He launched himself from the perch with every bit of his old assurance, and she laughed, tasting and sharing his pleasure as he landed precisely in her arms and then swarmed up and around onto her shoulder. He adjusted his position with care, hooking his feet-hands — both feet-hands, functioning perfectly at last — into the shoulder of her tunic while the claws of his true-feet dug gently in below her shoulder blade. He balanced himself there, one true-hand resting on top of her head, and she drew a deep, lung-filling breath.
   One thing a naval career taught was that nothing ever remained the same. Doors opened and closed as duties and assignments changed, she reminded herself, and stepped through the door from this one. She closed it quietly behind her, then paused to acknowledge the salutes of two third-form middies who were apparently remaining on campus over the long holiday. They went on down the echoing hall, and she watched their backs for a moment with a smile, then turned to the green-uniformed man who'd stood waiting patiently for her outside her office.
   "All right, Andrew. We can go now."
   "Are you sure, My Lady?" His eyes showed the gentle amusement and understanding she tasted in his emotions, and she squeezed his shoulder.
   "Yes, I'm sure," she told him, and turned to follow the midshipmen down the hall.
* * *
   "Well, Your Grace, I have to say we got more than our money's worth out of your stay on Manticore."
   Sir Thomas Caparelli and Honor sat on the balcony outside his office. Admiralty House was a modest structure, only a little over a hundred stories in height, but the First Space Lord's office was on the seventy-third floor. That turned the people on the walkways and avenues below into brightly colored specks, and the old-fashioned umbrella shading the crystoplast table flapped occasionally as an air car swooped past just a little faster than traffic regs really allowed for such low altitudes.
   Honor, Nimitz, and LaFollet had arrived early, and she'd been amusing herself by cycling her new eye back and forth through the full range from normal vision to its maximum telescopic magnification while she watched the pedestrians. It made her feel a little giddy, but it was fascinating, too. Rather like playing with one of the kaleidoscopes of which Grayson children were so fond. And it had also seemed appropriate, somehow. Almost as if it were some formal proof that the physical repairs which had kept her here for so long were truly completed at last.
   Oh, they weren't really completed, of course. She was mastering her new arm's more usual range of movement, but its fingers remained maddeningly clumsy. Sometimes it almost seemed it had been better to have only one hand than it was to have one and a fraction. And a clumsy, unreliable fraction, at that. But it was only a matter of practice. She kept telling herself that, kept forcing herself to try to use two hands for what ought to be two-handed jobs rather than simply shutting the thing down and doing them the one-handed way she'd been forced to learn.
   Now she turned and smiled at Caparelli across the table.
   "I'm glad you think so, Sir. I have to admit, I sometimes felt you'd given me too many balls to keep in the air simultaneously. Even now, I sort of wish you'd settled for asking me to wear a single hat. That way I could really have concentrated on just one job. As it is, I can't help thinking I could have done better at any one of them than I actually did if I hadn't spread myself so thin."
   "Trust me, Your Grace. The Navy is more than satisfied... and Doctor Montoya was certainly right about your notion of a leisurely convalescence! If I'd realized how hard you were going to push yourself on all of the tasks I asked you to take on, I would have felt horribly guilty for asking. I'd have done it anyway, though, I'm afraid, because we really did need you."
   Honor made a brushing-away gesture with her hand — her left hand, this time, but he shook his head at her.
   "No, Your Grace. It's not something you can brush off. You did an outstanding job with your classes, despite the many other charges on your time, and those dinner parties of yours were far above and beyond the call of duty. I don't believe anyone's ever before seen midshipmen actually fighting to get invited into an admiral's presence. More to the point, fourteen of the top fifteen scorers — and thirty-seven of the top fifty — in the first year Tactical curriculum were your students,."
   "They did the work, Sir. I just pointed them in the right direction," Honor said a bit uncomfortably, and he chuckled.
   "There's some truth in that, I suppose. But that's partly because you did such a good job of pointing... and partly because of how motivated they were. Both before you ever got your hands on them — we set a new record for middies who requested a single instructor — and after you had a chance to put your stamp on them." He chuckled again. "I understand you're not particularly fond of the nickname, but when the student body heard `the Salamander' was going to be lecturing, the registrar's office was almost buried under transfer slips from people trying to get into your sections."
   "The 'faxes had a lot more to do with that sort of hero worship than anything I ever did," Honor insisted.
   "Perhaps." Caparelli allowed her the last word on that topic and took a sip from his chilled glass. Honor drank from her own, then set it down and offered Nimitz a celery stick. He took it and crunched cheerfully away, and she turned back to Caparelli as the First Space Lord returned his moisture-beaded glass to its coaster.
