"We were shocked to hear about what happened, Sir," LePic began. "Of course, we'd heard rumors about McQueen's ambitions, but we never dreamed she might try something like that!"
   "To be honest, I didn't expect it either," Saint-Just said, and to Theisman's surprise, he seemed sincere, even a little bewildered. "Not out of the blue like this. I didn't trust her, of course. Never did. But we needed her abilities, and she'd turned the entire military situation around. Under the circumstances, I was prepared to take a few routine precautions, but neither the Citizen Chairman nor I had any intention of moving against her without much better cause than reports about her `ambition,' and I was certain she knew it. It's obvious now, of course, that she was plotting all along. Incomplete as her plans clearly were, she still came within millimeters of success. In fact, if Rob hadn't been killed, I don't know if I could have—"
   He stopped and waved a hand, looking away from the other two men, and Theisman felt a fresh stab of surprise, this time at Saint-Just's obvious pain over Pierre's death. Thomas Theisman had been prepared to grant the commander of State Security many qualities; the capacity for close personal friendship had not been one of them.
   "At any rate," Saint-Just went on after a moment, "she did act. We may never know what pushed her into it. I think it's pretty evident she wasn't ready yet, and that's certainly just as well. If she had been completely ready, I'd probably have been killed or captured just like Rob, and then she undoubtedly would have won. As it is..."
   He shrugged, and LePic nodded.
   "Which brings us to the reason I wanted to see you two," the man who was now the dictator of the People's Republic said more briskly, and the look he directed at Theisman was not a particularly encouraging one. "You both know McQueen had agreed to bring you two in to take over Capital Fleet. What you may not realize is that she did so only at my request and strong urging."
   Theisman felt his eyebrows rise, and Saint-Just snorted.
   "Don't think it was because I believe you're a fervent supporter of the New Order, Citizen Admiral," he said bluntly. "I don't. Nor do I think you're another McQueen, however. If I thought you had the same ambition, you wouldn't be sitting in this office; you'd be dead. What I think you are, is a professional officer who's never learned to play the political game. I don't think you loved the Committee, and I don't really care as long as you settle for being loyal to the government and to the Republic. Can you do that?"
   "I believe I can, Sir. Yes," Theisman said. Or at least half of it, anyway. I'm loyal to the Republic, all right.
   "I hope you can," Saint-Just's voice was bleak, "because I need you. And because I will not hesitate to have you shot if I come to suspect you are disloyal, Citizen Admiral." Theisman looked into the emotionless eyes and shivered. "If that sounds like a threat, I suppose it is, but there's nothing personal in it. I simply can't afford to take any more chances, and McQueen's conspiracy was built in the military. Obviously I'm going to be keeping an even closer eye on the officer corps of the Navy and the Marines."
   "Obviously," Theisman agreed, and saw what might have been a flash of approval flicker across Saint-Just's face. "I can't say I'm happy about the effect it will no doubt have on military efficiency, but frankly, Sir, I'd be astonished if you felt any other way. I certainly wouldn't in your place."
   "I'm glad you can understand that. It gives me some hope for our ability to work together. However, I also hope you understand why, under the circumstances, I do not intend to give any officer of the regular military the power to emulate McQueen. I intend to retain the office of the Secretary of War myself, along with StateSec and the chairmanship of the Committee. Lord knows I never wanted the top slot, mostly because I saw what it cost the people who had it, but it's mine now, and I'll do the job, finish what Rob started, however long it takes.
   "But what you have to understand right now is that the Octagon is gone, and so are two-thirds of the planning staffs, virtually all of its central records, and a huge chunk of the senior officers of the Navy. More of them were killed in the fighting even before that, several of them because they sided with McQueen. It's fortunate the Manties are on the run right now, and that Operation Bagration should keep them that way, because our command structure has been pretty well pulverized, and I don't dare rebuild it out of regulars until I've had time to be absolutely certain of their loyalties. I tell you this not because I'm certain of your loyalty, but so you'll understand what's happening and why."
   He paused until Theisman nodded, then went on.
   "As I say, I will retain the office of Secretary of War. I will also be creating a new general staff whose members will be drawn primarily from State Security. I realize they have only limited combat experience. Unfortunately, they're the only people whose loyalty I know I can trust, and that's going to have to be the overriding consideration, at least until we're sure the Manties have been whipped.
   "But I'm not foolish enough to believe I can find fleet commanders among my SS officers. We saw entirely too much of how expensive `on-the-job training' in that slot can be in the first year or so of the war. So instead, I'll have to rely on regulars, like yourself, for that job, but with their people's commissioners' `pre-McQueen' powers restored and, probably, augmented. As you implied, it may cost us something in military efficiency, but I'm afraid I have no choice.
