But he made himself step back from his desperation for a moment as Theisman crossed the office towards him. He suspected the citizen admiral resented the mandatory weapon search which had become the lot of any regular officer entering his presence, but if he did, Theisman was careful not to show it. And Saint-Just was a bit surprised by how comforting he found Theisman. The man was scarcely the dull, stolid sort, but he stubbornly refused to allow himself to be panicked, and rather than rail against his difficulties, he simply drew a deep breath and got down to overcoming them. The aura of competence he projected was almost as great as McQueen's had been, and it came without the jagged edges of ambition. At this particular moment, that was more important to Saint-Just than he would have admitted to a living soul.
   "Good afternoon, Citizen Admiral," he said, waving his visitor into a chair. "What can I do for you?"
   The citizen admiral inhaled deeply, then met his eyes squarely.
   "Sir, I've come to request that you reconsider your intention to order Citizen Admiral Giscard and Citizen Vice Admiral Tourville home."
   Saint-Just's nostrils flared ever so slightly — the equivalent, for him, of a screaming tantrum — but he made himself sit still and actually think about what Theisman had just said. He wondered how the citizen admiral had learned of his intentions. Of course, it was always possible he hadn't "learned" about anything; Giscard's and Tourville's affiliation with McQueen had to have a lot of people wondering when he'd summon them home and dispose of them. Especially now, when it was obvious to every regular officer that McQueen — and, by extension, Tourville and Giscard — had been absolutely right about the new Manty weapons while he had been absolutely wrong.
   Whether Theisman had learned about it from some source or simply figured it out on his own, however, was less important than the fact that he felt strongly enough about it to come discuss it. He had to know that if Giscard and Tourville were under a cloud, the displeasure of the new Citizen Chairman might very well splash all over anyone who tried to stand up for them, as well.
   "Why?" the Citizen Chairman asked flatly, and Theisman shrugged.
   "I'm in command of Capital Fleet, Sir. As you yourself told me, my foremost responsibility is to reorganize that formation as a coherent combat force whose loyalty to the Republic I can guarantee. At this moment, I'm far from confident I can do that if you were to recall Giscard and Tourville and... something happened to them."
   "I beg your pardon?" Saint-Just's tone was frosty. Theisman had already talked him out of executing Citizen Admiral Amanda Graveson and Citizen Vice Admiral Lawrence MacAfee, the previous CO of Capital Fleet and her second in command. Some of his senior StateSec officers had urged him to shoot both flag officers as an example to all the other senior officers who hadn't instantly declared their loyalty to the Committee when McQueen's coup started. But as Theisman had pointed out, neither Graveson nor MacAfee had moved to support McQueen, either, and there'd been more than enough confusion coming out of the capital, where personal orders from their direct superior, the Secretary of War, had been countermanded by the Secretary of Sate Security (who wasn't in their official chain of command at all), and no one had been able to reach the Citizen Chairman for confirmation of which Committee member they ought to be listening to. Under the circumstances, Theisman had argued, the only prudent course for a senior flag officer was to try to figure out who was really trying to stage the coup — McQueen or Saint-Just — before they jumped.
   It had been, in some ways, a specious argument, in Saint-Just's opinion. But it had also contained at least a little truth, and Theisman had certainly been right to point out that shooting them could only make the rest of Capital Fleet's officers wonder who was next. Which, as the citizen admiral had rather dryly remarked, was unlikely to contribute to a calm and collected state of mind on their part. Or, as he carefully had not remarked, their ultimate loyalty to the man who'd ordered up the firing squads.
   Saint-Just had been impressed, almost against his will, both by Theisman's reasonable tone and by the guts it had taken to stand up for his two subordinates when so much bloodlust hung in the air. And as he'd considered the other man's arguments, the new Citizen Chairman had come to the conclusion he might well be right. Even if he wasn't, the fact that everyone knew how seriously Saint-Just had considered shooting Graveson and MacAfee would make the point that future lack of loyalty would be fatal while the fact that he hadn't shot them in the end might help convince them the new master of the PRH wasn't a frothing-at-the-mouth madman after all.