   "Even more than the Academy, however, I wanted to thank you for the job you did at ATC," he said more seriously. "For two things, really. One is the nature of the changes you made to the Crusher. The other is using the opportunity to salvage Commander Jaruwalski's career. I ought to've seen to that myself."
   "You're the First Space Lord of the Queen's entire navy, Sir. You've got more than enough on your plate without dealing with individual commanders. I, on the other hand, happened to have served under Santino early in his career. I knew what a vindictive idiot he was, and that gave me a personal motive for looking more closely than most at what happened in Seaford. But I am glad Andrea's turned her career back around. She's good, Sir Thomas. Very good, indeed. It's only my opinion, but I think BuPers should be looking closely at the notion of promoting her to captain jay-gee outside the zone."
   "I think you can safely assume that's being seen to. Jackson Kriangsak's already spoken to Lucian, and I understand she's being slipped onto the next list."
   "Good," Honor said firmly, and suppressed a mental snort at her own actions.
   She'd always hated the way some officers played the patronage game, and she'd always felt that such a system, by its very nature, was subject to serious abuse. Elvis Santino and Pavel Young were telling cases in point. But, then, she'd never really considered the possibility of having sufficient power to play it herself, and now, in the best tradition of rationalizers the galaxy over, she saw some advantages to it. Andrea Jaruwalski's career had been headed for the ash heap, and its salvage, which was certainly a plus for the Navy, stemmed entirely from the fact that Honor had made her own first investment in the patronage system. Perhaps those who'd played the game the way Hamish Alexander did (she scarcely even noticed the familiar little pang that name sent through her) had had a point all along. The nurturing of junior officers not because they were relatives — or the children of friends or relatives, or of people who could repay you with favors of their own — but because they were outstanding officers, truly was a form of payback. Not to any individual. Not even to the individual you took under your wing. It was payback to the Navy, and to the Star Kingdom at large.
   "I have to admit, though," Caparelli went on, "I never anticipated what you'd do at ATC. I should have, I suppose, given your background and career track, but I didn't. Maybe we've all been suffering a bit too much from the `not-invented-here' syndrome to see a lot of things that need doing."
   "I wouldn't go that far, Sir. I do think the RMN suffers from a bit of, well, call it tunnel vision. There's definitely a sense of superiority, which is fair enough, I suppose, when we compare ourselves to the Peeps, or the thugs we keep running into in Silesia. We are better than they are. And, for that matter, we do have more experience than any of our allies as a deep-space force. But I do believe the Service needs to be more awake to the fact that there are other ways — some better, some worse — to do the same things."
   "I agree entirely. And that's especially true now that we're running so many non-Manticoran officers through the Crusher. Not only do we need to be aware that we may have something to learn from them, but we damned well ought to be making sure we don't step on their toes by talking down to them. No doubt there will always be a certain inescapable edge of, um, institutional arrogance, perhaps. That's probably a healthy thing, and I imagine most of our allies will understand and accept it in the Alliance's senior partner. But bringing in Allied flag officers to help design and build the training programs was a stroke of genius, Your Grace. And building scenarios which require Manticoran officers to follow foreign doctrine and operate with Zanzibaran or Grayson or Alizonian hardware was another. I understand several of our aspiring COs found it a humbling experience, and forcing them to recognize that a lot of our supposed `officer superiority' actually rests on the superiority of our hardware was a very good thing. Besides, we've already picked up several useful notions from the Graysons. I'll be very surprised if we don't pick up a few more from some of our other allies, as well... now that you've started us listening to them."
   "I hope so, Sir Thomas," Honor said very seriously. "They do have things to teach us, and admitting that — to them, as well as to ourselves — seems to me to be one of the better ways to motivate them to learn from us, as well."
   "Agreed, Your Grace. Agreed." He nodded vigorously, then leaned back in his chair and gazed out over the sun-drenched, afternoon capital.
   "I understand you'll be returning to Grayson shortly," he observed, and Honor nodded at the change of subject.
   "I've been here for almost a year, Sir. It's time I got back to my responsibilities as Steadholder Harrington. Besides, Willard Neufsteiler has a batch of papers I need to sign."
   "I can certainly understand that, Your Grace. But I also understand the new session of the Conclave of Steadholders will begin a few weeks after you get back."
   "That's another reason I need to get home," Honor agreed, then paused and smiled crookedly. " `Home,' " she repeated quietly. "You know, that word's gotten just a little complicated for me over the last few years."