   "And of all the fleet commands, the one most critical to the security of the state is Capital Fleet, which brings me back to you and Citizen Commissioner LePic. Your first job will be to restore some semblance of order and morale. There's a great deal of resentment over the destruction of Sovereignty of the People and Equality. Understandable, I suppose, but something which has to go. And the fleet has to get itself back into shape to properly acknowledge and carry out orders which come down the chain of command — the new chain of command — from me. In addition, Capital Fleet has to be prepared for the possibility that McQueen may also have suborned fleet or task force commanders outside the Haven System. Commanders who may be headed here at this very moment with some or all of their commands to support her. That would be foolish of them, but that doesn't mean it won't happen, and I need a Capital Fleet which can deal with any such renegades. In short, it will be up to you to transform Capital Fleet from a force which is currently in a state of confusion and disarray into a disciplined fleet which will become the key to maintaining the state and its stability rather than a threat to the state. Do you understand that, Citizen Admiral?"
   "I do, Sir," Theisman said firmly, for once in complete agreement with Saint-Just.
   "And can you do it?" the new Chairman of the Committee pressed.
   "Yes, Sir," Theisman told him flatly. "I think— No, I know I can turn Capital Fleet back into something that will protect the Republic... with your support, of course."
* * *
   The sun had long-since set when Osar Saint-Just signed the last of the endless stack of official documents, a quarter of them death warrants, which had streamed across his desk with dreary persistence every day since the chaos and terror of McQueen's failed coup. He tilted his chair back and rested his head on the contoured head rest while he pinched the bridge of his nose wearily.
   I told Rob I never wanted his job. Now I've got it, and I think I'll probably die of terminal writer's cramp. His mouth twitched slightly at the thought. Wry and bitter as it was, it was also almost the first humorous thought he'd had since the Octagon vanished in a mushroom of light and fury.
   He'd hated that. But as he'd told Theisman and LePic, he'd done what he had to, unflinchingly, just as he would continue to do. He had no choice, for he was all that was left of the Committee. He had no assistants, no colleagues or backups, no one to whom he could truly delegate authority or whom he could rely upon to watch his back, and his legitimacy was very much in question. Blowing up the Octagon had also blown up his fellow Committee members, and he doubted anyone would fail to note that and wonder if he hadn't, perhaps, destroyed the Octagon as much to clear his own path to supreme power as to crush McQueen's revolt. That meant no one was going to feel any moral qualms about going after him. And the Navy — the damned Navy — was the biggest threat of all. It was organized, armed, and everywhere, and its officers could no doubt convince themselves they were the true guardians of the state... whose duty included guarding it against someone who'd blown up his only competition in order to seize control of it. Crank Amos Parnell's version of the Harris Assassination into that, and then add in the popularity McQueen had amassed as the brains behind Operation Icarus, Operation Scylla, and Operation Bagration, when it finally went in, and the Navy was probably considerably more dangerous to him right this minute than the Manties were.
   His thoughts went back to Theisman and LePic. He'd handpicked the citizen admiral for his slot... but that was before McQueen had been seized by whatever mad impulse had driven her to act so precipitously. As things stood, Theisman might or might not be reliable, and it would be up to LePic to keep an eagle eye on him. LePic's record was exemplary, and Saint-Just felt confident he'd be just as prepared and vigilant as he could, yet the StateSec CO couldn't help wishing Erasmus Fontein had survived McQueen's putsch. He didn't know if McQueen had killed Erasmus, or if the citizen commissioner had simply been taken prisoner and died when Saint-Just blew up the Octagon, but it didn't really matter. What mattered was that Saint-Just badly missed his expertise and knowing, trained military eye.
   Saint-Just had even considered calling Eloise Pritchart home to ride herd on Theisman, but in the end he'd decided he couldn't risk it. Critical as Capital Fleet was, Twelfth Fleet was just as important, at least immediately. Saint-Just was confident he and State Security could defuse the internal threat the Navy presented, but to do it, he needed the war ended. Giscard, Tourville, and their staffs would have to go as soon as the shooting ended, of course. It could be no other way, given their probable loyalty to McQueen. But he couldn't do that until after Bagration, and that meant he couldn't recall Pritchart to the capital. Not when he needed her right where she was. For that matter, as much as he knew he was going to miss Erasmus, he had to keep reminding himself Capital Fleet was right here, less than an hour away from his own office, where he could get at it quickly in an emergency. If LePic needed it, he had the full, massive weight of State Security to call upon, and Theisman appeared sufficiently cowed.