   But this time was different.
   "I trust that admission wasn't intended as an implied threat, Citizen Admiral," he said coolly. "Even if it was, however, I think you should be aware that certain evidence connecting Tourville, at least, and possibly Giscard, as well, to McQueen's plot has been brought to my attention."
   "I don't doubt it." Theisman managed to keep both his expression and his voice calm and hoped Saint-Just didn't guess how hard it was for him to do that. "I'd like to point out two things in return, however, Sir. First, I don't doubt that a great many people who are actually loyal to the Republic and the Committee have done or said things which could be construed in the wake of McQueen's coup attempt as disloyal or even treasonous. I'm not saying that's the case here," he added unhurriedly as Saint-Just's eyes narrowed ever so slightly. "I don't know one way or the other in this case. I simply wanted to point out that it might be... and that whether it is or not, other people are likely to wonder if it is.
   "Which leads me to my second point, Sir. If Tourville and Giscard are brought home and... removed, much of the repair work I've done on Capital Fleet will be undone. For better or worse, Twelfth Fleet and its command team are regarded as the one bright spot on the horizon, especially now that the new Manty weapons are cutting such a swath. As such, Tourville and Giscard are important to the Navy's morale. Removing them without clear and convincing evidence of complicity in McQueen's treason would do a great deal of damage to that morale. For that matter, removing them even if they're guilty as sin would do at least some harm. Some officers who are in the process of settling back down might even see it as a sign no regular officer will ever be trusted again, which could push them into actions you and I would both regret. I'm not saying they aren't guilty, Citizen Chairman. I'm not even saying their removal — yes, and execution — may not be fully justifiable. I'm simply saying that to do so now, at this moment, when everyone is more than half-panicked by new enemy weapons and still... unsettled by events here in the capital, may have consequences which, as a pragmatic matter, would be far worse than waiting. If we get through the current instability and manage to slow the Manties back down, my opinion could well change. For right now, however, I would be derelict in my duty if I failed to warn you that their executions could have serious repercussions on the loyalty and reliability of Capital Fleet."
   He stopped and sat back in his chair, and the dangerous smouldering in Saint-Just's eyes faded ever so slowly as the Citizen Chairman considered what he'd just said. Saint-Just suspected Theisman was more opposed to executing Giscard and Tourville on a personal level than he'd just implied, but that didn't necessarily invalidate his analysis of Capital Fleet's possible reaction to it.
   "So what would you do with them?" Saint-Just had intended for the question to come out hard-edged. Instead, somewhat to his own surprise, it was a genuine inquiry, and Theisman shrugged.
   "If it were up to me, Sir, I'd leave them as far away from the Haven System as I could possibly get them. The capital has always been the true key to control of the Republic. Whatever their ambitions may or may not be, they can't accomplish anything against the Committee without first seizing control of Nouveau Paris. Which they can't do if they're somewhere down around Grendelsbane or somewhere else at the front. And they have demonstrated that they're one of our more effective command teams. Under the circumstances, my choice would be to pick them as the field commanders tasked with slowing down the new Manty offensive. I'm not certain which would be the more effective way to do that — whether it would be better to have them redouble their efforts in Bagration to try and draw Manty strength back down to Grendelsbane, or to take the time to pull them out of that area and transfer them clear across to meet White Haven head-on — but that's certainly the proper task for them."
   "And if they succeed, they'll have more prestige than ever."
   "True," Theisman acknowledged, cautiously relieved by the Citizen Chairman's reasonable tone. "On the other hand, if someone doesn't slow White Haven down, any ambitions on their part won't really matter a great deal, will they?" Saint-Just raised his eyebrows, and Theisman shrugged. "I realize I'm only in command of Capital Fleet, Sir, which restricts my information on the general war situation under the new security arrangements, but my read of the situation is that the Manties are blowing away anything that gets in their path. If my understanding is even partly correct—" in fact, it was completely correct, thanks to Denis LePic, but this wasn't the time to mention that "—nothing we currently have between them and Haven is going to be able to stop them. Twelfth Fleet, on the other hand, is our most powerful, best-trained, best-equipped formation. If it can't stop White Haven, then nothing else we have can do the trick, either, and if the Manties capture the capital, we lose the war."