   "That would seem to be a bit of an understatement," Caparelli agreed. "But I suppose the reason I asked was that I was wondering what your plans for the future are. Specifically, what your plans for returning to active duty might be."
   "My plans?" Honor cocked an eyebrow. "I rather assumed that was up to the Bureau of Personnel, Sir," she said, and he shrugged.
   "Your Grace, you're an admiral in the Queen's Navy, and a duchess. You're also an admiral in the Grayson Navy, and a steadholder. That means Grayson and the Star Kingdom can both make legitimate claims on your services, and we're both clever enough to want to claim them. But given your status, the decision of which of us actually gets you is going to be up to you, so I thought I'd just get my bid in early."
   "Sir Thomas, I—" she began, but a wave of his hand interrupted her.
   "I'm not trying to put pressure on you yet. If for no other reason, because I've spoken to BuMed and I know Admiral Mannock wouldn't even let you go back on full active duty status in our uniform for another three or four months. I just want you to think about it. And, I suppose, I wanted to be sure you realize you're at a stage in your career which gives you a great deal more control over your future and your future assignments than you may have noticed. You need to be prepared to deal with that fact."
   "I—" Honor paused once more, then shrugged. "I suppose you're right, Sir Thomas. And you're also right that it hadn't occurred to me to think of it that way."
   "Oh, I think you were headed in that direction, and rightly so. I just thought I'd mention it as something you should specifically consider."
   It was his turn to pause, and Honor turned to look more directly at him as she tasted the turn of his emotions. They'd grown suddenly pensive, yet there was an excitement — an anticipation — and perhaps just a small edge of fear in them. He turned his head to gaze out over the city once more, then drew a deep breath.
   "In addition to the points we've already discussed, Your Grace, there was one other thing I wanted to tell you when I asked you to visit me this afternoon." He turned back to her, and she raised her eyebrows in polite question.
   "I activated Operation Buttercup yesterday," he told her, and she felt herself sit straight upright in her chair. She knew about Operation Buttercup. She and Alice Truman had gamed out several variant strategies for it using the main tactical simulator at ATC, and the final ops plan had Honor's fingerprints all over it.
   "Alice Truman will be leaving for Trevor's Star next week," Caparelli went on quietly. By the time you get back to Grayson, Eighth Fleet should be ready to move. At the moment, we seem to have the Peeps strongly committed to an offensive against Grendelsbane Station, and I had to divert some of the SD(P)s to bolster the station's defenses. But we managed to hit the basic force levels specified by the final ops plan. Some of the LAC wings are still a lot greener than I could have wished, but—"
   He shrugged slightly, his emotions laced with the regret any good commander felt at sending his men and women into harm's way.
   "I understand, Sir," Honor said, her voice equally quiet, and she thought about some of the men and women she knew in the ships committed to Buttercup. Scotty Tremain and Horace Harkness. Alice Truman. Rafael Cardones, who commanded one of Alice's CLACs, and Rear Admiral of the Red Alistair McKeon, one of her division commanders. There were dozens of others beyond those names, and she felt a momentary stab of fear, an echo of the gut-deep awareness that people died in battle.
   "Thank you for telling me," she said after a moment, and forced a smile. "I never realized how much harder it is to send people off to fight when you can't go with them."
   "One of the hardest lessons to learn... or accept, at least," he agreed, gazing back out over the city once more. "Here I sit, on a beautiful summer afternoon, and out there—" he twitched a nod at the deep blue vault of the sky "—hundreds of thousands of men and women are heading off into battle because I told them to go. Ultimately, whatever happens to them will be my responsibility... and there's not a thing in the universe I can do from this point on to affect what does happen to them."
   "Whatever they pay you, Sir, it isn't enough," Honor told him, and he turned to grin wryly at her.
   "Your Grace, they don't pay any of us enough, but if we can't take a joke, then we shouldn't have joined."
   The hoary, lower-deck proverb took Honor completely by surprise coming from him, and she giggled. She couldn't help it, and his smile of delight as he startled the schoolgirl sound out of her only made it worse. It took her several seconds to get herself back under control, and she gave him a severe look once she had.
   "I can think of one or two other clichés which might appropriately be applied to you, Sir Thomas. None of them, at the moment, complimentary, I'm afraid."
   "Ah, well! I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. And I'm used to the abuse by now. Very few people seem to appreciate what a fine, stalwart sort of fellow I actually am."
   " `Fine' and `stalwart' are not the first two adjectives which spring to mind when I think of you, Sir," she told him severely, and he chuckled again. "However, I did want to take this opportunity to invite you to a small get-together Miranda and my mother are planning for next month. I understand it will be a modest little affair — no more than two or three hundred on the guest list — to clear the decks here in the Star Kingdom before we head back to Grayson. Her Majesty has consented to attend, and I hope you will, too."
