Saint-Just's weapon had been knocked from his hand when he most feared he needed it, and perhaps that, as much as his frustration over her refusal to agree with his analysts, helped explain the way in which his habitual self-control had frayed in this instance.
   "She produced," Saint-Just went on at last, "but I think she's become too dangerous for us to keep around. Someone else — like Theisman — can go on producing now that she's gotten the Navy turned around. And we won't have to worry about someone like Theisman trying to overthrow the Committee."
   "Does that mean you and the Citizen Chairman have decided to remove her?" Fontein asked carefully.
   "No," Saint-Just replied. "Rob is less convinced she's a danger. Or, rather, he's less convinced we can afford to get rid of her because of the danger she represents. He may even be right, and whether he is or not, he's still Chairman of the Committee... and my boss. So if he says we wait until we either know we don't need her or we find clear proof she's actively plotting, we wait. Especially since Bukato will have to go right along with her. Probably most of her other senior staffers, too, which makes it particularly imperative that we be certain the Manties are really on the run before we dislocate our command structure so severely. But I expect Bagration to pick right up where Scylla left off, and if it does, then I think we will have proof we don't need to hang onto a sword so sharp it's liable to cut our own heads off. Not when we've got other swords to choose from. And in that case, I expect Rob to green-light her removal."
   "I see." Despite himself, Fontein felt an inner qualm. For all his own reservations about McQueen, he'd worked closely with her for so long that the announcement that she was a dead woman, one way or the other, within months hit him hard.
   "I don't want to rock the boat," Saint-Just went on. "Not now that Bagration is just kicking off, and certainly not before Theisman gets here and gives us someone reliable to hand Capital Fleet to. And above all, I don't want to do anything that will make her realize her time is running out. But I think it's time we started building a dossier to replace the one we can't use anymore. I want a nice, clean, convincing paper trail to `prove' she was a traitor before she gets shot resisting arrest, and we can't throw that kind of thing together at the last minute. So I want you to sit down with Citizen Colonel Cleary and begin putting one together now."
   "Of course." Fontein nodded. There was no chance in the world that Saint-Just would take overt action against McQueen until Pierre authorized it. The StateSec CO's mind simply didn't work that way. But it was very like him to attempt to anticipate and put the groundwork in place ahead of time. The collapse of the original "proof" of McQueen's "treason against the People" only made him more determined than usual.
   "Remember," Saint-Just said firmly, unwittingly echoing Fontein's own thoughts, "this is only a preliminary. Rob hasn't authorized me to do a thing, and that means you're not authorized to do anything except gather information and begin assembling a file. I don't want any mistakes or unauthorized enthusiasm that gets out of hand, Erasmus!"
   "Of course not, Oscar," Fontein replied just a bit cooly. Saint-Just gave a small nod in response, one with a hint of apology. One reason (among many) Fontein had been chosen for his position was that he would no more act against McQueen without Saint-Just's specific order to do so, except in a case of dire emergency, than Saint-Just would have had her arrested or shot without clearance from Pierre.
   "I know I can rely on you, Erasmus," he said, "and that's more important to me and to Rob right now than ever before. It's just that waiting for the coin to drop with McQueen has stretched my patience a lot thinner than I ought to have let it. I have to keep reining myself in where she's concerned, and some of it just spilled over onto you."
   "I understand, Oscar. Don't worry. Cleary and I will put together exactly the sort of file you need, and that's all we'll do until you tell us otherwise."
   "Good," Saint-Just said more cheerfully, and shoved up out of his chair with a smile. He walked around his desk to escort his visitor out and, in a rare physical show of affection, draped one arm around Fontein's narrow shoulders.
   "Rob and I won't forget this, Erasmus," he said as the door from his private office to its waiting room opened and Caminetti looked up from his own desk. The secretary started to rise, but Saint-Just waved him back into his chair and personally escorted Fontein to the door.
   "Remember," he said, pausing for one last word before Fontein left the waiting room for the public corridor beyond. "It has to be solid, Erasmus. When we shoot someone like McQueen, we can't leave any loose ends. Not this time. Especially not when we're going to have to make such a clean sweep at the Octagon along with her."
   "I understand, Oscar," Fontein replied quietly. "Don't worry. I'll get it done."
* * *
   Esther McQueen was working late — again — when the door chime sounded.
   She glanced at the date-time display on her desk and grinned wryly. This late at night, it had to be Bukato. No one else worked quite the hours she did, and of those who might work this late, anyone else would go through her appointments yeoman. Now what, she wondered, would Ivan have to discuss with her tonight? Something about Bagration, no doubt. Or perhaps about Tom Theisman's impending arrival to take over the reorganized Capital Fleet.
