"I guessed as much," Arif said with a small smile. She sipped her tea, then set the cup on the saucer. "You do realize I was a rather junior member of Doctor Sampson's team, I hope."
   "I do. But I've also read the first contact report and Baron Hightower's report on his initial negotiations with the Medusan chiefs." Arif looked surprised, and Honor smiled. "Resident Commissioner Matsuko is a friend of mine, Doctor Arif. When I wrote her to describe what I hoped to accomplish and asked her for some background on how communication had been opened with the Medusans, she was kind enough to give me full access to her archives. Which is how I happen to know a `rather junior member' of the team was the one who made the breakthrough suggestion to Doctor Sampson."
   Arif blushed but said nothing, and Honor's smile broadened.
   "Given your record there and the glowing commendations Hightower attached to his report, I feel confident we have the best woman for the job. Which, as I say, doesn't mean we expect miracles. Only that we believe you honestly have a shot at it."
   "I hope you're right, Your Grace, and you'll certainly get my best effort. But the problem of opening communication with the Medusans isn't really a very good parallel to this one." She paused, one eyebrow raised, and Honor nodded for her to continue.
   "The Medusans, like every other sentient species we've encountered, except the 'cats, at least use a means of communication we can perceive and analyze, Your Grace. In the Medusans' case, it's a combination of spoken sounds, body language, and scent emissions. We can duplicate the sounds, although we require artificial assistance to reach some of the higher frequencies, but the body language and scent emissions were much more difficult. Partly, of course, that's because they have six limbs, not four, and they're radially symmetrical. More to the point, because Medusan faces are immobile, they don't use facial expressions, which makes the body language even more important, since their gestures have to carry the weight of both body language and expression. Fortunately, their gestures are mostly confined to their upper limbs. They're... vigorous — that's why Doctor Sampson described them as `berserk semaphore machines' in one of his early reports — but the restriction to just the upper limbs greatly reduces the total signal set. On the other hand, they still have three arms to our two, and no human could possibly duplicate the range of motion possible for a Medusan."
   "I know," Honor put in as Arif paused, and grinned. "That was why I was so impressed with your hologram suggestion."
   "Well, I have to admit that I think it was one of my better notions myself," Arif acknowledged with an answering smile. "Of course, it scared the hell out of the local chieftains when it suddenly appeared. I think they thought it was some sort of demon, although they were never willing to admit it if they did. And figuring out how to put three arms on a human torso was a lot tougher than I'd anticipated, too. Not to mention how weird it looked to anyone who saw it. But at least we were able to program the holo's arms to mimic the Medusans' gestures, and from there we worked out a pidgin version a human can produce with only two arms. And we were really fortunate that their scent emissions are used primarily for emphasis, not for information content."
   "The holo you built and your development of the `pidgin' version, as you call it, was one of the strongest reasons for calling you in," Honor said. "I hope it won't be as difficult in this case — at least 'cats only have two true-arms — but there are obvious parallels between what you accomplished there and what we hope to manage here."
   "I know. And in many ways, I agree that it should be more straightforward. I've been back into the archives, looking over the families of sign language your mother dug up, and the small physical differences, like the fact that the 'cats have one less finger than we do, shouldn't be a problem.
   "What's going to be more difficult in simple mechanical terms is the extent to which all of the really flexible signing languages also relied on body language and, especially, expression, since we're dealing with a situation in which the two sides of the conversation, as it were, can't possibly duplicate the full range of one another's expressions. Or even a partial range, for that matter."
   "I can see where that would be true," Honor agreed, rubbing her nose in thought. "On the other hand, anyone who's ever been adopted knows 'cats are just as physically expressive as humans. They simply use different sets of movements — their ears carry an awful lot of the weight, for example — and we get to recognize them fairly quickly."
   "I'm counting rather heavily on that. Unfortunately, I'm not familiar with treecat body language or expression, so the first thing I'll have to do is spend time observing them, interacting with them, and generally compiling a list of expressive techniques. And once I've done that, we'll have to devise a system in which we can relate a very specific gesture or movement on their part to a human expression or gesture... and vice versa.
   "That, unfortunately, will be the easy part. Because once we've devised the hand signs, and figured out the `code' for 'cat-human expressions, we'll have to get across the notion that they compose a real language."
   "I think Nimitz and Samantha have grasped the notion already." Honor nodded to the two intently watching 'cats. "They certainly understand that all this effort is designed to give them a means of communicating with one another again, at any rate."