   "I would be honored, Your Grace," he said seriously.
   "Good. Because between now and then, I'm going to put Nimitz, Farragut, and Samantha up to devising some proper greeting for a fine, stalwart sort of fellow like yourself." She smiled seraphically at him. "And knowing the three of them, Sir Thomas, you may just discover that you'd have been better off in the lead wave of Buttercup!"


   "How about taking a walk with me, Denis?"
   People's Commissioner Denis LePic looked up quickly. Citizen Admiral Thomas Theisman's voice could not have been more casual, but LePic had known Theisman for many years, and over that time, he'd come to understand the citizen admiral as well as any of his StateSec superiors could possibly have desired.
   In fact, he'd come to know Thomas Theisman rather too well for his superiors' taste... had they known it. But LePic had gone to some lengths to insure that they didn't know, and especially over the last three years. It hadn't been an easy decision, for he was a man who believed passionately in the need to reform the old system. Yet despite that, it had still been easier than it ought to have been. He'd begun to have quiet doubts, so quiet he'd almost managed to conceal them even from himself, long before Cordelia Ransom gloatingly condemned Honor Harrington to death and used the occasion to grind home her contempt for the Navy's uniformed personnel. And any concept of common decency.
   The two years after that had been especially hard on LePic and his conscience. He'd tried to tell himself Ransom had been an aberration, that the rest of the Committee wasn't like her, and to an extent, that was true. Ransom had been a sadist who actually drew some sort of warped sustenance from degrading and breaking her victims before she had them killed. Rob Pierre and Oscar Saint-Just weren't like that. But Ransom had forced LePic to truly think about all the New Order's leaders, not just her, and when he looked at them with open eyes, he'd discovered he was even more terrified of Citizen Secretary Saint-Just than he'd been of Ransom. Because Saint-Just didn't act out of personal hatred or pique. He never even raised his voice. Yet compared to the thousands upon thousands of men and women — and sometimes children — whom he'd dispassionately blotted from the face of the universe, Cordelia Ransom had been no more than a spoiled child petulantly striking out at her classmates for not giving her their toys.
   Denis LePic had looked into what passed for the soul of Rob S. Pierre's People's Republic and discovered a monster. A monster he had served willingly, even eagerly, since the day the old regime's Navy attempted to seize power. And the people he'd watched and guarded for the monster had too often been men and women like Thomas Theisman. Good men and women, as dedicated to the Republic and basic human dignity as Denis LePic had ever been, but more honest than he. Clearer-eyed. People who'd recognized the monster before he had, and whose discerning vision had placed them in mortal peril if the monster ever realized they had pierced its disguise.
   Faced with that discovery, LePic had wanted to resign his post and return to private life. But his superiors at StateSec would have wondered why he wanted out. They would have demanded answers, and the one answer he could never have given them was the truth, for if they were savage to their enemies, they were utterly merciless when their own fell into apostasy. Besides, even if he could have resigned and lived, that would have been the easy way out. A way to walk away from the consequences of his own actions, like the ancient Pilate, washing his hands and proclaiming his personal innocence. No, there'd been only one thing a decent man, which was what he'd always hoped he was, could do under the circumstances.
   He'd stayed right where he was and sent his reports in right on schedule. And over the weeks and months, he'd gradually shifted the emphasis of those reports, ever so carefully, to shield the people he ought to have been denouncing. He knew, for example, that the repugnance Citizen Admiral Theisman had always felt for the Committee's excesses had turned into cold, bleak hatred when it allowed Ransom to ordain Harrington's judicial murder. The citizen admiral and Harrington had a history, and Theisman believed he owed her a debt of honor for the way she'd treated him and his people when they'd been her prisoners. It was a debt he'd been unable to repay, and that had both infuriated and shamed him, but not even that, bitter though it must have been for a man like him, explained the implacable depth of his hate.
   It was the hatred of a moral man for a system so twisted that it allowed someone like a Cordelia Ransom (or an Oscar Saint-Just) to practice butchery. One that shot its own officers and their families not for treason but for failing to execute orders whose authors had known they were impossible when they gave them. That drove men like Lester Tourville to the brink of open rebellion and destroyed men like Warner Caslet simply because they were decent, honorable men, and so a danger to the "New Order."