   She pressed the admittance button, and her eyebrows rose as the door opened. It wasn't Bukato. In fact, it was her junior com officer, a mere citizen lieutenant. Citizen commodores and citizen admirals were a centicredit a dozen around the Octagon. No one paid all that much attention to the gold braid and stars walking past them in the halls, and a lowly citizen lieutenant was literally invisible.
   "Excuse me, Citizen Secretary," the young man said. "I just finished those signals Citizen Commodore Justin gave me this afternoon. I was on my way to his office with them when I realized you were still here, and it occurred to me that you might want to take a look at them before I hand them to his yeoman."
   "Why, thank you, Kevin." McQueen's voice was completely calm, without even a trace of surprise, but her green eyes sharpened as she held out her hand for the citizen lieutenant's memo board. Despite his own conversational tone, the young man's features were drawn for just a moment as their eyes met, and McQueen's breathing faltered for the briefest instant as she saw the flimsy strip of paper he passed her with the board.
   She nodded to him, laid the board on her desk, keyed its display, and bent over it. Had anyone happened to walk into her office at that moment, all they would have seen was the Citizen Secretary of War scanning the message traffic her staffer had brought her. They would never have noticed the strip of paper which slipped from the memo board's touchpad to her blotter and lay hidden beyond the holo of its display. And because they would not have noticed it, they would never have read the brief, terse words it bore.
   "S says EF authorized to move by SJ," it said. Only that much, but Esther McQueen felt as if a pulser dart had just hit her in the belly.
   She'd known it was coming. It had been obvious for months that Saint-Just's suspicion had overcome his belief that they needed her skills, but she'd believed Pierre was wiser than that... at least where the military situation was concerned.
   But maybe I only needed to believe that because I wasn't ready. The thought was unnaturally calm. I needed more time, because we're still not ready. Just a couple of more weeks — a month at the outside — would have done it. But it looks like waiting is a luxury I've just run out of.
   She drew a deep breath as she hit the advance button and her eyes appeared to scan the display. Her free hand gathered up the thin paper, crushing it into a tiny pellet, and she reached up to rub her chin... and popped the pellet into her mouth. She swallowed the evidence and hit the advance button again.
   Thirty percent. That was her current estimate of the chance of success. A one-third chance was hardly something she would willingly have risked her life upon, or asked others to risk their lives on with her, if she'd had an option. But if Saint-Just had authorized Fontein to move, she didn't have an option, and thirty percent was one hell of a lot better than no chance at all. Which was what she'd have if she waited until they pulled the trigger.
   She paged through to the final message in the board, then nodded and held it out to the citizen lieutenant. Incomplete though her plans were, she'd been careful to craft each layer independently of the layers to follow it. And she could activate her entire strategy — such as it was and what there was of it at this stage — with a single com call. She wouldn't even have to say anything, for the combination she would punch into her com differed from Ivan Bukato's voice mail number only in the transposition of two digits. It was a combination she'd never used before and would never use again, but the person at the other end of it would recognize her face. All she had to do was apologize for mistakenly screening a stranger so late at night, and the activation order would be passed.
   "Thank you, Kevin," she said again. "Those all look fine. I'm sure Citizen Commodore Justin will want to look them over as well, of course, but they seem to cover everything I was concerned about. I appreciate it." Her voice was still casual, but the glow in her green eyes was anything but as they met the com officer's squarely.
   "You're welcome, Ma'am," Citizen Lieutenant Kevin Caminetti said, and the younger brother of Oscar Saint-Just's personal secretary tucked the memo board under his arm, saluted sharply, and marched out of Esther McQueen's office.
   Behind him, she reached for her com's touchpad with a rock-steady hand.


   "Excuse me, My Lady," Andrew LaFollet said quietly into Honor's ear.
   She paused in her conversation and gave the Earl of Sydon a small, apologetic smile. Sydon was a jolly, well-fed man some people were foolish enough to take at face value and write off as a gregarious gadfly who regarded his position in the House of Lords as a bothersome inheritance. Honor, however, could taste the emotions of the keen brain behind his perpetually cheerful face and knew better. In fact, he was one of Duke Cromarty's strongest supporters, and while he truly was the bon vivant the rest of the world knew, he was also a very astute politician who found it advantageous to be taken lightly by the Government's opponents. And one who recognized a new duchess who was just as firmly behind the Cromarty Government as he was.
   "Would you pardon me, My Lord?" she asked now, and he chuckled.
   "Your Grace, I've held you in conversation for a full—" he glanced at his chrono "—six minutes and eleven seconds. My social peers are undoubtedly gnashing their teeth already, and it would never do for pure envy to cause any of them to suffer a mischief. By all means, attend to whatever requires your attention."
   "Thank you," she said, and turned her attention to LaFollet.
   "Simon just buzzed me, My Lady," her armsman said, one finger brushing an all but invisible earbug. "PGS says the Queen's air car is about three minutes out."