   "I don't doubt they do, Your Grace, and the link you and Nimitz share will undoubtedly help." Honor nodded again, this time in agreement. She hadn't really wanted to advertise the existence of that link, but there'd never been any question about whether or not whomever they enlisted would have to know about it. Fortunately, Arif took her professional responsibilities seriously, and she'd readily agreed to keep the full nature of Honor's bond with Nimitz confidential.
   "Nonetheless, and despite the extra `channel' you two have," Arif went on, "there are some potentially serious obstacles. And, frankly, they loom a bit larger in light of the fact that my research has uncovered at least two previous attempts to teach 'cats to sign."
   "It has?" Honor shot a glance at Miranda. "I wasn't aware of that."
   "Few people are," Arif said. "The first was by a xenobiologist by the name of Sanura Hobbard. She was one of the first out-kingdom specialists to study the 'cats in detail, and she spent the better part of fifteen T-years trying to teach them to sign without success. The second attempt was about a hundred T-years later, also without success. I've been unable to find the records on precisely what sort of signs they tried to teach, but I wouldn't be surprised if they worked out something very much like what we're talking about. But whatever format they tried, the fact that neither attempt even came close to success didn't do wonders for my optimism when I came across them, I'm afraid."
   "I notice you used the past tense, Doctor," Honor observed, and Arif nodded.
   "I still wouldn't pretend to be wildly optimistic, Your Grace, but I do think there's at least a chance of succeeding where they failed. Assuming we can overcome those obstacles I mentioned."
   "Exactly what sorts of obstacles do you envision?" Honor asked intently, and Arif shrugged.
   "The greatest is the fact that telepaths simply do not use spoken language. The standard references on the 'cats all indicate that they do use aural signals, but they're just that: signals. Or, to put it another way, they're communication but not language."
   "Excuse me?" Miranda LaFollet leaned forward, one hand resting on the treecat in her lap. "I always assumed that language and communication were synonymous."
   "Many people do, but they aren't," Arif told her. " `Communication' can be used to identify a lot of activities, from the way animals relate to one another, to a deep philosophical discussion between humans on the Meaning of Life, to the way electronic devices transfer information from one location to another. They're all communication, of a sort, at least. But human communication — language — is the means by which two sentient beings exchange value-laden symbols. Feelings and ideas have no physical substance, Ms. LaFollet. We can't just hand them back and forth the way we would an apple or an orange or a brick, so we devise symbols which carry their weight, and we call those symbols words. A child, immersed in a language-saturated environment and motivated by the need to express its own desires and needs to those upon whom it depends, learns to associate certain patterns of sound with certain meanings, but that's only the beginning of truly acquiring a language.
   "In addition to acquiring associations between sound and symbol, learning a language also requires one to deduce — or, in the case of children, absorb — the rules for the way the sounds are put together. Each sound can be thought of as an individual building block or sound bit. What we call a `phoneme' is the smallest bit of sound that may change or alter meaning, which usually means a vowel or a consonant, and phonemes vary from language to language. Let's take Spanish and English as an illustration, since San Martin's been in the news so much of late. In Spanish, the `sp' phoneme never begins a word; in Standard English, however, that's quite a common beginning sound. So natives of San Martin, where Spanish is the common language and Standard English is essentially a second tongue, frequently have problems pronouncing English words — like Spanish itself, for example — which begin with the `sp' sound, because their birth tongue simply doesn't put that sound in that location.
   "On its own, a phoneme usually has no meaning, but groups of them combine in strings or patterns which do have meaning. We call the smallest string of sound which does have meaning a `morpheme,' which is a sound — it may be a word on its own, or only a part of a word — which can't be broken down any further. Take `biker,' for instance. `Bike' is a morpheme. It can't be broken down any further and retain its meaning. But by adding an additional phoneme—`er' to it — we tell our listener that we're talking about someone who rides a bike. We can go further and add yet another phoneme, `s' to it, in which case we create the plural form and tell our listener we're speaking of more than one person, all of whom ride bikes. And to complicate things still further, `bike' can be either a verb or a noun, and our listener has to determine which we intend for it to be from the way in which we position and use the word. `He bikes' means the person we're speaking of rides a bike. `His bikes' means the person owns more than one bike. As you can see, the very tiny difference — the use of `he' instead of `his'—makes an enormous difference in the concept being communicated, and that doesn't even begin to get into verb tenses, temporal and spatial references, stress and emphasis patterns, or any of the other enormous number of shared conventions which go into a true language."