   No, not "cowed," Saint-Just admitted. The man's got too much nerve to be "cowed." But he does know where the line is... and that I won't hesitate to shoot him if he steps even a toe across it. And I believe him when he says he's loyal to the Republic, just as I believe LePic's assessment that the man doesn't want political power. Under the circumstances, that's the best deal I'm going to get.
   His mouth twitched in another almost-grin, and he folded both hands in his lap while he rocked the chair ever so gently back and forth.
   He'd done about all he could, he decided. Ideal or not, Theisman was still the best choice for his job, and Eloise would keep an eye on Giscard. And while they did that, the StateSec officers who were taking over for McQueen and her cronies would build a new staff system, one which Saint-Just would know was loyal to him.
   In the meantime, other StateSec officers had imposed martial law and clamped down on the capital system like steel. As quickly as possible, he would extend that same clampdown to all of the Republic's other core systems. And while all that was going on, he would end this damned war and find the time he needed to deal with the looming menace of the Navy. It was probable Bagration would do the job, exactly as he'd told McQueen it would. But he had more than one string to his bow, and he showed the very tips of his teeth in a feral smile. The first thing he'd done after the destruction of the Octagon, even before he'd sent dispatch boats to the other core systems to warn their StateSec garrisons, was to dispatch other couriers with orders to activate Operation Hassan. Slight as its chance of success might be, Hassan had just become even more important. If he could spread a little of the same internal disruption he had to deal with across the Allied camp, it ought to have a major beneficial impact on the course of the war.
   And if Hassan failed, he lost nothing at all that mattered.


   A fresh shout of laughter echoed from the lawn. Honor turned her head, eyes seeking the source, and grinned broadly as she watched Rachel Mayhew leap into the air for a spectacular catch. She came back down with the Frisbee firmly clutched in both hands, and Nimitz and Hipper both jumped up and down on their rear limbs, true-hands spread as they bleeked at her. She cocked her head at them, then stuck out her tongue — at Hipper, Honor thought, though it was hard to be certain — and flipped a graceful backhand throw to Samantha. Nimitz's mate pounced on the hurtling disk with both true-hands and hand-feet. She came down with the Frisbee and looked up as Artemis and Farragut charged at her, trailed by Jason and Achilles. Her sons bleeked joyfully as they hurtled forward — keep-away was a contact sport among treecats — but Samantha avoided Artemis, leapt clear over Farragut's head, and flipped the Frisbee to Rachel's sister Jeanette just before Jason and Achilles swarmed over her.
   The Frisbee sailed straight for Jeanette, but in the instant before her fingers closed on it a cream-and-gray blur shot across in front of her. Togo snatched the Frisbee out of her hands and dashed off, bleeking in triumph, with six children (two human and four treecat) and three adult treecats in hot pursuit. Shrieks of human delight mingled with ringing bleeks of 'cat laughter, and Honor heard a chuckle from one of her guests.
   She turned back from the lawn to see Benjamin Mayhew shaking his head at her.
   "This is all your fault, you know," he said, twitching a nod at the pandemonium rolling over the Harrington House lawn and generally wreaking havoc on the flower beds.
   "Why? For bringing the 'cats home with me?"
   "That, certainly. But that damned Frisbee is almost as bad," Mayhew growled. "Not just with the girls, either. The things are taking over the entire planet. It's more than a man's life is worth to wander through Austin Central Park after school these days!"
   "Blame that on Nimitz, not me! He's the Frisbee freak."
   "Oh? Then who was it I saw romping around teaching Rachel, Jeanette, Theresa, and Honor how to throw the thing? Just before you returned to Manticore, I believe it was. A one-armed woman... rather tall, as I recall. And this year she got back just in time for Christmas and gave each of them a Frisbee of their very own!"
   "I have no idea who you could possibly be referring to," Honor said with dignity. "You're probably mistaken anyway, now that I think about it. To the best of my knowledge, there aren't any tall Grayson women."
   "I can think of at least one, and she's been a troublemaker from Day One. This—" the Protector nodded at the lawn again, as his two older daughters finally cornered Togo, only to see him flip the Frisbee neatly to Farragut the instant before they reached him "—would give any number of conservatives apoplexy. Why, if Lord Mueller were here, sheer outrage would undoubtedly carry him off to an early grave," he added, and several of Honor's other guests chuckled.
   "All very well for you shameless infidels," Benjamin told them. "I, on the other hand, as Lord Mueller's Protector and liege lord, am constrained by duty and tradition to regret his possibly impending demise. Unfortunately."