   He held his mental breath as he said it at last, but Saint-Just only nodded slowly.
   "In addition, Sir," Theisman went on, deeply encouraged by the other's response (or lack thereof), "I think there's another point you ought to consider. So far, Twelfth Fleet has lost two task force commanders in action. There's no reason why it couldn't lose a third... or even a commander in chief. Especially with the new Manty weapons."
   Saint-Just's eyes widened ever so slightly, and he regarded Theisman for several silent seconds.
   "I hope you'll pardon me, Citizen Admiral," he said at last, "if I say I find that last remark just a bit suspicious. My estimate of your character doesn't include that sort of deviousness, which forces me to wonder why you should make such a suggestion."
   "I may not be devious, Citizen Chairman," Theisman replied levelly, "but I hope you'll forgive me for saying that everyone knows you are." He smiled thinly as Saint-Just gave him a very sharp look indeed. "I don't mean that as an insult, Sir. Merely as an observation of fact. And deviousness can be a very useful talent, even for a Navy tactician, but especially for someone who has to pick his way through the sort of factions I've seen here on Haven. I admit, however, that I did intentionally appeal to your devious side. For myself, I would simply say that in a situation as desperate as ours, my inclination is to get the most utility I can out of any resource we have. And if doing that creates a situation in which a potential threat to the State eliminates itself, or is eliminated by enemy action, then we've just killed two birds with one stone. That's something I've always preferred to do whenever possible, and if it also helps buy me time to get Capital Fleet straightened out and settled down, so much the better."
   "Um." Saint-Just considered the citizen admiral for several more seconds. "You've made some convincing points, Citizen Admiral," he said finally. "And whatever lack of faith I may feel where Tourville and Giscard are concerned, I do have at least one outstanding commissioner riding herd on them. More than that, I have to admit, if somewhat against my will, that the `evidence' against them is conjectural at this point. I don't apologize for feeling an urge to eliminate them just to be on the safe side. Not after what's happened here in Nouveau Paris... and what could still happen if we're unlucky. But you do have a point about jumping too quickly. And about how valuable they could be in our present situation. For that matter, my advisers and I hadn't sufficiently considered the effect removing them might have on the loyalty of Capital Fleet's officers.
   "All of those are sound points, and I appreciate your courage in making them. I don't say you've completely convinced me, because you haven't. But you have given me a great deal to think over before I make my decision."
   "That was all I really wanted to do, Sir," Theisman said, standing as Saint-Just rose and walked around his desk. The Citizen Chairman held out his hand, and Theisman shook it firmly. Then Saint-Just walked towards the office door with him.
   "I trust you won't let yourself get into the habit of arguing my orders with me, Citizen Admiral," he said with wintry humor that didn't quite hide the warning behind it. "In this instance, however... thank you."
   It came out a little grudgingly, and Theisman allowed himself a smile.
   "You're welcome, Sir. And trust me. I have no intention of habitually arguing with you. Leaving aside the little matter that you're certainly Citizen Chairman Pierre's legitimate successor, I'm not foolish enough to do anything which might make me look like a threat. You've been honest enough to warn me my own position and continued good health depend on how well I do my job and your confidence in my loyalty to the Republic. I can understand your attitude, and I appreciate your candor. And candor also compels me to say I am sufficiently terrified to be very careful about the company I keep and the things I suggest. I'll do my best to tell you the truth as I see it, but I'll also watch my mouth and stay the hell away from anything that might make you think of me as another Esther McQueen."
   "A straightforward declaration," Saint-Just observed, and there might actually have been a slight twinkle in his eye as he opened the office door for Theisman. "I see you have greater depths than I'd thought, Citizen Admiral. That's good. I'm not foolish enough to expect everyone to be loyal because they love me, and it's refreshing to meet someone who's honest enough to admit he's afraid of making me suspicious of him."