   Honor looked out over the crowded ballroom of her East Shore mansion. The guest list was smaller than she'd intimated to Admiral Caparelli, but not by an enormous amount. And at the moment, all of her guests — except for the most important one — seemed to be packed into this single room.
   It was the first formal party she'd hosted since her return. She hadn't been able to avoid going to a great many parties thrown by other people, and she'd actually enjoyed a few of them, despite the way they cut into the time available for other things. Like doing her job at ATC, or the Academy, or with Maxwell and the organization of her duchy. Or spending time with her mother before Allison's return to Grayson. Or physical therapy. Or discussing the delivery of her runabout with Silverman & Sons. Or—
   She chopped the mental list short. There'd always been something else she should have been doing, and one or two of the galas to which she'd been dragged had been anything but "gay" for her. She'd been ambushed by newsies at Lady Gifford's ball, and that jackass Jeremiah Crichton, the Palmer Foundation's so-called "military analyst," had caught her at Duke Waltham's and tried very hard to get her to break security about the new LAC wings. He'd actually seemed to believe she enjoyed the way the newsies hung about her like vultures, and he'd looked astounded when she'd expressed her opinion (with rather more precision and vigor than diplomacy) of him, his "analyses," and the batch of intellectually myopic, ideologically blinkered, and ethically crippled mental defectives for whom he produced his carefully tailored version of the war's events rather than taking the opportunity to play the "woman in the know" game. His expression was a memory she would always treasure, but she could hardly say she'd enjoyed the evening.
   Overall, though, she had to admit most of them had been at least endurable, and some had been downright fun. And she knew MacGuiness and, even more, Miranda had been wistfully disappointed by her failure to reciprocate with events of her own. Unlike them, however, Honor had always hated parties, and she hated the sort of cutthroat one-upmanship which seemed to be an inseparable part of the competition among "Society's" leading lights even more. But she knew how much Miranda loved them. Her "maid" actually seemed to enjoy all the drudgery and planning which went into coordinating the insane things, and as the Star Kingdom's newest duchess, she'd known there was no way she could get off without throwing at least one blowout of her own.
   Coward that she was, she'd put it off until just before departing for Grayson... and since Miranda liked organizing the things, she'd gleefully "allowed" her maid and MacGuiness to shoulder the full burden of putting it together. Well, almost the full burden. LaFollet and Simon Mattingly had been responsible for coordinating with the Palace Guard Service and the Queen's Own to insure the security of the evening's most illustrious guest, and Honor had made a point of reviewing their plans in detail.
   "You and I should go meet her," she told LaFollet now, and she and her armsman made their unobtrusive way towards the side exit to the estate's private landing pad.
   Honor was in formal Grayson attire for the evening. The sweeping drape of her gown — not white, this time, but more of an opalescent pearl — and the dark, jewel-toned green of her sueded, vestlike tabard, coupled with her height, made her stand out like a Terran swan amid a flock of gaily plumed, chattering Manticoran near-jays, and Nimitz rode on her right shoulder, radiating an almost palpable aura of complacent contentment. Unlike her, he was as fond of social events as Miranda or MacGuiness at their worst, but Samantha rode on LaFollet's shoulder — logical, since he was going to be anywhere she and Nimitz might go — and Honor tasted the gently mocking amusement flowing from Nimitz's mate. She, it was obvious, came much closer to Honor's view of parties.
   Both 'cats had been on their best behavior all night, however, as had Farragut, who was currently over by the punch bowl with Miranda, and she tasted their shared pleasure at the prospect of seeing Ariel again. Queen Elizabeth's companion was about Samantha's age, and both of Honor's companions had struck up firm friendships with him. That didn't take long among 'cats, and they'd seen rather more of Ariel and Prince Consort Justin's Monroe than most treecats got to, since Honor had been a fairly frequent visitor at Mount Royal Palace while her new peerage and its estates got settled. But they hadn't had the opportunity to visit with him for some months now, and there was more to their anticipation than the simple pleasure of seeing him again.
   Someone else moved steadily through the crowd towards them, and Honor glanced over to note without surprise that Miranda had abandoned the punch bowl to join her Steadholder and her brother.
   "I see someone passed the word to you, too," Honor remarked as the Grayson woman reached them. "Was it your earbug or a certain six-limbed cockleburr?"
   "A bit of both, My Lady," Miranda admitted, then grinned. "But more the cockleburr than the earbug, if the truth be known."
   The 'cat in her arms — she lacked the size and strength to carry a treecat Farragut's size on her shoulder — buzzed a happy purr of agreement, and Samantha bleeked in resigned laughter. Honor had never considered it before, but as she looked at Farragut and compared his attitude and emotions to Nimitz's, she felt a sudden suspicion. Male treecats were much more distinctively marked than females, and they were the ones who performed all the daring, attention-grabbing duties of their clans. Maybe that made it inevitable that they would also be the ones who partied hardest whenever the opportunity came their way? Come to that, just what did 'cats do on social occasions? She had a sudden mental image of Nimitz officiating over a treecat psych-rock concert and felt his laughter shaking his entire body on her shoulder as he shared it with her.