   She paused, and Miranda nodded slowly, her expression thoughtful.
   "What you might think of as a `full-blown' language isn't the only way to communicate, of course. As I said, it's well established that treecats use at least some vocal signals, but signals don't necessarily equate to language. For example, if I scream as a hexapuma leaps on me, that's a signal. It's not language, however. Most probably, anyone who hears me will know I'm very unhappy over something, but I haven't communicated anything more than that, nor can I with a signal that simple and crude.
   "The main problem here, however, is that 'cats don't use phonemes or morphemes. So far as we can tell, they don't use a spoken language at all. From Her Grace's explanation of her link with Nimitz, it's clear the people who theorized that the 'cats were telepaths were right all along, and the tests Doctor Brewster and his people have conducted over the last several months confirm it, conclusively, in my opinion. But we aren't telepaths. We don't have the least idea what the ability to communicate directly, mind-to-mind, without the intrusion of a secondary interface like language, means to the way they think and receive and process information. In my opinion, it's not only possible but probable that they've never developed the sort of `bit-based' format we humans have had no option but to use, and that could be a very serious problem."
   "Because they won't have any inbuilt referent for what we're trying to teach them?" Miranda asked, her expression still intent, and Arif nodded firmly.
   "Exactly. All humans rely on some physical form of language to communicate, and so, with the exception of the 'cats, does every other sentient species we've encountered. That means anyone we've ever tried to teach a language, or learn a language from, at least shared certain utterly basic concepts and mental tools. But the 'cats almost certainly lack those mental tools, and that puts us in the position of someone who has to go back and invent the wheel all over again. Actually, inventing the wheel would be easy compared to what we have to do here, because at least we could physically demonstrate our invention for someone who'd never thought of it before."
   "I understand what you're saying, Doctor," Honor said, "but I think you may be overly concerned. Anyone who's been adopted knows the 'cats understand us when we talk to them."
   "Forgive me, Your Grace, but we don't know that," Arif replied. "I'll certainly grant that the evidence strongly suggests you're correct, but we haven't got any proof you are because no one has ever successfully established true two-way communication."
   "Yes, someone has," Honor replied, her tone nonconfrontational but firm. Very firm. "Nimitz and I have. Not through the sort of interface you're talking about, of course, but I know when he understands me. Confusion is a very distinctive `tasting' emotion, I assure you. There are times when I have to pick words carefully, especially when I start dealing with concepts 'cats simply haven't had to develop, like heavy-metal toxicity," she said, flashing a smile at Miranda. "But he usually understands me at least as well as most human adolescents I've tried to explain things to."
   "I don't doubt he does, Your Grace. And I didn't say he didn't; I only said we can't prove it... yet. And while I hope your analysis is correct, I also have to point out that you do have a special link to Nimitz. One which no one else, to the best of our knowledge, has ever shared. It's possible that at least a part of what you believe you're communicating to him with your words is actually reaching him over that link. It's even possible that a part of what all 'cats `hear' from all humans is enhanced by an ability on their part to perceive the thoughts behind our words. For purposes of applied cognitive effort, humans tend to think in language, to organize the syntax of our thought processes in the fashion in which we're accustomed to receiving information, so perhaps what's actually happening is that we're putting words together to communicate with them, but what they're actually `hearing' is the mental organization behind the words."
   "I suppose that's possible," Honor acknowledged with a frown. It was odd, but the possibility Arif was suggesting had never occurred to her, and it should have. "I don't think it's what's happening, but I can't dismiss the possibility out of hand."
   "As I say, I hope it isn't what's happening," Arif said, "because it's clear Nimitz's injuries have completely silenced his ability to send thoughts to Samantha. Or, put another way, she can't `hear' anything from him, which means she wouldn't be able to `hear' the thoughts behind the signs we might teach him to make.
   "My personal belief is that the 'cats have grasped the concept of human language, at least at its most basic level. But that's only my belief. It hasn't been demonstrated yet, and until we do demonstrate it, I don't want anyone assuming we're home free."
   "I can appreciate that," Honor said, and Miranda nodded.