   His voice lost much of its humor on the last word, and Honor saw one or two faces grimace. Not that she blamed them, she thought, looking back out across the lawn. Katherine and Elaine Mayhew sat at a shaded table, Katherine nursing the first Mayhew son, Bernard Raoul (who had finally supplanted Benjamin's brother Michael — much to Michael's relief — as heir to the Protectorship), while Elaine read aloud to Honor and Alexandra Mayhew. At twenty-one months, Alexandra was perfectly happy to lie in her traveling cradle and listen to her mothers' voices, but Honor's goddaughter had recently celebrated her seventh birthday, and she obviously would have preferred being out with the Frisbee gang. Unfortunately, she was following in her oldest sister's tracks, and the sling on her right arm had her firmly sidelined. It was a clean break, and youthful resilience and quick heal would have the cast off in another week or so, but Grayson's conservatives had been appalled to learn that the Protector's youngest daughter had broken her arm climbing the tallest tree on the grounds of Protector's Palace.
   Yet another dreadful lapse to write off to my "evil influence," she thought dryly, recalling how hard and skillfully Mueller had worked at making that point without ever coming out and saying it in so many words. She frowned slightly at the reflection, and bent a thoughtful eye on Benjamin. She could taste something going on in his mind whenever Mueller's name came up. Something more serious and considerably darker than his normal way of speaking about the conservative steadholder might suggest. But whatever it was, he was determined not to discuss it. Or, to be more precise, he was determined not to discuss it with her, and she couldn't help wondering why that was.
   "We may be shameless infidels, Sir, but we've seen enough of Grayson to know Mueller doesn't speak for most of your people," Rear Admiral Harriet Benson-Dessouix, Grayson Space Navy, said, and heads nodded around the table on the terrace.
   "Not for most of us, no," Benjamin agreed. "But for an unfortunately significant number of us, judging from the polls."
   "If you'll pardon an `infidel's' input, Your Grace, I think it would be a mistake to place much emphasis on those polls," Vice Admiral Alfredo Yu said. The ex-Peep who'd been Honor's first flag captain was now the second-in-command of the Protector's Own. Since Honor was its official CO, that made him the Protector's Own's de facto commander, and it was shaping up to be an even more important post than she'd originally anticipated. In addition to the ships of the Elysian Space Navy, Benjamin and Wesley Matthews had earmarked an entire squadron of the new SD(P)s for Yu's command. The first three had already run acceptance trials and were working up at this very moment, with two more due to be released by the yard for trials within the next week or so, and the "appropriate screening elements" Mayhew and Matthews had discussed were beginning to assemble. Not only that, but the first two CLACs were also on order from the Star Kingdom's home yards.
   "I don't know, Alfredo," Commodore Cynthia Gonsalves put in. "It looks like the Opposition's going to improve its representation in the Steaders by — what? I think I saw twelve seats being discussed in the 'faxes last week."
   "Fourteen, by the latest estimate," Captain Warner Caslet corrected. "I think that's probably high, though. It came from Wednesday's Cantor poll, and Cantor's in Mueller's pocket, whether they want to admit it or not. They've been pretty damned optimistic — if that's the right word — about the Opposition's chances all along."
   "A lot more optimistic than the numbers will support, if you ask me," Captain Susan Phillips snorted. "Personally, I think they've got orders from someone to keep the numbers favorable, too. I just haven't figured out whether they're trying to encourage their supporters or dis courage their opponents into staying home on voting day."
   "You people seem to be paying awful close attention to local politics," Benjamin commented, regarding the assembled officers thoughtfully, and Yu shrugged.
   "Most of us either watched our home worlds' governments go down in flames or grew up watching Dolist managers and Legislaturalists deliver completely predictable `honest votes,' Your Grace. Either of those experiences gives you a lively interest in the political process. Those of us whose native countries no longer exist are determined not to see it happen all over again, and those of us who grew up in the PRH are possibly even more fiercely attached to genuine free speech and free elections than they are."
   "Then it's unfortunate most of you aren't eligible to vote yet," Mayhew said, "because that's exactly the sort of attitude which preserves freedom in the first place." His sincerity was obvious, and he smiled. "Which makes me look forward to the day all of you, and not just Admiral Yu, do have the franchise here on Grayson."
   "Hey! I've got the vote here," Honor protested.
   "True," Mayhew agreed. "But everyone knows that `that Foreign Woman' is so firmly in my pocket — or that I'm in hers, depending on their prejudices — that you have absolutely no interest in genuine debate on the merits of my reforms. So the people who agree with you already listen to what you say, and the ones who support Mueller simply tune you out. Or, worse, listen selectively and edit anything you say to suit their bigotry."
   He said it lightly, but there was a bitter aftertaste to his emotions, and Honor quirked an eyebrow. The bitterness was sharpened and intensified by whatever he was determined not to discuss with her, but she was unaccustomed to feeling such tension from him.