   "Well, we're all here now," she observed, "so let's not keep Her Majesty waiting."
   The three of them slipped through the door, unobtrusively but efficiently guarded by two PGS agents in plainclothes, and out into the cool, breezy night. A strong wind was setting in off the bay, and the distant murmur of surf came clearly from the beaches. A sleek luxury air car whose flowing lines did not conceal its heavy armor from knowing eyes was just settling on the pad, flanked by two stingships in the colors of the Queen's Own. A third stingship hovered silently overhead on its counter-grav, and Honor knew the Landing City Police Department and the Queen's Own, in close cooperation with her own armed-to-the-teeth Harringtons, had established a perimeter around her mansion that a battalion of Marines would have found tough to break.
   There'd been a time when Honor Harrington would have found that ostentatious security mildly amusing, in an overblown, paranoid sort of way. Now she simply looked upon the quiet efficiency and obvious competence of the people guarding her monarch's life and found them good.
   The air car hatch opened, and Elizabeth III stepped out with Ariel. The pad lights illuminated her clearly, and Honor heard Miranda's delighted, appreciative laugh beside her as they both saw Elizabeth's attire. It seemed Honor and her maid were no longer the only traditionally garbed Graysons at the party, and Honor felt herself chuckling evilly as she pictured the effect of Elizabeth's gown on those members of the Star Kingdom's social elite who had lifted their noses at her own failure to don the trousers, tail coat, and ruffled shirt of traditional Manticoran court dress on her visits to Mount Royal. She hadn't refused to wear it because she had any problem with the way it looked. Indeed, its elegantly severe lines would have suited her tall, slim figure far better than it did such plump unfortunates as Earl Sydon or poor Lady Zidaru. Instead, she'd worn Grayson attire as a way to emphasize her dual home worlds, and unlike the sticklers, Elizabeth had understood perfectly.
   And now she'd chosen to attend Honor's party, on the grounds of what was also the Harrington Steading Embassy and hence legally Grayson soil, in Grayson attire herself. Her gown and vest were in the dusky blue and silver of the House of Winton, and very good they looked on her, too, Honor noted approvingly.
   "Honor!" Elizabeth came quickly down the pad steps and held out her hand.
   "Your Majesty," Honor murmured, clasping the hand and dropping a Grayson-style curtsey. Miranda produced a much deeper curtsey beside her, while LaFollet came respectfully to attention, and Elizabeth laughed.
   "Very becoming, Honor, but I trust you'll pardon me if I don't reciprocate? You and Miranda make it look as simple as it is elegant, but I'm not sufficiently accustomed to this particular style of formal dress. I guess it's no wonder I never learned how to produce one though, since I suspect I'd look pretty stupid practicing it in trousers."
   "Trust me, it looks a lot worse than `pretty stupid' in trousers," Honor assured her. "Of course, it looks even worse in a dress until you get the hang of it. Miranda has an unfair advantage, though. She grew up performing that particular unnatural act."
   "Only because no properly raised Grayson girl would be so lost to all propriety as to wear trousers in the first place, My Lady," Miranda said demurely, and Honor and Elizabeth both laughed. Then the Queen turned to Honor and made a small face.
   "I thought right up to the last moment that Justin would be able to come after all, Honor, but one of us simply had to go to that ribbon-cutting on Gryphon, and Roger chose yesterday of all days to come down with the flu!" She rolled her eyes. "You'd think that at his age he'd be past childhood ailments that come out of nowhere, but, no."
   "Actually, Your Majesty," the uniformed Army colonel who'd followed her from the air car murmured, "I suspect that his interest in Ms. Rosenfeld had rather more to do with the way that wicked bug laid him so low. You did notice she turned up speedily at his bedside to hold his hand, make sure he drank plenty of fluids, and put wet compresses tenderly on his brow, didn't you?"
   "Oh, my!" Elizabeth turned to the colonel. "I knew she'd come calling, Ellen. But was she really that gooey about it?"
   "I'm afraid so, Your Majesty." Colonel Ellen Shemais' blue eyes twinkled as she shook her head. "I think they'll probably start getting over the most blatant aspects of it fairly soon, but it looks a great deal like a really severe case of mutual youthful adoration in all it glorious excessiveness."
   "What a wonderful thing to look forward to." Elizabeth sighed. Then she grew more serious. "Do you think it has a real potential to last, Ellen?" The colonel crooked an eyebrow at her, and Elizabeth waved a hand. "Don't look innocent at me, woman! You've headed my personal security force for over thirty years, and you know the members of my family at least as well as I do. Probably better, because you don't suffer from mother's myopia where my offspring are concerned! I know Ariel likes Rivka a lot, but I have to confess I hadn't really been thinking of her as a possible consort for Roger."