   "Actually," Arif went on in a more thoughtful tone, "in many ways, I'll be deeply surprised if it turns out the 'cats haven't grasped the concept. I know I just finished arguing that a race of telepaths would have no need to develop a language interface like our own, but they do communicate, and they obviously know we do. More to the point, they can hear us communicate, even if we can't hear them, and they've been watching and listening to us for hundreds of T-years. The fact that they're empaths and we know they can detect and correctly interpret human emotions is another hopeful sign, in my opinion. They've been able to hear us speaking to one another, and to them, while they simultaneously tracked the emotions behind the words, which you could think of as sort of the ultimate in paralanguage. And the fact that two previous attempts failed might not mean a thing in relation to that long a period. It's been a tad over three hundred years since the last try was made, and if the concept of a spoken language was as alien to them as I believe it almost certainly was, it could very well have taken them considerably more than a century of contact with humans to make the sort of mental leap forward required to grasp the concept at all.
   "But given the fact that Doctor Brewster's tests have demonstrated that the 'cats are at least as smart as most of their champions have claimed from the beginning, and given that learning to understand their humans would certainly be high on their list of things to do, I'd think there's an excellent chance they truly have learned to understand us when we speak to them since the last failure to teach them to sign. I don't think it would have been easy for them, mind you, but they've certainly had plenty of time to work on the problem!"
   "That's true enough," Honor said wryly, and all three treecats bleeked laughter. Honor paused at the sound and turned to cock an eyebrow at Nimitz. "You know, Stinker, it just occurred to me that we've been sitting here and trying to reason our way through this when there was a much simpler solution. Come over here a minute."
   Nimitz bleeked cheerfully and jumped from his perch to the back of Honor's chair with much of his old agility. His tail flirted airily as he flowed down over her shoulder to the chair arm and from there to her desk, then parked himself upright on his rearmost limbs, cocked his head at her, and twitched his whiskers.
   "I believe we may be able to settle this right now, Doctor Arif," Honor said, with a smile whose crookedness was the product of wry humor and no longer imposed by dead nerves, then looked back at Nimitz.
   "Do you understand us when we talk to you, Stinker?" she asked softly.
   There was a moment of complete silence while all three humans stared at the silken-coated, six-limbed creature on the desk, and then Nimitz bleeked softly and his head moved in what could only have been a slow, deliberate nod.
   Honor exhaled, slowly and deeply, then looked at Arif and raised both eyebrows. The linguist gazed back for several seconds, and then dropped her eyes to the 'cat.
   "Nimitz?" she said, and the 'cat turned to face her. "Do you understand me when I speak to you?" she asked, and he nodded once more. "Do you listen to my words and understand them and not just the thoughts behind them?" Again he nodded. "And do you and Samantha understand that I'm going to be trying to teach you and Her Grace a way to let you talk to people, and each other, in a way that doesn't use words?"
   He nodded yet again, and Arif sat back in her chair, her dark eyes glowing.
   "It's still not conclusive, Your Grace. Until we've established a way for him to tell me more than simply yes or no, we won't be able to know we aren't losing an enormous amount of information in transmission — or, for that matter, that he truly is hearing and understanding us without a telepathic `overlay.' But I think you're right. I think he and Samantha — and Farragut," she added, smiling at Miranda "—really do understand spoken English. I don't know how well yet, but I think you and Nimitz have just demonstrated the basic ability. And if that's the case, my job just got enormously easier, because all I'll really have to do is design a nonverbal interface through which someone who already understands what I'm saying can `talk' back to me. And your mother is right. The old sign languages for the speech and hearing impaired are definitely the place to begin."
   Honor's mental ears pricked at the emphasis Arif had placed on the last word, and she tipped back her own chair and gazed thoughtfully at the linguist.
   " `Begin,' Doctor?" she repeated, and Arif grinned.
   "Well, if I'm right about your having demonstrated that they understand human language, I'm already past the single greatest hurdle. But the next logical question for any linguist to ask herself is obvious, I think. If 'cats can grasp the concept of a spoken language, can they make the next jump and grasp the concept of a written one? We invented it as a way to record the symbols — the sounds — we use in language. Obviously, the 'cats have never needed a means to record sounds, but it doesn't necessarily follow that they haven't devised some means of recording whatever they use in the place of our symbols. No one has ever identified anything remotely like the means we use, but they obviously have a fully functional society with a deep continuity, which means they must have developed some substitute for writing to pass ideas on. My own theory is that it would have to be something like an oral history tradition, similar to those of preliterate human societies, although even the limited amount I've already learned about 'cat clan structures and group social behavior suggests that it's a bit more than that.
   "But assuming that we're right about the 'cats' preexisting grasp of the concept of language, teaching them to sign shouldn't be all that difficult. Teaching them to read and write, however, require them not only to grasp the concept of words but also the concept that `the map is the territory.' They'd have to grasp the association between inanimate symbols and living ones, but if they can..."