   Tourville had survived, but only because Ransom had died before she could have him purged. And Warner Caslet had also survived... but only after the monster had driven a man who should have been — who'd tried, desperately, to be — one of the Republic's most loyal and skilled defenders into defecting. LePic knew Caslet's defection had hurt Theisman deeply, but not because Theisman blamed the citizen commander for it. It had hurt because he understood exactly why Caslet had done it, even knowing that it meant burning all of his bridges behind him. That even if the Committee somehow fell, he would never be able to come home again.
   And then had come the stunning revelation that Harrington was alive. That she'd actually managed to escape from Cerberus with half a million other prisoners, including Warner Caslet... and Admiral Amos Parnell.
   That had been the final straw. Like most of the Navy's pre-Coup officer corps, Theisman had respected Amos Parnell deeply. Almost as deeply as he'd respected Captain Alfredo Yu. Yet Theisman's loyalty to the Republic had managed to survive Yu's defection to the Grayson Space Navy, largely because he knew it had been the Legislaturalists' search for a scapegoat after the botched Masadan operation, not the Committee, which had driven Yu into exile.
   It had not survived Parnell's revelations about who had actually murdered Hereditary President Harris. And who'd done so as a cold-blooded, carefully thought-out maneuver to brand the Navy, Thomas Theisman's Navy, as traitors in order to discredit and paralyze it while they seized power for their own ends.
   Who had deliberately and premeditatedly created the reign of terror which had enveloped Theisman's entire world, destroyed so many people for whom he'd cared, and stripped him of his own honor, his own dignity.
   But no one back home on Haven knew that had happened, for Denis LePic hadn't told them. It had been a terrifying decision, for he'd known what would happen if StateSec had informers he didn't know about on the planet Enki. Just one outside his own network, making solo reports to Haven, would have been enough to reveal him as a traitor to be shot right beside the no doubt treason-minded citizen admiral. Unfortunately, it had been a decision he'd had no option but to make, and while he'd been frightened to his very marrow by the risks associated with it, he had never really regretted it.
   Until now.
   Theisman must know LePic was covering for him. He couldn't not know, not and say some of the things he'd let slip in LePic's hearing, or even said directly to him, since Cordelia Ransom's death. But the look in his eye and the edge in his tone were different today, and so was the invitation to "go for a walk."
   The time had come, LePic realized. The time when Theisman would invite him to take the next step, from passive concealment to active collaboration, and accepting that invitation would be an act of madness. There was no possible way Theisman could succeed in any active resistance to StateSec's merciless machinery. Any such attempt would be doomed, and so would anyone who followed him into it.
   The citizen commissioner knew that, and his heart raced madly as he stared at Theisman's preposterously calm face. He swallowed hard, then drew a deep breath.
   "Certainly, Citizen Admiral," he said. "Just let me get my jacket."
* * *
   The wind outside DuQuesne Central's main admin block was cold and sharp. The sprawling expanse of barracks, warehouses, armories, landing pads, factories, and offices stretched as far as the eye could see in any direction, yet it was only one component, and not the largest, of what was collectively known as DuQuesne Base. Before the present war, DuQuesne had been the third-largest base of the People's Republic, conceived, designed, and built after the conquest of the Republic of San Martin as the springboard for the PRH's next wave of conquest. Aside from the base, the entire Barnett System had no true intrinsic value. Indeed, it had become a decided strategic liability. It was located all too close to Trevor's Star and, of course, remained conveniently placed for operations against that base. Unfortunately, most of the operations in the vicinity had been directed from Manty space and into Republican space, and that turned Barnett into an enormous prize for the enemy: an exposed system, with over a million permanent Marines and Navy personnel, not to mention six or seven times that many civilian support personnel, plus the crews of all the mobile units detailed to defend it.
   The logical thing to do would have been to evacuate those personnel, shut down the facilities not needed for purely defensive operations, and reduce the mobile forces to something that could run for it when the inevitable attack came in. Or to a force small enough the Republic could stand to lose it, at least, if it didn't get a chance to run. Instead, even more strength had been poured into defending it, making it an even more attractive target for the Manties.
   The breathing space Esther McQueen's offensives had won the People's Navy had helped, LePic thought as he turned up his jacket's collar, but it hadn't changed the basic equation. And the more recent orders transferring ships of the wall out of Barnett, only made DuQuesne's security more precarious. Yet he felt unhappily certain Thomas Theisman hadn't invited him outside on this cold, windy evening to discuss that.
   He trudged along beside the citizen admiral, waiting. Not patiently, exactly. More with a sense of resignation. To be honest, LePic didn't really want to hear whatever Theisman had to say. He only knew he had no choice but to listen... assuming he wanted to be able to look himself in the mirror tomorrow.