   "He — and the Star Kingdom — could do a lot worse, Your Majesty," Shemais said after a moment. "She's a sweet girl, but even though their mutual mush-mindedness is turning her and Roger into unbearable adolescent goo just this moment, she's also level-headed, smart, and self-confident. Her family isn't all that wealthy, but they're well enough off they were able to get her into Queen's College without depending on scholarships, so I doubt she'd be completely overwhelmed by Palace life, either."
   "Wealth is the last thing I'd worry about," Elizabeth said bluntly. "You seem to forget what they called Mother when she married Dad—`the Little Beggar Maid,' remember?" An uncharacteristic edge of bitterness colored the Queen's voice for just a moment, but it vanished almost instantly as she went on. "And Rivka would meet the Constitutional requirement that Roger marry a commoner, too. So perhaps I should be encouraging the match, even if it's a little early for either of them to be making formal commitments. I certainly don't want him to end up like some Heirs who went and fell in love with someone from their own `class' and then had to marry someone else just to satisfy the law! Besides—" she smiled in memory "—I seem to remember someone else who met her future consort on a college campus."
   "Odd you should mention that, Your Majesty," Shemais murmured. "I seem to remember the same thing myself."
   "I thought you might." Elizabeth smiled at her equivalent of Andrew LaFollet for a moment, but then she shook herself and turned back to Honor. "Forgive me, Honor. I'm a guest in your home tonight. I should be concentrating on that instead of running on about domestic concerns."
   "Nonsense," Honor replied firmly. "You should hear some of the conversations I've had with Benjamin and his wives. You know that their next-to-youngest — well, she was still their next-to-youngest when I left Grayson, though I understand Katherine is about to change that — is my goddaughter?"
   "I'd heard," Elizabeth agreed, reaching out to slip a hand into Honor's elbow in a rare display of public intimacy as they walked back along the path towards the mansion. "I've also heard she's a lovely child."
   "She is," Honor admitted with becoming modesty. "In fact, she's not even going to be stuck the way I was with an `ugly duckling' period, thanks to prolong."
   "You too?" Elizabeth laughed delightedly. "Remind me to tell you sometime about the absolute misery I put the Palace PR types through for about fifteen years by insisting they find some camera angle that would keep me from looking like a flat-chested, no hips, androgynous mannikin! I thought I'd never grow a bosom!" She shook her head with another chuckle. "I think I almost drove even Ariel to drink for a while. Fortunately, there was no way he could give me the kind of royal — you should pardon the expression — chewing-out he certainly thought I deserved!"
   The 'cat on her shoulder bleeked an echo of her laughter, and Honor shared it, although there was more than a shadow of remembered misery in her own amusement. But then she stopped in the middle of the path, and Elizabeth paused automatically beside her, looking up at her greater height with a questioning expression.
   "Excuse me, Your Majesty," Honor said in a much more serious voice. "I'd intended to wait, but your comment about Ariel is too perfect an opening to pass up."
   "Opening?" Elizabeth sounded puzzled, and Honor nodded.
   "Nimitz and Samantha have a surprise for you and Ariel, Your Majesty. Something they've been working on with Mac and Miranda and a Doctor Arif for the last few months." The Queen looked completely baffled by this point, and Honor smiled, then turned her head to look up at the 'cat on her shoulder.
   "You had something you wanted to tell Her Majesty, Stinker?" Nimitz bleeked and nodded his head in vigorous agreement. "Well, I'm sure Miranda would be delighted to help you out," Honor told him, and turned to her maid. "Miranda?"
   "Of course, My Lady," Miranda replied, but her eyes were on Nimitz, not Honor, and the 'cat rose higher on Honor's shoulder. Elizabeth followed the direction of Miranda's gaze, and then her own eyes widened as Nimitz's hands began to move.
   He brought his opened right hand, fingers spread, against his chest then raised it, folding its fingers down beside the thumb, drew it down the right side of his head from prick ear to muzzle, and then raised both hands before him and clasped them, right above left.
   "My wife..." Miranda said, her attention fixed on the 'cat.
   Nimitz's right hand moved again, as he extended his index finger and touched it to his chest.
   "... and I..." Miranda said.
   Again the 'cat's hands moved. Both of them opened in front of his body, palms facing him, and he drew them back towards his chest, his fingers closing in a slight grasping motion as they moved.
   "... want..."
   Hands moving again, while Elizabeth Winton's eyes began to blaze in disbelieving wonder. This time the fingers of both hands touched Nimitz's forehead, then swung out and down, opening fully as they reached the bottom of their motion, and the 'cat raised just his right hand to point directly at the Queen.
   "... to teach you..."