   "Are you really anticipating serious losses in the Steaders?" she asked quietly, and he shrugged.
   "I don't know. Some losses, certainly. And possibly more than just `some' if the present trends continue."
   "I don't believe they will, Sir," Yu said, and snorted a laugh when Benjamin looked at him inquiringly. "What you're seeing in the polls right now isn't a genuine, fundamental shift in public attitudes, Your Grace. It's the result of the Opposition's media blitz, and they can't go on spending money hand-over-fist that way forever."
   Honor's eyes narrowed at the sudden, savage spike of rage which blazed through Mayhew at Yu's last sentence. The rage wasn't aimed at the vice admiral, and Benjamin suppressed it almost instantly, but she felt it resonating with whatever it was he wasn't going to mention. And the more she tasted it, the more she realized it was something he was specifically avoiding mentioning to her, not to the other members of his inner circle. Now that she thought about it, she'd tasted an echo of something very similar from her mother whenever someone mentioned Mueller.
   She felt Andrew LaFollet behind her, standing at the edge of the terrace with Major Rice, and made a mental note. If anyone could figure out the reason both her mother and the Protector of Grayson had decided not to tell her something, Andrew could, and it was time she sicced him on the problem. Particularly since she was picking up a strong flavor of "for her own good" from Benjamin. It was almost as if the Protector were afraid she might do something... hasty if he shared whatever it was with her.
   "I hope you're right about that, Admiral. I suppose even the Opposition's pockets have to have bottoms somewhere," Mayhew said a trifle sourly to Yu.
   "I think Admiral Yu is probably right, Sir," Brigadier Henri Benson-Dessouix put in. "And I know Harry is." As always, he sat beside his wife, and his arm went around her as he spoke. "The people who tend to be the most conservative are the ones with the most to lose if the system changes, and if they're well enough off to worry about what you may lose, they're also well enough off to contribute to political campaigns. But there are limits to how much they're willing to cough up. I don't believe Mueller can maintain this level of spending indefinitely, and even if he can, the surge he's generating in the poll numbers is probably deceptive. As the elections get closer, I expect a lot of the Opposition's present apparent strength to fade in the stretch."
   Honor nodded, but she was hard put to hide a smile. The speech impediment from which Harriet and Henri had suffered on Hell had completely disappeared as the result of the medical treatment Fritz Montoya had started and the Harrington Neurological Clinic had completed. Both of them had been delighted to regain clarity of speech, but it had taken longer for Henri. He'd made up for it since by turning downright loquacious, which was a bit difficult for Honor's mental image of him to adjust to. He'd seldom spoken at all back on Hell, and she'd been away from Grayson while that was changing.
   Which didn't invalidate a thing he'd just said.
   "I think Henri is right, Benjamin," she said now, "and especially with the way the war is turning around. I don't think Mueller can be a very happy man right now. Just when the poll numbers show he's making ground in the Steaders, Operation Buttercup starts undercutting one of the Opposition's cental themes. He's going to find it awful hard to keep carrying on about `tying our incomparable Navy to the leading strings of incompetent foreign admiralties' now that Eighth Fleet's blown Barnett to dust bunnies."
   "What in the world makes you think that, Honor?" Benjamin demanded, only half humorously. "As you just more or less said yourself, the man's already been able to refer to `our incomparable Navy' with an absolutely straight face, as if we'd built the tech base or trained enough officers to support that `incomparable' fleet solely out of our own resources. Which," he added with a wry glance around the table, "present company would seem to indicate wasn't quite the case."
   Since he was the only native-born Grayson, aside from LaFollet and Rice, on the terrace at that particular moment, Honor had to concede his point.
   "But that kind of ignore-the-facts approach works best when you're talking to people who already agree with you and choose to wear the same sort of blinkers," Rear Admiral Mercedes Brigham pointed out.
   "Absolutely," Caslet agreed. "The people he actually needs to convince are going to be a lot more skeptical than his true-believers, Your Grace."
   "Please, Captain Caslet!" Benjamin said with another chuckle. "Here on Grayson, we reserve that particular term for those idiots on Masada! Our own intolerant, bigoted, unthinking, doctrinaire reactionaries are properly referred to as `conservative thinkers.' "
   "Sorry, Your Grace." Caslet smiled. "I suppose that's one of those fine cultural distinctions we outsiders have trouble picking up on."
   "Don't feel bad, Captain. It's one most of us who aren't intolerant reactionaries would love to get rid of."
   "Seriously, Sir, you may just have a chance for that," Henri put in. "It's clear from what happened at Barnett that Buttercup took the Peeps completely by surprise. And the new systems were more effective than I think anyone could have predicted. I certainly didn't expect them to prove that decisive, but then, the information most of us had on the systems was pretty limited before the offensive kicked off."