   Wonderful. I'll be able to look at myself in the mirror tomorrow. And the day after. Maybe even the day after that. But eventually someone back home is going to hear about this, and once that happens, I won't be in any position to be looking into any damned mirrors ever again!
   "Thank you for coming with me, Denis," Theisman said at last. His deep, low-pitched voice was half lost in the louder voice of the wind.
   "I don't know if you ought to thank me for anything... yet," LePic said tartly. "I'm sure this is a conversation we shouldn't be having. And you may as well know I'm not prepared to guarantee that it won't go any further than you and me, Citizen Admiral."
   "It sounds as if you automatically assume I want to discuss `treason against the People,' " Theisman observed, and the people's commissioner snorted.
   "Of course you don't! You just wanted to let me know about your undying loyalty to Citizen Secretary Pierre and Citizen Secretary San-Just, who you think are the two greatest leaders in human history. But you didn't want to embarrass them with your fulsome praise. That's why you dragged me out on this balmy evening instead of into your office where the microphones could get every word of it down for the record!"
   Theisman blinked at him, taken aback by his fear-inspired asperity. But then the citizen admiral chuckled.
   "Touché, Citizen Commissioner! But if I may be so bold, if you assume I'm thinking treasonous thoughts, why come with me? Unless you've brought along your handy little pocket recorder to catch me in the act."
   "If I wanted to do that, I could have done it any time in the last three years, and you know it," LePic said, looking away a bit uncomfortably. Theisman studied his profile, recognizing the citizen commissioner's discomfort. In many ways, it was the mirror image of his own unhappiness, for neither of them were men to whom defiance of civilian authority came easily.
   "I suppose I do know that," he said after several moments of silence. "In fact, that's why I invited you on this little walk." He stopped, and LePic paused in automatic reflex, turning to face him. "What I want to know, Citizen Commissioner LePic," he asked levelly, "is what you're going to do when we get back to Nouveau Paris."
   "When we what?" LePic's heart began to pound once more. Back to the capital? Had his superiors realized he'd been covering for Theisman and the others like him on Enki? Were he and the citizen admiral being recalled to be turned into horrible examples?
   "You didn't know?" Theisman sounded surprised.
   "Know what?!"
   "I'm sorry, Denis." Theisman sounded genuinely contrite. "The orders came from the Octagon, but I'd assumed you'd already heard about them." LePic felt his muscles quiver with the need to reach out and shake a straight answer out of the other man, but the citizen admiral went on quickly. "I'm — we're — being recalled to Haven so I can assume command of the Capital Fleet, with you as my People's Commissioner."
   "So you—?"
   LePic stared at him. The Capital Fleet? They wanted Thomas Theisman to command the Capital Fleet? They had to be insane! That was the People's Navy's most sensitive post, the one naval command perpetually poised above the Committee of Public Safety's head like some megaton Sword of Damocles. The person who commanded it had to be totally trusted by the Committee, and Theisman was—
   But then his thoughts slithered to a stop. Yes, Theisman had come to hate the Committee. But the Committee didn't know that. Oscar Saint-Just and StateSec didn't know that... because one Denis LePic had made a point of not telling them.
   His shock began to fade a bit, and something very like awe replaced it.
   My God, he thought. They're putting a loaded pulser into the hands of one of their most deadly enemies and then turning their backs on him, and they don't even know it!
   And then another thought came. He'd accepted months ago that the time would come when Theisman would be found out and, by extension, when LePic would be found out right beside him. And when that day rolled around, the two of them would die. But if they were in command of the Capital Fleet...
   "You want to know what I'm going to do?" he demanded finally. "My God, man! I ought to be asking you that! You're the one who's been turning steadily into a loose warhead for the last two or three years!"
   "If I were a loose warhead, I'd already have done something stupid," Theisman replied reasonably. "In which case we wouldn't be freezing our asses off out here. As to what I'm planning to do, I honestly can't tell you. I have no more desire to die than the next man, Denis, and the admiral in me gets really pissed off at the thought of dying without accomplishing anything in the process, which is exactly what would happen if I — if we —went off half-cocked. But as you've obviously figured out, I'm not exactly in the mood to just keep on obeying orders like a good little boy."
   "Meaning?" LePic asked nervously.
   "Meaning that if an opportunity presents, or if one can be created, I might just reach for it," Theisman said flatly. LePic winced, and the citizen admiral raised one hand. "I haven't done anything yet. Haven't even breathed a word of it to anyone but you. But you need to know the way my head is working on this. You deserve to know, because I do realize you've been covering for me... and what that will mean for you, and possibly for your family, if I try something and blow it. But more than that, I need you. I need you to go on covering for me, and if the coin drops, I'll need you right there beside me."