   His left hand rose, fingers spread, and his right thumb and index finger touched his left index finger, framing a little triangle like a flag.
   "... and Leaf..."
   Both hands moving again, this time to mime someone catching a ball or some other falling object.
   "... Catcher..."
   Right hand rising, index finger pointing left, and circling before his mouth.
   "... to talk..."
   Both hands moved once more, this time with all their fingers folded but their thumbs extended, right thumb down and left up, while the right circled in a clockwise motion above the left one.
   "... to each other..."
   He raised both hands, index fingers extended and pointing levelly outward before his chest, and brought them together three times.
   "... like..."
   His extended right index finger pointed downward directly in front of his right shoulder and then moved left, across his body, in a slight downward arc.
   "... we..."
   Miranda nodded and drew a deep breath, then looked directly at the Queen and repeated her translation quietly.
   "He said, `My wife and I want to teach you and Leaf Catcher to talk to each other like we do,' Your Majesty."
   Elizabeth's eyes moved slowly from Nimitz to the auburn-haired Grayson, and her own right hand rose, trembling ever so slightly, to touch the motionless 'cat on her shoulder.
   " `Leaf Catcher'?" she said softly, her voice barely audible. "Is that Ariel's true name?"
   "Not exactly, Your Majesty." Honor's voice was almost equally soft. The Queen's eyes moved to her, and she smiled. "We've been having quite a few chats with Nimitz, Samantha, and Farragut over the last few weeks. As nearly as they can explain it, any 'cat who's been adopted has two names: one given by his clan, which is something of a descriptor and often changes several times over his life, and the one his adopted human gives him, which never changes. They seem to regard the naming change as deeply significant, like a formal recognition of the bond, and it's very important to them."
   Elizabeth nodded like a woman in a dream, and her gaze moved back to Nimitz. He'd stopped moving his hands, and his eyes gleamed like emeralds in the backwash of the landing pad lights as he returned her steady regard. Elizabeth stood as still as if she had been struck to stone, and Ariel seemed even more stunned than she was.
   "Honor—" she said at last. But the single word came out low and husky, and she paused to clear her throat. "Honor," she went on in a more normal tone, "do you really mean you've taught Nimitz and Samantha what I think you have?"
   "Actually, Dr. Arif did most of the teaching," Honor admitted. "I've been so busy over at the Academy and at ATC that I simply didn't have the time to do it myself. Assuming this bum wing of mine would have let me do it right anyway." She waved her artificial left arm in a tiny arc. "As a matter of fact, the reason Miranda did the translating just now is that she's put in the hours to master the signs far more completely than I have. Fortunately for Nimitz and me, most of the signs are intuitive enough, and he and I have been together for so long and our bond is so much deeper than most, that I can `read' his signs without actually consciously having learned most of them just by concentrating on what comes with them. But, yes, Your Majesty. Nimitz and Samantha have learned how to sign, and they assure us that they — or at least Samantha, since her `transmitter' still works — will be able to teach any other 'cat how to do it in a matter of hours. In fact, it's going to be us slowpoke humans who really slow the process down."
   "My God," Elizabeth whispered reverently, her brown eyes glowing almost as brightly as Nimitz's had. "You mean that after all these years, Ariel and I will actually be able to talk to each other? And Monroe and Justin?"
   "That's exactly what I mean," Honor said gently. "It's not like Standard English. It's more of a pidgin in a lot of ways, though it looks like the rough edges will rub off as all of us become more fluent with our hands. But I promise you Miranda and Nimitz didn't rehearse their demonstration. What he had to say came at her cold, but as I'm sure you could tell from the translation, it really works."
   "My God." Elizabeth's tears gleamed under the lights. "After four hundred years, you've finally proved once and for all that the 'cats are just as sentient as we are!"
   "This is one thing you are not going to give me credit for, Your Majesty!" Honor said almost fiercely. "All I had to do with it was to be the person whose friend had his mental voice destroyed, whose mother was brilliant enough to come up with the notion, and whose money let her find and hire the equally brilliant linguist who actually made it all work. If you want to go feeling grateful to someone, you feel grateful to my mom and Dr. Arif and leave me out of it!"
   Elizabeth blinked at her vehemence, then gave her a crooked grin.
   "Yes, Ma'am," she murmured demurely, and Honor heard Andrew LaFollet and Ellen Shemais smothering almost identical laughter behind them. "You do realize, however," Elizabeth went on, "that whatever I may do or feel, the newsies are going to smother the 'faxes with headlines like `HARRINGTON MAKES NEW BREAKTHROUGH IN INTERSPECIES COMMUNICATION' or `SALAMANDER STRIKES AGAIN,' don't you?"
   "Oh no they are not," Honor said roundly. "Not this time! And the reason they aren't, Your Majesty, is that in response to the earnest request of one of your loyal subjects, you are going to have Dr. Arif make her announcement from Mount Royal Palace, and Ariel is going to be the one who demonstrates his newfound loquaciousness for the newsies."