   "Speak for yourself, baudet," Harriet told him. "You Marine types had no need to know about Ghost Rider. For that matter, it's hard to think of a Marine having any real need to know about anything more complicated than a club, conservative dirt-pounders that you are. We naval officers, on the other hand, were thoroughly briefed on Ghost Rider, and we had a pretty fair background on the new LACs, as well."
   " `More complicated than a club,' is it?" Henri murmured, cocking his head at his tall, blond wife. "Perhaps when we get home, my uncomplicated club and I will have something to say about your disrespectful attitude."
   "You think so, do you?" Harriet smiled sweetly. "In that case, I think it would be wise of you to tell the Protector where you'd like to be buried before we leave, dear."
   "Leaving aside threats of domestic violence," Yu said, "I think Henri is right, Your Grace. I don't want to sound too optimistic — the last thing any of us need is to fall prey to overconfidence — but I genuinely believe the new LACs and missiles are going to win this war outright. And probably a lot sooner than anyone on either side would have believed possible. And if that happens, Mueller's going to look pretty damned stupid if he goes on insisting that joining the Alliance was a serious mistake for Grayson."
   "Perhaps," Mayhew agreed. "On the other hand, it's part of my job to worry about what happens after the war, assuming you're right and we win the thing. It's clear that the need to face a common foe and build up our own military capabilities in concert with the rest of the Alliance has been a factor in the willingness of at least some Graysons to go along with the reform programs. They may not have liked the domestic changes, but they weren't prepared to rock the boat in the middle of a war. So if the pressure of fighting the war comes off, what happens to their support?"
   "You'll probably lose some of your majority in the Steaders, and I imagine Chancellor Prestwick will suffer the defection of at least a few of the Keys, as well," Honor acknowledged. "But I doubt very much that you'll lose enough to turn the clock back, or even to slow the rate of change very much. And I think there's more domestic support for the `special relationship' between Grayson and the Star Kingdom than Mueller realizes. Look how enthusiastically most Graysons seem to be responding to the announcement of the Queen's state visit!"
   "Yes, that was encouraging, wasn't it?" Mayhew brightened. "I think it was a wonderful idea on Elizabeth's part, and Henry is eager for the opportunity to sit down at the same table as Duke Cromarty. We got a tremendous amount accomplished when Lord Alexander was here three years ago, and Henry's staff is licking its chops at the prospect of a visit from the Prime Minister himself."
   "I'm glad," Honor said. "That's exactly what she had in mind, and the timing looks even better in light of Buttercup's initial successes. In fact, I think—"
   "I think that's entirely enough shop talk," another voice interrupted, and Honor turned with a smile as Allison Harrington stepped onto the terrace, followed by Miranda and Jennifer LaFollet. "This is supposed to be a social occasion," Allison went on severely. "I had my doubts when you explained you intended to invite this lot," she flipped a hand at the senior officers of the Protector's Own, "but I thought, no, she's a responsible adult. She knows better than to sit out on the terrace all afternoon talking shop with her cronies while her other guests languish unnoticed and unappreciated."
   "You really shouldn't refer to the Protector as my `crony,' Mother. Just think what would happen if some spy from the Opposition overheard you."
   "Ha! Opposition spies would have to get past a whole horde of treecats, not to mention a battalion of security types. Not that it isn't just like you to come up with specious arguments in an effort to avoid my righteous wrath!"
   "I'm not avoiding anything," Honor said with dignity. "I'm simply raising a completely valid point."
   "That's your story, and you're sticking to it, I suppose," her mother said, then folded her arms. "In the meantime, however, Mac sent us out to tell you Mistress Thorn is going to start wreaking havoc if her lunch is allowed to get cold. Worse, she says she won't make you any more fudge — or cookies — this week if you let it happen."
   "Well, goodness, Mother! Why didn't you say that to start with?" Honor rose and turned to her guests with a twinkle. "On your feet, people! That's one ultimatum I have no intention of rejecting!"


   "Mr. Baird."
   Lord Mueller's voice was a bit cooler than usual as Buckeridge showed Baird and Kennedy into the office. It had been his own idea to establish closer communications with Baird and, for the most part, it had worked out quite well. But this time Baird had insisted Mueller see him, and the steadholder hadn't cared for that. Helpful as Baird and his organization had been, Samuel Mueller was still a steadholder, and no common steader had any business issuing demands to him, however politely phrased.
   "My Lord. Thank you for agreeing to see us on such short notice. I realize it must have been inconvenient, but I'm afraid it's quite important," Baird said.