   "If they can, then the bandwidth for communication with them just expanded enormously," Honor said, and Arif nodded.
   "Absolutely, Your Grace." She looked back at Nimitz, her expression now that of someone eager to dive into a task, and her eyes were brighter than ever. "Only a tiny handful of linguists have ever had the opportunity to learn to communicate with an alien species," she said softly, almost reverently. "I've already had that chance once with the Medusans. Now you've offered it to me all over again, Your Grace, and I promise you this much: if it can be done, then it will be done."


   Honor sat back in her chair with a sense of simple pleasure and looked down the lengthy expanse of snow-white linen at the wreckage of an excellent meal.
   She'd spent most of the morning at Silverman & Sons, discussing her newest baby with their engineering staff and Wayne Alexander (no relation to the Alexanders of White Haven), her new flight engineer. She'd just about decided to call the fleet, little craft the Jamie Candless, though the decision had been a bittersweet one. She seemed to be making a habit out of naming ships for dead people, and she wished she had a smaller supply of names. But there was nothing bittersweet about her delight in the ship.
   She was lucky to have someone of Alexander's caliber watching over the project for her, too, and she knew it. Just as she knew the engineer was delighted to have been offered the position.
   Alexander had escaped with her from Hell. According to the Camp Charon records, he had enjoyed the distinction of having spent more time on Hell than any other escapee. It was an honor he would willingly have declined, but since he hadn't been offered a choice, he'd decided to take a certain pride in his status as the "oldest" escapee in the planet's history.
   He'd also been a "political," not a military POW: a civilian spacecraft design specialist who'd been packed off to Hell for criticizing the Technical Conservation Act of 1778 P.D. The Act had been almost seven decades old at the time, but Alexander had made the serious mistake of claiming that "nationalizing" the expertise of all research and production engineers (like himself) had been a bad idea. It had, he pointed out, created layer upon layer of bureaucratic oversight that stifled individual creativity quite handily. Worse, it had put government appointees, with zero real-world experience, in charge of selecting R&D goals to "steer" the Republic's technological development most effectively. Which, of course, accomplished nothing of the sort.
   His arguments had been self-evident, but he really shouldn't have made them at a Republic-wide professional conference, where the very people Internal Security had least wanted to share his sentiments — his fellow engineers — had been certain to hear about them.
   After over seventy years on a prison planet, he held an understandable hatred for the PRH, whoever was running it, yet he remained remarkably unembittered otherwise. He had, however, had enough of fighting the system, and as a civilian, he'd had few skills to offer the Allied military. And while he'd been on the cutting edge of the Republic's R&D before his sojourn on Hell, he was far, far behind the curve now. But his background had made him perfect for his present job when he chose to settle in Harrington Steading and accept Honor's offer of employment. Now he was a permanent fixture over at Silverman's, where he was overseeing every detail of the Candless' construction, and it was obvious to Honor that he thought of the runabout as "his" ship... which she might be allowed to play with from time to time if she was very, very good and ate all her vegetables.
   She chuckled at the thought and wiped her lips with a napkin. MacGuiness and Mistress Thorn had done their usual outstanding work, and one advantage of being unreasonably wealthy and possessing a dining room large enough to hangar a Fleet pinnace was that one could afford to entertain on a lavish scale.
   Not that "entertaining" was precisely what Honor had in mind.
   She'd always found that dining regularly with subordinates was an excellent way to cement the sort of personal relationships that made a merely good command team into an outstanding one. It was a custom she'd pursued throughout her career, and she'd seen no reason to stop since her assignment to the Academy and to ATC, although there'd been a hiatus over the last several weeks while she and Nimitz both underwent surgery. Without quick heal, the interval would have been much longer, too. Given the amount of time Honor had spent in the doctors' hands over the last ten or fifteen T-years, she'd decided not to brood over her inability to regenerate. It would have been nice to be able to grow a new arm or eye, or new facial nerves, but at least quick heal let her recover from surgery with a rapidity no pre-Diaspora surgeon would have believed possible.
   Of course, it doesn't do much to help with therapy time — except to let me get started a little faster. And thank God Daddy was right about how much easier it would be to get used to the nerves and eye this time!