   "What?" Elizabeth shook her head quickly. "I couldn't possibly take credit for something like this, Honor! Not when it's going to mean so much to everyone who's been adopted!"
   "You won't. Dr. Arif and my mom will get the credit. I'm sure my name will be tucked away somewhere in the small print of Dr. Arif's first few monographs on the subject, but that will be then, when the initial excitement's worn off. All I want is for you to make the original announcement and buy me the time to get off-world before the newsies hit their stride. And frankly, Your Majesty, this is an excellent opportunity to make a little down payment on that debt you keep insisting the Star Kingdom owes me. I still think you're wrong about that, you understand, but I'm prepared to take shameless advantage of your wrongheadedness in this instance."
   "I see." Elizabeth studied her for a long moment, then smiled slowly. "Well given the size of the stick I've needed to beat you with to make you take anything from me, I don't see how I can possibly refuse if you feel so strongly about it that you're actually eager to call in a marker on it."
   "Good," Honor said firmly, and started back towards the ballroom and her other guests.
   "You know," Elizabeth went on thoughtfully as the two of them walked down the path side by side, "now that I think about it, there's something else I really ought to've done before this. Not for you, precisely, but possibly for Steadholder Harrington and all the other steadholders of Grayson."
   "I beg your pardon?" Honor looked down at her in puzzlement.
   "Grayson has been our most important, most loyal, and most courageous ally since this war began," the Queen said, and there was no laughter at all in her tone this time. "They started with an awful lot less than Erewhon, and frankly, they've accomplished one hell of a lot more. And if, as I confidently expect, we begin getting back reports on the success of Operation Buttercup in the next couple of weeks, we'll owe an enormous amount of that success to Grayson, both for the R&D alleys they helped point us down and for the way their Navy is fighting alongside our own."
   She paused, and Honor nodded.
   "I certainly can't argue with any of that, Your Majesty," she said soberly, unable to hide the pride she felt in her adopted world. "Graysons are a remarkable bunch."
   "They are, indeed," Elizabeth agreed, "and I'd appreciate it if you'd carry a message from me to Protector Benjamin when you return there."
   "A message?"
   "Yes. Please inform the Protector that I would consider it a great honor if he would do me the courtesy of extending an invitation from the Sword of Grayson to the Crown of Manticore for a state visit to his planet."
   Someone — Honor thought it was Colonel Shemais — inhaled audibly behind them, and Honor herself almost stumbled in her surprise. The last state visit by a reigning Manticoran monarch to a foreign planet had been Roger III's visit to San Martin eight T-years before the Peeps took Trevor's Star. The Queen of Manticore was simply too busy, and too important to the Alliance, to go haring off on trips away from the security of her capital and the nerve center of her communications net.
   "Are you certain about that, Your Majesty?" Honor asked. "As Steadholder Harrington, I think it would be a wonderful idea. As Duchess Harrington, I have to wonder if you ought to be off Manticore that long. The voyage time alone will run to over a standard week for the round trip. And Grayson will go berserk over a visit from you. I'll be astonished it they're willing to turn you loose in less than another couple of weeks, so you're looking at at least the better part of a standard month away from the capital just when we'll all be finding out whether or not Admiral White Haven and Alice Truman can maintain their momentum after Buttercup's initial strikes."
   "I'm aware of all that," Elizabeth replied. "But I think the timing makes this an even better idea, not a worse one. What I'd really like is to come after the Conclave of Steadholders convenes. It would be logical for me to visit while the Keys are in session, and having me there, where Benjamin and I can issue joint communiques as reports of additional victories come in from Eighth Fleet, would let us wring the most PR mileage possible out of them. Having me on Grayson to issue those communiques would also let me personally and directly demonstrate the Star Kingdom's deep gratitude to our Grayson allies. For that matter, the indication of confidence — the fact that I'm willing to be away from Manticore during such crucial military operations — would be very reassuring to our own public opinion and all our allies." She shook her head. "No, Honor. If Benjamin will go along, I think this may be the best possible time to schedule something like this. Besides, I'd really like to meet him in person, and if I bring Allen and Uncle Anson along, we could deal with several pressing intergovernmental matters face-to-face and probably settle all of them in a fraction of the time we'd need to do the same thing through normal channels."
   "If you're sure it's what you want, I'd be delighted to carry the message."
   "Good." Elizabeth tucked her hand back into her hostess' elbow and kicked one leg to make her skirt swirl. "And now that we have that unimportant little detail settled, Duchess Harrington, let's you and I — and Miranda, of course — go show these Manticoran stuck-in-the-mud snobs what the true fashion-conscious are wearing this season!"


   "Stand by for translation... now."