   Mueller nodded curtly, but he felt a flicker of wariness. The man's words were polite enough, but something about his tone bothered the steadholder. It held an... assertiveness that rang faint warning bells in the back of Mueller's brain, and he suddenly found himself missing Sergeant Hughes even more than usual.
   Hughes' murder had shaken the entire Mueller Guard. His fellow armsmen had taken a grim pride in the fact that he'd managed to kill three of his assailants, even though it was obvious he'd been completely surprised by the attack. But no one had the least idea what had prompted his murder. Officially, it had been written off as a botched robbery attempt, although no one really believed that for a moment. There was little random street crime on Grayson, and no street thug in his right mind would choose to rob an armed, trained armsman when there had to be less dangerous prey available.
   Unfortunately, no one had been able to come up with any other explanation. Mueller's own suspicion was that Hughes had inadvertently discovered something and been killed before he could act on it or warn Mueller and his superiors. The steadholder knew he was probably overly suspicious. That, after all, was an occupational hazard of conspirators the galaxy over. But still...
   "What can I do for you, Mr. Baird?" he asked after a moment, his tone a bit less brusque and a little more wary, and glanced at Corporal Higgins. He'd chosen Higgins to replace Hughes at these meetings because of the corporal's doglike loyalty, but he suddenly found himself wishing he'd selected someone a bit brighter. Not that he really expected any sort of physical threat to suddenly emerge, but because...
   He didn't really know why, he admitted after a moment. It was pure instinct, and he tried, without success, to command his instincts to leave him the hell alone.
   "My organization has become increasingly concerned by our inability to secure the proof we need of the Protector's plans to request annexation by the Manticorans," Baird said, apparently unaware of any uneasiness on Mueller's part.
   "Perhaps that's because there isn't any proof," the steadholder pointed out. "My people have been looking just as hard as yours, and we haven't found a thing. While I certainly wouldn't put such a plan past Prestwick and Benjamin, it may be that in this case our suspicions are misplaced."
   "We don't think so, My Lord," Baird said, flatly enough to make Mueller bristle. He wasn't accustomed to being contradicted so cavalierly. "We've heard too many `rumors' from too many separate sources. And we find this state visit of Queen Elizabeth's most suspicious. Look at how public opinion is already responding to the news of it! What time could be better for the Sword to propose such an annexation, especially with the San Martin business going so smoothly. She and the Sword may well find themselves in a position to capitalize on the recent victory in Barnett and the public hysteria over her visit to ram an annexation proposal through the Keys. At the very least, they could use those advantages as a springboard for getting the idea a favorable hearing if they should decide to go public with it and present it in sufficiently seductive terms."
   "Granted," Mueller agreed. "All I've said is that there doesn't seem to be any evidence to support the belief that they intend to do anything of the sort."
   "Only because we haven't looked in the right places... or with the right determination," Baird said, and this time all of Mueller's hackles rose. There was a new note in Baird's voice. One not of simple confidence, but of triumph.
   "We've looked as hard as we could," the steadholder said aloud, and anger glowed within him as he heard the temporizing note in his own voice.
   "No, My Lord, we haven't," Baird disagreed, even more flatly than before. "But we will. That's why I asked to see you."
   "What do you mean?" Mueller demanded, harshly enough that Corporal Higgins shifted position behind him and dropped one hand to his pulser.
   "I mean, My Lord, that we require your help to obtain that proof."
   "But I've already used every avenue and source I have!"
   "We realize that. But we have a way to open an entirely new avenue. With your assistance, that is."
   "What sort of avenue?" Mueller looked back and forth between Baird and Kennedy and felt tempted to order them to leave. He told himself it was because of their disrespectful attitudes, but there was something darker and more ominous beneath his pique. An edge, though he refused to admit it, of fear. But that was ridiculous. He was a steadholder, and they were guests in his home, present only on his sufferance.
   "Our plan is simple enough, My Lord," Baird told him. "And in an ironic sort of way, Queen Elizabeth's visit is what makes it workable."
   "Get to the point, please," Mueller said testily, and Baird shrugged.
   "Certainly. Our logic is straightforward. Assuming, as we do, that the Sword does intend to suggest we merge with and be absorbed by the Star Kingdom, this visit would be the ideal time for Prestwick and the Protector to discuss their plan with Elizabeth and the Duke of Cromarty — in person, with no intermediaries who might leak details of their discussions' true nature. The fact that she's bringing along her foreign secretary, as well, only strengthens our suspicions, as the Earl of Gold Peak would be deeply involved in any negotiations on such a point. Would you agree so far?"
   He raised his eyebrows courteously, and the steadholder gave him a choppy nod. He'd come to the conclusion that Prestwick and Mayhew had no such plans, but if they had been planning such a move, Baird was obviously correct that this visit would be the perfect opportunity to finalize their strategy for it.