   Her mouth quirked at the reflection, and for the first time in thirty-four standard months, she felt the left side of her mouth move and her left cheek dimple. The sensation seemed decidedly unnatural after so long, and the contrast between the reports of the newly replaced artificial nerves and the natural ones on the other side only made it more so. But at least her face was alive once more... and this time around, she hadn't had to spend weeks with the muscles jerking and twitching uncontrollably at random intervals. She still had to concentrate on what she wanted her face to do when she chewed or changed her expression deliberately, but that was fine. The naturalness of expression would return soon enough, and she was profoundly grateful to have been spared the dreary task of learning how to control her own face from scratch all over again.
   Despite her brave words to her mother, she hadn't really allowed herself to fully believe her father when he assured her that would be the case. Her memories of the first time around were too clear, and she hadn't dared risk the potential disappointment if she read too much into his assurances. But he'd been right, and now she felt a bit guilty for having doubted. Even the new eye was working smoothly, although she was still experiencing a bit of visual disorientation. The programmers hadn't hit the software exactly right, and the self-correcting features were still zeroing in on controlling image brightness and contrast and coordinating those qualities with her natural eye's acuity properly. It was getting better, though, and while she hadn't even begun mastering the eye's new features, all the old ones had been programmed to use the same muscle commands as her old eye had used. For the present, the new features were simply switched off until she felt comfortable with the old ones and with the control of her face. There would be time enough to bring the new capabilities on-line... and at the moment, she needed no extra distractions, because her new arm had been attached, as well.
   Her small smile turned into something much more like a grimace at the thought of the new limb. She was delighted to have at least started learning to use it, of course. In fact, she told herself that almost hourly... every time the unwieldy thing swung wide and smacked into a door frame as she went by, or flicked sideways suddenly in response to some neural command she'd never meant to give it. Her sheer clumsiness (except that it wasn't really "her" clumsiness) was maddening, especially for a woman who'd spent decades training in the martial arts. But at least the software contained programmable overrides. She had to leave them off-line most of the time, not just during scheduled therapy and practice sessions, because she needed to get used to the fact that the arm was there again and gain control of its unintentional jerks and movements. But the override software let her lock the arm down completely, allowing her to carry it in a sling, neatly out of the way and without endangering any unfortunate passerby, for public occasions. The next level up restricted the arm to a series of limited movements that the arm's built-in AI recognized as ones she had mastered on a conscious level. The basic package was more flexible than she'd expected, offering her several intermediate levels of override, but she wasn't sure she liked having them. No, that wasn't accurate. What she wasn't sure of was that having them was a good idea, however convenient it might be in the short term. She half-feared she would be tempted to overuse them. In fact, she'd already caught herself doing just that, and justifying it on the basis of how much she had to do and the need to keep the limb under control while she attended to it all. But at least she had caught herself, and she was working hard on avoiding that particular temptation. The possibility she was actually more afraid of in the long run, however, was that she might settle for less than the best degree of control she could obtain, and rely on the software to let her get by with an agility and coordination that were merely "good enough."
   But for tonight, at least, she had no qualms about using the override. It would never have done for the hostess' left arm to go flailing about amid the glassware and silver, after all! That would hardly contribute to the impression of the calm, capable senior officer she wanted to project. And considering the mix of whom she was inviting to her current round of dinners, it was particularly important that she project the image of someone who knew what she was doing... and what she was talking about.
   She sipped her after-dinner cocoa and studied this evening's guests as she pondered on why that was true.
   Andrea Jaruwalski, her strong features no longer a haunted mask, sat to her left. Jaruwalski had made enormous strides in regaining her self-confidence since Honor had chosen her as her ATC aide. The fact that she'd been allowed hands-on participation in Honor's reshaping of the Crusher and that she'd gained the rueful respect of the current crop of ATC students for her cunning and nastiness as the opposition force commander hadn't hurt, of course. The biggest factor, though, appeared to be that she knew the rest of the Navy was coming around to Honor's view of what had really happened in Seaford Nine. She seemed to give Honor complete credit for that, although Honor felt that that was overgenerous of her. In either case, what really mattered was that the Navy wasn't going to shoot itself in the foot by depriving itself of one of its better tactical officers.
   Nimitz and Samantha, of course, sat to Honor's immediate right, sharing a special, double-perch highchair MacGuiness had designed for them, but Rear Admiral of the Red Jackson Kriangsak, Honor's executive officer at ATC, sat just beyond them. If the somewhat plump, dark-haired admiral had any problem with sitting "one place down" from a pair of silken-furred arboreals, he'd given no sign of it. More to the point, Honor had sensed nothing but amusement from him when he discovered the seating arrangements, and he was fascinated by Samantha. He'd made a point of speaking directly to her during the meal, a courtesy even many Sphinxians often failed to extend to 'cats. Honor had noticed him slipping her an extra stick of celery from his own salad plate, and the admiral had also made a point of congratulating Nimitz on his rapid recovery from his own latest round of surgery.