   He paused, gazing into the citizen commissioner's eyes, and his voice was very level when he went on.
   "I won't lie to you, Denis. Even with me in command of the Capital Fleet, the odds against being able to accomplish anything other than getting ourselves and a lot of other people killed are high. The most likely outcome would be for StateSec to catch us and shoot us early on. Next most likely would be for us to try something and fail, in which case we either get killed in the fighting, arrested and shot afterward, or start a civil war that leaves the entire Republic wide open for the Manties. The least likely outcome would be for us to actually take out the Committee. On the other hand, the chance of managing that from the capital is a hell of a lot better than from here, and if we can..."
   He let his voice trail off, and Denis LePic met his eyes in the cold and windy dark. Met and held them... and then nodded very slowly.


   "Citizen General Fontein is here, Sir."
   Oscar Saint-Just looked up as Sean Caminetti, his private secretary, ushered a colorless, wizened little man into his office. No one could have looked less like the popular conception of a brilliant and ruthless security agent than Erasmus Fontein. Except, perhaps, for Saint-Just himself.
   "Thank you, Sean." He nodded permission for the secretary to withdraw, and then turned his attention fully to his guest. Unlike most people summoned to Saint-Just's inner sanctum, Fontein calmly walked across to his favorite chair, lowered himself into it with neither hesitation nor any sign of trepidation, waited while its surface adjusted to the contours of his body, then cocked his head at his chief.
   "You wanted to see me?" he inquired, and Saint-Just snorted.
   "I wouldn't put it quite that way. Not," he added, "that I'm not always happy to visit with you, of course. We have so few opportunities to spend quality time together." Fontein smiled faintly at the humor Saint-Just allowed so few people to see, but the smile faded as the Citizen Secretary for State Security went on in much a more serious tone.
   "Actually, as I'm sure you've guessed, I called you in to discuss McQueen."
   "I had guessed," Fontein admitted. "It wasn't hard, especially given how unhappy she was to move ahead on Operation Bagration."
   "That's because you're a clever and insightful fellow who knows how much your boss is worried and what he worries about."
   "Yes, I do," Fontein said, and leaned slightly forward. "And because I know, I've been trying very hard not to let the suspicions I know you have push me into reading something that isn't there into her actions."
   "And?" Saint-Just prompted when he paused.
   "And I just don't know." Fontein pursed his lips, looking uncharacteristically uncertain. It was Saint-Just's turn to incline his head, silently commanding him to explain, and the citizen general sighed.
   "I've sat in on almost all of her strategy discussions at the Octagon, and the few I wasn't physically present for, I listened to on chip. I know the woman is a fiendishly good actress who can scheme and dissemble with the best. God knows I won't forget anytime soon how she outfoxed me before the Leveler business! But for all that, I think her concerns over the possibility of new Manty weapons are genuine, Oscar. She's been too consistent in the arguments she's made for those concerns to be feigned." He shook his head. "She's worried. A lot more worried, I think, than she lets herself appear at Committee meetings, where she knows she has to project a confident front. And," he added unhappily, "I think that because she's really worried, she's also very, very pissed off with you for pushing her so hard against her own better judgment."
   "Um." Saint-Just rubbed his chin thoughtfully. Erasmus Fontein was, with the possible exception of Eloise Pritchart, the most insightful of StateSec's commissioners. He didn't look it, which was one of the more potent weapons in his arsenal, but he had a cold, keenly logical mind and, in his own way, he was just as merciless as Oscar Saint-Just. More than that, he'd been Esther McQueen's watchdog for the better part of eight years. She'd fooled him once, but he knew her moves better than anyone else... and he was a hard man for the same person to fool twice. Which meant Saint-Just had to listen to anything he had to say. But even so...
   "Just because she's genuinely concerned doesn't mean she's right," he said testily, and Fontein very carefully didn't allow his surprise at his superior's acid tone to show.
   It was very unlike Saint-Just to reveal that sort of irritation, and the citizen general felt a sudden chill. One thing which made Saint-Just so effective was his ability to think coldly and dispassionately about a problem. If personal anger was beginning to corrode that dispassion in Esther McQueen's case, her time could be far shorter than she guessed. Worse, Fontein wasn't at all sure he was prepared to dismiss her concerns, whatever Saint-Just thought. He'd had too many opportunities to see her in action, knew how tough-minded she was. And, he admitted, had seen her physical and moral courage much too close up for comfort during the Leveler revolt. He might not trust her, and he certainly didn't like her, but he did respect her. And if there was any basis to her fears, then however rosy things looked at this moment, the People's Republic might find in the next few months that it needed her worse than ever.