   "I much prefer to be open and straightforward," Theisman deliberately reused the Citizen Chairman's choice of adjective. "Trying to be any other way simply invites misunderstanding, and none of us can afford that at this moment."
   "True, Citizen Admiral. Absolutely true," Saint-Just agreed, shaking his hand once more, and Theisman stepped out into the waiting room. The Citizen Chairman's new secretary glanced up at him curiously, then returned to her paperwork, and the citizen admiral allowed himself to draw a deep, lung-stretching breath before he crossed to the waiting-room door and stepped into the hall.
   Oh, yes, Citizen Secretary. Open and straightforward — which is not necessarily the same thing as loyal and honest. But I hope to hell you don't figure that out before it's too late.
   He headed down the hall towards the lifts and the pinnace awaiting to return him to his orbiting flagship, and as he walked, he allowed his mind to reach out for just a moment towards Javier Giscard and Lester Tourville.
   I've done what I can, he told them. For God's sake try to stay alive a little longer. We're going to need you— both of you — soon enough... if not for exactly the reasons Saint-Just thinks.


   Hamish Alexander stood on Benjamin the Great's flag deck with his hands clasped behind him and tried very hard not to feel a sense of godlike power.
   At the moment, his plot was in astrographic configuration, showing him the stars between Trevor's Star and the Lovat System. Peep-held systems sprawled across it in a leprous red rash. That much remained the same. But a few changes had been introduced over the last two months, and his lips pursed thoughtfully as he regarded them.
   Lovat lay close to the center of the spherical volume of the PRH. Only forty-nine light-years from the Haven System, it was a major industrial node, which made it an important target in its own right. It was also one of the PRH's core systems, a daughter colony rather than one of its unruly conquests, whose local government had been one of the first to declare its support for the Committee of Public Safety following the Harris assassination. Yet for all its importance, it was so far behind the frontiers no prewar strategist had ever seriously contemplated the possibility of a major attack upon it.
   But things change, and over the last four or five T-years most strategists, Allied and Peep alike, had come to regard Lovat as the penultimate stop on any advance to Nouveau Paris. Always well fortified, the system now bristled with defenses almost as tough as those protecting the capital system itself, not to mention a local defense fleet built around several squadrons of the wall.
   All in all, Lovat was a formidable military obstacle, and after eleven years of war, it had come to seem hopelessly remote. Something, some people had joked, to make them grateful for prolong, since that was the only thing which gave them a chance of living long enough to see it taken.
   But now, as White Haven gazed into the plot, a solid cone of green stars glowed amid the crimson traceries of Peep-held space. That cone's base rested on the systems of Sun-Yat, to the northwest, and Welladay, to the southeast, and its tip was the Tequila System — pointing straight at Lovat from a distance of barely 3.75 light-years.
   It was incredible, he thought, contemplating the campaign he'd fought to reach this point. It had been utterly unlike the grinding, brutal slogging match for Trevor's Star. Indeed, it was unlike any campaign any admiral had waged in over seven hundred years, and White Haven was honest enough to admit it had been made possible only by the new ship types he'd once dismissed so cavalierly. But he'd learned his lesson, he told himself. First when Honor — his lips curved in a small, secret smile — jerked him up short, and now, especially, when Alice Truman's LAC wings had spearheaded Operation Buttercup with such power and panache.
   The Peeps are done, he thought almost wonderingly. Finished. They don't have a prayer against the new hardware, and our people are learning how to use it more effectively every day.