   "We also believe," Baird continued, "as you and I have discussed several times, that the entire annexation plan is no more than a ruse, a cover for the Sword's true purpose, which is to further accelerate the Protector's `reforms,' break the power of the Keys and the truly faithful among Grayson's steaders, and make us over in Manticore's image. If that is, indeed, true, then their private discussions are certain to touch upon their actual motives. And if we were able to record those discussions, they would give us the `smoking gun' we've sought for so long now out of their own mouths, as it were."
   "Record their discussions?" Mueller sat up straight, staring at Baird, then he laughed harshly. "Well, certainly, recording the Protector's private conversations with the Queen of Manticore would provide no end of useful information. I have no doubt of that at all! But there's no way to plant any sort of bug to pick up that kind of conversation!"
   "You're wrong, My Lord," Baird said softly. "There is a way... and we need your help to make it work."
   "What are you talking about?" Mueller snapped.
   "Elizabeth and Cromarty will be invited to attend a session of the Keys when they arrive on Grayson." Baird showed no awareness of Mueller's growing impatience. "No doubt there will be all sorts of flowery speeches and public relations opportunities, and you, of course, will be present as the acknowledged leader of the loyal opposition. All we need you to do is to present Elizabeth and Cromarty each with a memory stone."
   "A memory stone?" Mueller blinked at Baird, taken completely by surprise at the sudden turn of the conversation.
   Memory stones were an ancient tradition. Despite the relative primitiveness of Grayson's pre-Alliance tech base, the planet had maintained a presence in space for longer than the entire Star Kingdom of Manticore had existed. The systematic and steadily increasing exploitation of their star system's extraplanetary resources was all that had permitted the Graysons to sustain their population and industry, and the huge investment they'd made in relatively crude infrastructure had been instrumental in allowing them to upgrade their technical and industrial base so rapidly once they allied themselves with Manticore.
   But there had always been a price for that effort. Mueller had no idea how many Graysons had died in space, whether in industrial accidents or in the wars with Masada, but the number had to be large. He knew that, and Grayson had developed its own traditions and customs for honoring their memory.
   Memory stones were lumps of unrefined asteroid iron or rock, carried constantly on their persons for six days by those who wished to honor the memory of the dead in space. On each of those days, the bearer of a stone prayed briefly and meditated on the debt the living owed to all those who had been lost in space. On the seventh day, the day upon which the Tester had rested, the stones were laid to rest, as well, by being released in space on a trajectory which would drop them into the system primary. They would never actually reach Yeltsin's star, of course, for the furious energy radiating outward from the star would consume them and blow their particles outward, as the souls of the Tester's children were forever borne upward and illuminated throughout eternity by the living presence of God. It was a religious custom which every element of Grayson, from the most conservative to the most liberal, honored and treasured, and it had become even more meaningful to them since the current war's casualties had begun to roll in.
   But what, exactly, memory stones had to do with the Sword's inner councils was more than Samuel Mueller could—
   His thoughts broke off, and his eyes widened. No! They couldn't possibly mean that!
   "I trust," he said very carefully, "that you aren't proposing what I think you are. I have no doubt that you could produce a remote listening device sufficiently small to fit into a memory stone, but Planetary Security or the Manticorans would spot a transmission from something like that in an instant."
   "There will be no transmission, My Lord. The memory stones will contain bugs — you're quite correct about that — but only simple recording devices. The public gift of memory stones to Elizabeth and Cromarty will leave them no choice but to honor our customs. That means they will accept the stones and keep them on their persons, as tradition requires, and the newsies would never allow the moment in which the stones were released to escape unreported. You know as well as I how long it will take them to travel all the way from Grayson orbit to the sun, which will be plenty of time for us to intercept them when no one is looking."
   "Intercept them?" Mueller's incredulity showed, and Baird shrugged.
   "If we know when and where they were released, generating an intercept solution won't be difficult. And while they won't transmit while they're actually recording data, each of them will be fitted with a location beacon which we can activate from a range of a few thousand kilometers, so collecting them should present no great difficulty."
   "You're far more optimistic in that regard than I am." Mueller snorted, once again wishing Hughes were present. The sergeant's technical expertise would have stood him in good stead when it came to heading off this insane plan.
   "Our people assure me it can be done," Baird said. "I don't say it will be easy, but it will be straightforward. Yet to make it work, the stones must be presented as publicly as possible... and by someone of sufficient stature to make it impossible for the newsies to ignore the occasion. As the acknowledged leader of the Opposition, you have that stature, and the Manticorans' visit to the Keys will give you the opportunity."