   "I didn't say she was right, Oscar." Fontein was careful to keep his voice even. "I only said I think most of her concern is genuine. You asked me if I'm suspicious of her, and a part of my answer is that I think a lot of her reluctance to charge ahead with Bagration was unfeigned."
   "All right." Saint-Just puffed air through his lips, then shook himself. "All right," he said more naturally. "Point taken. Go on."
   "Beyond her apparently genuine concerns over her orders, I really can't say she's given me much to work with," Fontein said honestly. "She staked out her claim to authority in purely military affairs the day she took over the Octagan, and she works her staff, and herself, so hard that even I can't manage to sit in on all the meetings she has with planners and analysts and logistics people and com specialists. She works best one-to-one, and no one could fault the energy she brings to the job, but she's definitely got a firm grip on the military side of her shop. You probably know that even better than I do." Since, he did not add aloud, you were the one who told me I had to let her get a grip on it. "I don't like it, and I never did. Nor have I made any secret about how much I don't like it. At the same time, she has a point about the need for a single source of authority in a military chain of command, and the results she's produced certainly seem to have justified the decision to bring her in in the first place.
   "I don't think she's been able to sneak anything past me, but I can't rule it out. As I say, no one could possibly keep pace with a schedule as frenetic as hers. There've probably been opportunities for side discussions I don't know anything about... and I still haven't figured out how she made her initial contacts before the Leveler business, when all's said. I have a few suspicions, but even knowing where to look — assuming I'm right and I am looking in the right places — I haven't been able to come up with any hard evidence. That being the case, I'm in no position to state unequivocally that she hasn't managed to do the same thing again at the Octagon.
   "And let's face it, Oscar, she's charismatic as hell. I've watched her in action for years now, and I'm no closer to understanding how she does it than in the beginning. It's like she uses black magic. Or maybe it's a special kind of charisma that only works with military people. But it does work. She had Bukato out of his shell within weeks of taking over, and the rest of the Octagon's senior officers followed right behind him. And she managed to send Giscard and Tourville out ready to take on pseudogrizzlies with their bare hands, even though you and I both know from Eloise's reports that Giscard was suspicious as hell of her reputation for personal ambition. If anyone could inspire one of her subordinates to risk trying to do an end run around me to set up some clandestine line of communication, she's the one. I haven't seen a single trace of that, or I'd already've been in here bending your ear about it, but we can't afford to take anything for granted with a woman like her."
   "I know." Saint-Just sighed and tipped his chair all the way back. "I was never happy about bringing her in and giving her such a long leash, but damn it, Rob was right. We needed her, and however dangerous she may be, she produced. She certainly produced. But now—"
   He broke off, pinching the bridge of his nose, and Fontein could almost feel the intensity of his thoughts. Unlike almost anyone else in State Security, Fontein had read the doctored dossier Saint-Just had constructed when McQueen was brought in. He knew exactly how that file had been manicured to make McQueen look like the greatest traitor since Amos Parnell — indeed, to brand her as a previously undetected junior partner in the "Parnell Plot"—if it became necessary to remove her. Unfortunately, Parnell was back among the living and spilling his guts to the Solly Assembly's Committee on Human Rights, and—
   The rhythm of Fontein's thoughts broke as a sudden insight struck him. Parnell. Was his escape from Cerberus an even larger factor in Saint-Just's intensified suspicions of McQueen than the commissioner had previously guessed? The ex-CNO's return to life had definitely shaken a lot of the old officer corps. They'd been careful about what they said and who they said it around, but that much was obvious. And after the victories Twelfth Fleet had produced, McQueen, for all the Navy's original wariness about her ambition, was almost as popular with, and certainly as respected by, its officers as Parnell had been. She must seem like some sort of ghost of Parnell to Saint-Just, and the neutralization of her edited dossier had hit him hard.
   It was ironic, really. When the time bombs had been planted in that dossier, they'd been seen as little more than window dressing. There'd been no real need for anyone to justify her removal when StateSec had been shooting admirals in job lots for years, since no one in the Navy would have dared raise even a minor objection. The entire purpose had been to provide Cordelia Ransom's propagandists with ammunition to dress up the decision and be sure the Republic's public opinion was pointed in the right direction. But now that McQueen had become so popular with both the public and the Navy, that sort of justification for removing her had become genuinely vital. And just when it had, Parnell had escaped from Cerberus and discredited everything in her dossier.