   His thoughts ranged back over the hectic, furiously paced series of actions which had brought them to this point. Secure in his technological and tactical superiority, he'd embraced the operational concept Truman and Honor had devised for Buttercup and split Eighth Fleet into independent, fast-moving, hard-hitting task forces. The main force, TF 81, built around a solid core of Harrington/Medusas, had hammered straight up the middle, smashing the defenses of one fortified system after another with missile bombardments to which the Peeps could make no reply. At the same time, lighter forces, each based around three or four CLACs and escorts, with one or two SD(P)s to keep an eye on things, had spread out from the main axis of advance. They'd slashed into more lightly held systems, ravaging the picket forces covering the flanks of the nodal task forces TF 81 had reduced to wreckage. Even when the Peeps detected the LACs on their way in, the fleet, lethal little craft invariably managed to accomplish their missions. Partly that was because those missions were carefully planned, but it was also because of the sheer tenacity and ability of the LAC crews. They'd taken losses along the way — much heavier losses than TF 81, in point of fact — but grievous as those casualties were among the small, tight knit communities of the LAC wings, they were minute compared to the cost a conventional advance through so many systems would have exacted.
   Yet for all his tactical superiority, he knew he'd accepted some serious risks to maintain the speed and fury of his advance. Caparelli and the Allied Joint Chiefs were working furiously to dig up the conventional forces to hold what he'd taken, but the Peeps were growing more ambitious as he cut deeper and deeper into the PRH. They couldn't fight Eighth Fleet head-on, but they knew that, so they were concentrating on working around his flanks, striving to threaten his rear and cut his supply lines, instead. He had too few of the new ship types to detach any for rear area security, so they could at least hope to pounce on conventional ships of the wall. On the other hand, those "conventional" capital ships were well equipped with pods stuffed full of Ghost Rider missiles, which meant even the flank attacks were producing catastrophic Peep losses.
   Nonetheless, it was a mathematical impossibility for the Alliance to adequately picket and garrison all of the systems in which Eighth Fleet had blitzed the defenses. Indeed, the Allies lacked the ground troops to occupy or even take the formal surrenders of all of the inhabited planets in the systems through which Eighth Fleet had rampaged. But that was all right. White Haven's units had smashed the defenses and orbital infrastructure in any system he wasn't prepared to occupy and then moved on, leaving them crippled and impotent behind him. They might still serve as support bases for the raiding squadrons trying to operate against his rear, but that was all they could do, and eventually the Alliance would get around to gathering them up in a neat, orderly sort of way.
   It was a sort of wild, freewheeling warfare that was downright intoxicating, and he'd had to step on his own enthusiasm more than once. He had an arrogant streak. He knew it and admitted it, and that arrogance embraced the division of his fleet with enthusiasm. Indeed, it wanted to divide into even smaller forces, taking on its enemies with a numerical inferiority no sane fleet commander of the last seven centuries would have contemplated even in an opium dream, and some of his squadron and task group commanders were even more drunk with victory than he was.
   It's going too well, he told himself. There has to be a catch somewhere!
   But even as he told himself that, he didn't believe it. It was no more than the reflex of a professional, automatically watching for the unanticipated, the unexpected.
   But however heady the moment, the time had finally come when he had no choice but to call a halt. Not a long one. No more than a few weeks — a month and a half; two months at the outside — while his mobile repair ships dealt with a growing litany of minor repairs and deferred maintenance requirements. While the missile colliers labored forward from Trevor's Star, to reload his SD(P)s' pods. While other freighters came forward with replacement LACs for his CLACs... and, in too many cases, replacement crews. The LACs had been worked hard, and he welcomed the opportunity to stand them down for a little much needed rest. And he was determined that he would not run his maintenance cycles too far into the red this time. This time he would be certain he had no need to stop and send a third of his combat power back to the yards!
   But it wouldn't be a long pause, he promised himself. And when Eighth Fleet advanced once more, it would be as a single, concentrated force that would reduce the defenses of Lovat to splinters.
   And from there, he thought, astounded even now that he dared to so much as contemplate the possibility, Haven and Nouveau Paris.
* * *
   "And here we are," Citizen Admiral Giscard said, and there was a universe of bitterness in his voice.
   He sat in a briefing room off PNS Salamis' flag deck, and there were very few other people present. Indeed, aside from Citizen Captain McIntyre, his chief of staff, and Citizen Commander Tyler and Citizen Lieutenant Thaddeus, his staff astrogator and intelligence officer, respectively, the only other people in that briefing room were Lester Tourville and Citizen Commissioner Everard Honeker.