   Six more officers and eighteen midshipmen stretched down either side of the long table beyond Kriangsak and Jaruwalski, and Mike Henke, whose ship was back in the Star Kingdom, attached to Home Fleet while she awaited assignment to one of the forward fleets, sat facing Honor from its foot. Now Honor let her eyes linger on those midshipmen — who, in a very real sense, were the true reason for this entire dinner — and saw Midshipman Theodore twitch as if someone had just kicked him under the table. Which someone almost certainly had, Honor thought cheerfully as she saw Midshipwoman Theresa Markovic frown at Theodore and then cut her eyes meaningfully to his almost untouched wineglass.
   Theodore looked at her blankly for a moment, and then his face turned an interesting shade of magenta as understanding struck. He was the most junior officer present, even if a midshipman was no more than a larva in the cycle that turned civilians into Queen's officers, and that carried certain traditional obligations. One of which he'd obviously forgotten until someone bruised his kneecap. Now he rose abruptly and grabbed at his glass. It almost spilled, which darkened his blush still further, but then he drew a deep breath and visibly got a grip on himself. As a third-generation prolong recipient, he looked about thirteen T-years old, and his voice cracked just a bit as he cleared his throat, raised his glass, and announced the toast.
   "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Queen!"
   "The Queen!" the response rumbled back, and Honor raised her own wineglass and sipped. The burgundy tasted a little strange on the heels of hot cocoa, and she felt Nimitz's laughing amusement in the back of her brain as he shared the experience.
   Wineglasses were lowered around the table, and side conversations began once again, but the formalities weren't quite finished, and Honor glanced at Midshipwoman Abigail Hearns. The young woman looked back for a moment, then stood, drawing a deep breath of her own, if less obviously than Theodore had, and raised her own glass.
   "Ladies and Gentlemen," she announced in a soft, foreign accent, "I give you Grayson, the Keys, the Sword, and the Tester!"
   There was a moment of consternation before the other glasses rose once more, and Honor hid a wicked smile as the other officers and midshipmen stumbled through the response. One or two got it right; the rest clearly hoped their imperfect efforts were lost in the general mumble, and she found it hard not to giggle at the emotions flowing back to her from her guests. With the exception of Mike Henke and, she suspected, Andrea Jaruwalski, none of the others had ever heard the Grayson loyalty toast, and it was darned well time they did. Honor's other Navy had paid for its equality with the RMN in blood and courage, and she was determined to see that it received it.
   She let Hearns see just a small smile of approval, and the young woman sank back into her seat. Honor could taste the youngster's vast relief, and she set her own wineglass back down and reached over to rub Nimitz's ears, partly to give Hearns a chance to settle completely back down. The midshipwoman was a good two T-years older than Theodore, but in many ways, what she'd just done had been even harder for her than it had for the younger midshipman, and Honor was proud of her.
   In fact, she was proud of young Abigail Hearns for a lot of reasons. She'd been astonished, the first day she'd called the roll at the beginning of this quarter's Intro to Tactics classes, to hear a soft, unmistakable accent respond to the name Hearns. Her own head had snapped up in a surprised movement she'd been unable to prevent, and her one good eye had widened as she saw the blue-on-blue Grayson uniform sitting amid a sea of Manticoran black-and-gold. It wasn't the only Grayson uniform scattered about the large room, but it was the only one which contained a midshipwoman. The very first midshipwoman in the history of the Grayson Space Navy, in point of fact.
   Honor had gotten her surprise under control almost immediately and proceeded briskly with the roll with no other sign that Hearns' presence was anything out of the ordinary, but she'd made a point of asking the young woman to visit her during her D'Orville Hall office hours. She'd hesitated about doing it. Lord knew Hearns' unique status was likely to make problems enough for her without the added risk of becoming known as a "teacher's pet"! But her curiosity had gotten the better of her. Besides, it was likely the young woman would need all the moral support she could get.
   To her astonishment, young Abigail was not only a Grayson female, but a highly born one, the third daughter of Aaron Hearns, Steadholder Owens. She was also, Honor had quickly come to suspect, Lord Owens' favorite daughter, which helped explain her presence on Saganami Island in one way, but made Honor even more astonished Owens had agreed to let her come in another.