   Captain (Junior Grade) Jonathan Yerensky announced the return to normal-space, and Hamish Alexander grimaced as the familiar discomfort and disorientation lashed through him. That was one nice thing about being a senior admiral, he thought. By the time you acquired as much rank as he had, you no longer had to worry about impressing uppity juniors with your stoicism. If crossing the alpha wall made you feel like throwing up, you could go ahead and admit it... and nobody dared laugh.
   He grinned at the reflection, but his eyes were already flicking over his repeater plot on Benjamin the Great's flag deck. At the moment, CIC was feeding him a schematic of the entire star system. Which didn't tell him a thing, of course. As soon as the scanner crews had anything besides stock projections of the system's astrography to show him, CIC would throw it on his plot.
   He listened to a murmured litany of background reports without really hearing them. His staff had been with him for over three T-years. They might have spent all too much of that time floating in orbit around Trevor's Star, but it had given them plenty of time to train in exercises and sims. By now, they knew exactly what he needed to know immediately and what he expected them to handle on their own, and he knew he could rely on them to do just that.
   Which freed Hamish Alexander to study his bland, uninformative plot and worry.
   Well, uninformative from the enemy's side, he amended, for quite a few Allied icons burned on the display. First, there were the seventy-three superdreadnoughts and eleven dreadnoughts of his wall of battle. Then there were the traditional screening elements, already spreading out to assume missile defense positions. And last, there were the seventeen CLACs of Alice Truman's task group and their escorts — battlecruisers and heavy cruisers, with four attached dreadnoughts to give them a little extra weight — astern of the main formation. A blizzard of diamond chips erupted outward from the CLACs as he watched, and he smiled grimly as they began to shake down into formation even as they accelerated ahead of the main body. CIC had a tight lock on them when they launched, but their EW was already on-line, and within minutes even Benjamin the Great's sensors began to lose them.
   A second blizzard, almost as dense, sped outward at accelerations even a LAC could never hope to match, and White Haven tipped back his command chair as the FTL-capable recon drones darted in-system.
   I actually feel almost as calm as I'm trying to look, he reflected with some surprise. Of course, that's because I can be reasonably confident the Peeps don't have a clue as to what's coming at them. Whether or not that will be true — and whether or not it will matter if it isn't — the next time around are two different questions, of course.
   He watched the drones speeding steadily inward, and he smiled.
* * *
   Citizen Admiral Alec Dimitri and Citizen Commissioner Sandra Connors were in DuQuesne Base's war room for a routine briefing when an alarm buzzed. The tall, stocky citizen admiral turned quickly, trained eyes seeking the status board, and Citizen Commissioner Connors turned almost as quickly. Neither she nor Dimitri had ever expected in their worst nightmares that they would suddenly find themselves responsible for the Barnett System, but they'd served as understudies to Thomas Theisman and Denis LePic for the better part of four T-years. Both were serious about their duty, and even if they hadn't been, Theisman and LePic would have made damned sure the two of them were intimately familiar with the system and its defenses. As a result, Connors' eyes were only fractionally slower than Dimitri's in finding the fresh datum on the big board, and her frown mirrored his own.
   "Twenty-two light-minutes from the primary?" she murmured, and Dimitri turned his head to give her a tight smile.
   "It does seem a bit... overly cautious of them. Especially on that broad a bearing from Enki," he agreed, and wondered what the hell the Manties thought they were up to. Barnett was only a G9 star, with a hyper limit of just a hair over eighteen light-minutes, so why were they turning up a full four light-minutes further out than they had to? And on a bearing from the primary which added yet four more unnecessary light-minutes to their distance from their only possible objective?
   The citizen admiral clamped his hands behind him and took a slow, deliberate turn around the command balcony above the enormous war room. His outermost sensor shell was seventeen light-minutes from the primary, safely within the hyper limit to at least make hit-and-run raids on it difficult, but far enough out from the gravitational center of Barnett to give the enormous passive arrays a reach of almost two and a half light-weeks, over which they could expect to pick up the hyper transit of anything much bigger than a courier boat. That range put them nine light-minutes outside the planet Enki, and the actual range to the platform closest to the Manties was about thirteen light-minutes. Which meant it would be another — he checked the time — ten minutes and twenty-six seconds before he got a light-speed report from the sensors with the best look at whatever was coming at him. On the other hand, the inner-system arrays had more than enough reach to at least detect such a massive hyper translation. They'd picked up the faster-than-light ripple along the alpha wall as the Manties made transit, and they were picking up a confused clutch of impeller drive signatures now. But they were much too far away to see anything else, which meant Tracking's reports were going to be maddeningly vague until the Manties were a lot deeper in-system. Unfortunately, Tracking had already picked up enough for Dimitri to feel certain the enemy would be coming in a lot deeper. The estimate blinking on the main board said there were over seventy of the wall headed for Enki, and that was no raiding force.