I assume he did so?"
   "You may, Your Grace. And I'm flattered that he thought of me, although I'm not certain I'm actually the best person for the job. I've been practicing almost exclusively before the criminal bar for the last twenty or thirty T-years. Although I've handled a few business matters for Willard, primarily when he wanted someone he'd known for years and knew to be discreet, my commercial law is actually fairly rusty."
   "Does that mean you're not interested?" Honor asked, although she suspected she already knew the answer from the taste of his emotions.
   "No, Your Grace. It simply means I believe in informing a potential client when I know there are weaknesses to compensate for as well as when I have strengths to offer."
   "Good," Honor said firmly, "because that's exactly what I need."
   "What you need, Your Grace," Maxwell corrected calmly, "is a complete legal staff of your own. Failing that, you certainly ought to put one of the major firms on retainer and let them provide the staff. With Willard more or less anchored to Grayson these days, and particularly in light of all the details and complications your new title involves, I shudder to think of the state your affairs must be in just now."
   "I do miss Willard's touch. A lot," Honor confessed. "On the other hand, things may not be quite as bad as you assume. The Queen was gracious enough to have her own legal staff handle all the details concerning the duchy, to this point, at least, and Klaus and Stacey Hauptman have been keeping an eye on my business affairs. Actually, unraveling those was a lot more complicated than creating a brand new duchy!"
   "I'm not surprised. I'm certainly glad to hear the Crown has been looking after matters related to your new title and lands, but Willard gave me some idea of what was involved in untangling your other affairs. I'm just as happy he was able to take care of so much of it under Grayson law from the Grayson end, and I was a bit surprised to hear that the Hauptman Cartel had gotten involved as your agents here in the Star Kingdom. That's some high-powered talent to have in your corner, Your Grace."
   "I know it is." And it wasn't always in my corner, either. But we won't go into that just now."My point, however, was that while you're undoubtedly right about the size and scope of the staff I'm going to need eventually, the situation as it stands is probably less dire than you thought. Assuming you accept the position, I'd expect you to assemble a staff of your own and tailor it to fit the requirements as you see fit."
   "Um. That's a flattering offer, Your Grace. Very flattering. And I'm certainly tempted to say yes. I suppose most of my hesitation stems from how much I love the practice of criminal law. It would be hard for me to give up the courtroom. Very hard."
   "I imagine so," Honor agreed. "I know how hard it was for me to give up the captain's chair when they promoted me to flag rank." He cocked his head at her, and she tipped a little further back. "Willard told me about your military career, Mr. Maxwell. I hope you won't be offended to learn that I looked into your record just a bit before I asked you to come see me."
   "I'd have been surprised — and disappointed — if you hadn't, Your Grace."
   "I thought you'd feel that way. But I was interested to discover that you and I share something in common, and I was rather impressed when I read your citation. It isn't every Marine second lieutenant who wins the Manticore Cross for bravery under fire. And not many lawyers have that on their résumés, either, I imagine."
   "More may than you think, Your Grace," Maxwell replied, apparently oblivious to the considering look LaFollet had turned upon him. "And the MC may or may not be something you need in a lawyer. But I do take your point, and you're right. In many respects, a legal career is like a military one. The higher the level of responsibility, the less time there is for the hands-on side of it that brought you into it in the first place."
   "Exactly," Honor said. "And people use the same sneaky argument to get you to accept that responsibility, too: we need you. I always thought it was an unscrupulous button to punch when someone did it to me, but now I'm going to do it to you, because it's true. I do need you, or someone like you, and the strength of Willard's recommendation makes me disinclined to go looking for anyone else."
   "I couldn't be available immediately, Your Grace. Not on a full-time basis," Maxwell warned her. "I've got two cases to argue at the common bar, and an appeal before the Queen's Bench right now. It would be at least two months, probably three or four, before I could give you the sort of hours you'll really need out of me."
   "That's fine. I wouldn't expect you to abandon criminal cases in which you were involved. Frankly, if you were willing to hand them off to someone else and simply walk away it would be proof you weren't the man I wanted for the job in the first place! Nor is time pressure all that compelling just yet. The Crown has everything neatly tied up on Gryphon for right now, and things can stay just the way they are until you're free and able to deal with them. I've already heard from two of the major ski consortiums, but Clarise Childers over at Hauptman's has agreed to handle the preliminary negotiations there for me. Aside from that, there's nothing urgent, because I don't have any tenants at the moment. For the foreseeable future, the Duchy of Harrington is basically just a big, unpopulated swatch of mountains and trees. A nice swatch, you understand, but not anything that needs human attention at the moment."
   "I see." Maxwell's lips quivered a bit at her last sentence, and he drew a deep breath. "In that case, Your Grace, I suppose I don't have much choice but to accept."
   "And the terms Willard suggested in his letter to you are acceptable?"
   "More than acceptable, Your Grace. Willard has always understood how to build business arrangements that are equitable to all parties. I imagine that's why he's been so very successful at it."
   "The same thought had occurred to me," Honor agreed.
   "Yes." Maxwell gazed at something only he could see for several moments, then gave himself a small shake. "I realize you just said there was no great rush, Your Grace, but I would like to make at least a modest start, as time permits, as soon as possible. Will you be available if I need an hour or so of your time here and there?"
   "Probably," Honor said a bit cautiously. "My schedule is fairly hectic at the moment. The Navy has me thoroughly busy at the Advanced Tactical Course, and my lecture courses at the Academy are eating up more of my time than I'd anticipated. On top of that, I'm scheduled for the first surgery on my face day after tomorrow. We'll probably install the new eye at the same time, and the replacement arm they've been designing for me is just about ready. It should be delivered in time for surgery for it late next month. I imagine I'll be out of action for a week or so following each round of actual surgery. And then there'll be the physical therapy, of course. And we're about ready for the corrective surgery on Nimitz, as well, so that'll—"
   "Stop! Stop, Your Grace!" Maxwell laughed and shook his head. "What you're saying is that, yes, you can make yourself available to me, but I should let you know a day or two — or three — in advance so you can adjust your schedule. Is that about it?"
   "I'm afraid so," Honor admitted a bit sheepishly, and shook her own head. "You know, until you asked, I hadn't really thought about just how much I really do have on my plate right now."
   "And this is your idea of a `convalescence'?" Maxwell asked quizzically.
   "Well, yes, I suppose." Honor's good eye twinkled, but her tone was serious. "Actually, people seem to forget that I've had over two years to get accustomed to what I lost. A lot of them seem to feel a lot more urgency about fixing everything than I do after so long. I'm actually more concerned over Nimitz than I am over me, I think."