   And, of course, Citizen Commissioner Eloise Pritchart.
   It was dangerous for them to be here, and all of them knew it. Esther McQueen's death, the destruction of the Octagon, the disbandment of the Naval Staff and the arrest of all its surviving members, Oscar Saint-Just's emergence as the dictator of the PRH, and the replacement of both the Naval Staff and the General Staff with State Security officers — those things had riven their universe down to bedrock. None of them had even suspected such cataclysmic upheavals might be coming. Even if they'd guessed, there'd been nothing they could have done to prepare for it, and Giscard and Tourville had realized instantly that their lives, and the lives of their staff officers, hung by threads. Indeed, both admirals were amazed when they weren't summarily ordered home within days of McQueen's abortive coup and "disappeared" as a routine precaution.
   Only two things had saved them. One was the sudden Manticoran offensive, which had thrown the military front into chaos as wild as anything happening back in Nouveau Paris. And the other, to their astonishment, had been Thomas Theisman.
   Giscard and Tourville both knew Theisman well, yet neither of them would ever have expected him to be picked to replace Amanda Graveson as the commander of Capital Fleet... or to prove so adroit at handling Saint-Just. But he had, and Tourville suspected that Denis LePic was one of the main reasons for his success. The citizen vice admiral had known LePic almost as long as he'd known Tourville, and the citizen commissioner had always seemed a bit too decent for a StateSec spy.
   Rather, he thought wryly, like the commissioners in this briefing room.
   Of all the surprises he'd suffered since McQueen's death, few had matched the impact of discovering the true relationship between Giscard and Pritchart. Tourville had begun nursing some suspicions about Pritchart. Less because of anything she'd ever said or done, for she'd played her role to perfection, than because Giscard had shown just that little bit too much independence and freedom of maneuver in exercising his command authority. But not even he had dreamed the two of them were lovers. He'd thought it was something else, like his own pre-Cerberus relationship with Honeker. The possibility that the two of them were actual partners, working jointly to deceive StateSec's other spies, had been a total shock... and explained a great deal.
   Not that it seemed likely to make much difference in the long run. If it had been likely to, he doubted Giscard and Pritchart would ever have let him and his own people's commissioner in on the secret. As it was, they clearly had little left to lose, and there was no sense in jumping through any hoops to maintain a deception that no longer mattered. Especially not if jumping through those hoops might hamper the achievement of anything which could conceivably give them a chance of survival.
   Except for Pritchart, of course, the citizen vice admiral thought, and his eyes softened as he gazed at the beautiful, platinum-haired woman. Saint-Just obviously doesn't suspect her even now. If he did, he never would have passed on his conversation with Theisman to her... or let her know he still plans on shooting all of us afterward. But if he does still trust her, all she and Javier had to do was keep their mouths shut, and she, at least, might have walked away alive.
   But there was no sign Giscard and Pritchart had even contemplated that course. Tourville doubted Giscard was happy about it, but it was clear she'd made her own decision. Live, or die, she and Giscard would fight to the last ditch together.
   "And here we are," the citizen vice admiral agreed, smiling grimly at his CO. "You know, I realize Tom did the best he could for us under the circumstances, but right this minute, I find it just a tad difficult to feel suitably grateful."
   "Do you?" Giscard managed a smile of his own. "Well, I look at it this way, Lester. Even if the Manties shoot Salamis right out from under me and Eloise, there are still life pods. And, frankly, the possibility of being picked up after the battle seems a whole lot more attractive than somehow winning the damned thing and going home to face Saint-Just! If he's nervous now, imagine how unhappy he'd be to have `The Men Who Stopped the Manties' riding into Nouveau Paris on their white horses!"
   "An unhappy but no doubt accurate summation," Tourville admitted.
   "At least they seem to have slowed down for the moment," Honeker put in.
   "Only to catch their breath, Everard," Tourville told him. "They're just refitting and resupplying before their next lunge... and guess who's sitting right on top of what has to be their primary target."
   Several people around the table surprised themselves with weary chuckles, and all eyes shifted to the star chart above the conference table.