   She'd managed, eventually, to piece together the details of how it had all happened, although Abigail herself had been on the reticent side. The tall (for a Grayson; she was only of middling height by Manticoran standards), attractive, willowy brunette was nineteen T-years old. That meant she'd been around eight when Honor first visited Grayson, and from the taste of the young woman's emotions, it was obvious she'd been smitten with a severe case of hero worship for one Commander Harrington. Some of that still lingered, though it had eased with time and she had it under firm enough control that no one who lacked Honor's special advantages would have known it was there. What had not eased with time was the fact that she'd been Navy mad from the moment she stood one night on a balcony of Owens House, watching the terrible, pinprick flashes of nuclear warheads glare defiantly in the endless depths of space, and known a single, brutally outmatched heavy cruiser was locked in a death duel with a battlecruiser full of fanatics in defense of her planet and all its people.
   The very idea of her doing anything about it had, of course, been out of the question. Decently raised Grayson women did not serve in the military. Foreign women from less civilized cultures might join the Navy, or even the Army or Marines, and it would no doubt be wrong to hold their career choices against them. Their actions were quite in accord with the lower standards of their own birth societies, and they could scarcely be blamed for the deficiencies of those societies' standards. And they were both brave and, yes, in their own ways, even noble to have elected to face the enemy in combat. And, yes again, many of them were serving in the frantically expanding GSN, helping meet its desperate need for trained officers. But they were not Grayson women, and Grayson women were needed right where they were, at home, where they could be properly protected and live the lives the Tester had intended. End of story, end of argument, end of hope.
   Except that Abigail had been disinclined to accept that it was the end of anything. She'd obviously been her father's darling, but if he'd tried his best to spoil her, he'd managed to do it without turning her into a brat or making her petulant when she failed to get her way. Instead, she'd simply been convinced that if she worked at it hard enough, she could get or accomplish anything she put her mind to... a belief her present uniform certainly seemed to validate.
   She'd politely but firmly continued to request permission from her father (one could scarcely have called such reasoned approaches nagging... exactly) to join the Navy at every opportunity. And in the meantime, she'd taken advantage of the new educational climate Benjamin Mayhew's reforms and one Honor Harrington's example had opened up on Grayson. She'd signed up for every hard-science and math course in the curriculum, and she'd added some phys-ed courses which were scarcely normal for a "proper" young Grayson woman. And, most insidious of all, she'd taken every chance to trot the example of Steadholder Harrington back out for her father's edification. The fact that Lord Owens was one of the more open-minded and liberal of the Keys (where other men's daughters and wives were concerned, at least) had helped, as had the fact that he'd met Honor, that he liked her, and that he respected her. But the fact had remained that in his mind, and especially where his own daughter was concerned, Honor had been both an off-worlder by birth and a larger-than-life, heroic figure. One could hardly expect other women to attain such standards or endure such suffering. And even if one could, he had no intention whatsoever of exposing his beloved Abigail to even the faintest risk of the wounds and personal loss Honor had experienced... or to something even worse.
   For all that, Abigail's persistence had begun undermining his adamant resistance, rather like a mountain stream slowly and patiently washing away one tiny fragment of a boulder at a time. It might still have come to nothing in the end (although Honor suspected that Lord Owens might have gotten a most unpleasant shock, steadholder or no, when his daughter turned twenty-two, the legal age of majority on Grayson) if not for Honor's own capture and supposed execution. Owens had been no more proof against Grayson's planetary grief and outrage than anyone else, and his daughter, even more impassioned over it than he, had caught him at exactly the right moment and demanded the right to help avenge Lady Harrington's murder.
   Honor often wondered how High Admiral Matthews had reacted when Lord Owens approached him to request a midshipman's warrant for his daughter. Knowing Matthews, she felt confident that he'd managed to maintain his usual decorum. But she also knew that what he must really have wanted to do was to turn cartwheels of sheer joy. He'd been reared with just as much of the spinal reflex need to protect women as the next Grayson male, but he'd had far more exposure to the foreign-born female officers serving in the GSN. And he also knew how strained Grayson's manpower was becoming. He'd certainly discussed the need to figure out how to usefully mobilize some of his home world's huge, untapped store of womanpower with Honor and Benjamin Mayhew often enough, although Honor doubted that he'd actually expected to get any of them into naval uniform in his own lifetime.