   The Lovat System lay before them in all its glory. The space about the central star glittered with the icons of military and civilian shipyards, processing plants, deep-space factories, fortresses, minefields, old-style LACs, missile pods, and the serried squadrons of Twelfth Fleet. Against any normal enemy, that massive concentration of power would have been impregnable. Against what was going to come at them, probably in no more than a month or two, all it was likely to accomplish was to inflate the body count.
   "I wish," Tourville said very quietly, even here, before people he trusted with his very life, "we could just surrender the damned place to White Haven." Eyes swiveled to him, and he twitched his shoulders uncomfortably. "I know. It goes against the grain. But, Jesus! It's not just what's waiting for us back on Haven. Think of all our people, sitting here in ships the Manties have just turned into nothing but targets. How many thousands of them are going to get killed just because Saint-Just is too frigging stubborn — or stupid — to realize it's over and surrender?!"
   "You may have a point, Lester," Giscard conceded. "No, you do have a point. Unfortunately, there's no way to pull it off after Saint-Just stuck us with his fresh `reinforcements.' " His smile was a sour grimace, and Tourville nodded. Twelfth Fleet now boasted two complete squadrons of StateSec SDs which no longer even pretended that their real job wasn't to watch Giscard's and Tourville's flagships. "Even if we didn't have to worry about Heemskerk and Salzner, we couldn't pull off a successful surrender without at least discussing it with our own squadron commanders and the local defense COs. And if even one of them disagreed with our intentions..." He shrugged.
   "I know," Tourville sighed, gazing into the display. "I know. It just irritates the hell out of me to die so stupidly. And not even because of my own stupidity!"
   "Me, too," Giscard admitted. He, too, gazed into the display, then inhaled. "Have you and Everard decided about telling your staff?"
   "I think not," Tourville said heavily. "There's always the chance Saint-Just will decide they're too junior to deserve a pulser dart, and I know Tom will do his best for them — especially for Shannon. Besides, I'm afraid of what might happen if I told them. I'm pretty sure Yuri's figured it out, anyway, but Shannon scares me these days. If she found out, she might decide to do something about it. I'm sure it would be spectacular and no doubt inflict all sorts of damage, but it wouldn't change anything in the end. Except to guarantee she got shot, too." He smiled at McIntyre, Tyler, and Thaddeus. "I understand you three figured it out and insisted on shoving your noses into it. I respect that, but I'm going to try like hell to get at least some of my people out of this alive."
   "Don't blame you, Sir," Andre McIntyre told him. "I tried to do the same thing for Franny here—" he nodded at Tyler "—but she's about as stubborn as Shannon."
   "If you don't mind," Pritchart put in, "I'd just as soon concentrate on trying to get all of us out of this in one piece."
   "All of us would," Honeker said gently. "The problem is that none of us see a way to do it."
   "I don't see any great and glorious scheme for it, either," Pritchart said, "but I'd at least like us to do a little contingency planning. For instance, suppose something happens to Saint-Just back home? If he disappears from the equation, the whole situation is up for grabs. More to the point, if whoever takes over from him — assuming someone does, and the entire Republic doesn't simply dissolve into one massive dogfight among potential successors — sends us new orders, what do we do about them? For that matter, what do we do if White Haven decides to bypass Lovat and go straight for Haven?" Her smile was strained but genuine. "Maybe I just want to keep myself busy to avoid dwelling on our chances, but humor me. Let's put some thought into that kind of question... and see if any brilliant ideas fall out on the table in the process."
   "Why not?" Tourville's grin was almost as fierce as of yore. "One thing I've already decided is that they're not taking me back to Haven in suitable condition for shooting after arrival. And if I can come up with a way to cause them more grief than a shootout with SS goons in my quarters, I'm all for it!"


   The statue was just as embarrassing as Honor remembered.
   It loomed over the broad flight of stairs leading up from the sunken square, dominating the neoclassic portico of Steadholder's Hall, and this time she couldn't avoid it. She was Benjamin Mayhew's Champion. As a consequence, she was forced to stand at his side in the ridiculous thing's very shadow, the Sword of State in her hands, and look suitably stern and impressive as the Keys of Grayson greeted the Queen of Manticore.
   Somehow she doubted she managed to look quite as impressive as her huge, bronze doppelganger.
   The good news was that the normally reserved Graysons were so wild with enthusiasm that no one was paying the least attention to her. The bad news was that the tumult must be generating enough tension among the security people of both star nations to produce a battalion worth of strokes. She knew how unhappy Andrew LaFollet had been over the protocol which denied him his proper place watching her back; she could scarcely imagine how Major Rice was putting up with his own forced absence from Benjamin Mayhew's side. Then there was Colonel Shemais. She couldn't feel any too happy about being excluded from the ranks of diplomats and councilors — not to mention the mayor and city fathers of Austin City — clustered around Elizabeth as she made her way from the formal ground car up the flower-strewn steps amid a hurricane of cheers.
   Of course, the security people had found ways to compensate for their exclusion, she thought, glancing up at the buildings fronting on Steadholder's Square. Even Austin Cathedral's towers had been taken over by Planetary Security SWAT teams, and there was at least one security man with a pulser, and another with a plasma rifle, and a third with a man-portable SAM launcher on every building top which offered a line of sight to the square. Not to mention the stingships drifting watchfully overhead, or the troopers waiting just out of sight in full battle armor with heavy weapons.
   It was all very impressive, yet Honor suspected it was also unnecessary. Not that she'd even considered objecting. Assassination was a tactic which shocked the Grayson soul, as the public reaction to Lord Burdette's attempt to assassinate her had demonstrated, not to mention the planet-wide revulsion and horror produced by Reverend Hanks' death. But those murder attempts also demonstrated that it was not unheard of, and anything that protected the heads of state of both her star nations was a very good thing in Honor Harrington's eyes.
   Yet the idea that anyone on Grayson might want to assassinate Benjamin or Elizabeth at this moment seemed ludicrous as she gazed out over the cheering, applauding, waving crowd filling the enormous square. There must be forty or fifty thousand people out there, all crushing together to get an eyewitness look at the Protector and his foreign ally when they could have been comfortably home watching on HD. And they were here because Grayson had always felt it owed a special debt to Elizabeth — to her, personally, not just to her government — for the warships which had saved them from Masadan conquest. And for the loans and technical assistance which had transformed their star system and their world. And now, and especially, for the steady chain of victories which had broken the back of the People's Navy at last.
   The war was as good as won. For once, that was the verdict of the professionals and the pundits alike... and it was also the verdict of the Allied public. For that matter, it was Honor's view, and she felt a special swell of pride whenever she thought of the part Alice Truman, her LAC crews, and Operation Buttercup had played in bringing that to pass. And, she admitted, whenever she considered who'd commanded Eighth Fleet during its unstoppable advance. She wished passionately she could have been there herself, but if she couldn't, knowing the campaign was in the hands of Alice and Hamish Alexander, not to mention Alistair McKeon and all the others she knew so well who were serving in Alice's CLAC squadrons, was the next best thing.
   And being stuck here on Grayson also meant that, unlike the people actually fighting the battles, she got to see the public's response first hand, as it happened.
   Elizabeth and her party started up the final flight of steps, and Honor drew her attention back to the present. There would be time enough to daydream about Eighth Fleet. For the moment, she had other duties, and she stepped forward with the Sword of State to greet her monarch in the name of her liege lord.
* * *
   "Tester, I'm glad that's over!" Benjamin Mayhew groaned as he dropped into a chair. Unlike Elizabeth, he'd shed his formal, eminently uncomfortable robes as soon as possible and wore a pair of slacks and an open-necked shirt without the ridiculous, anachronistic "necktie." Elizabeth had attended in Manticoran court dress, the first time in history that a woman had appeared in the sacred precincts of Steadholder's Hall in trousers. It had no doubt shocked the more fragile souls among the Keys, but it also had the advantage of being quite comfortable. She'd taken off her tail coat, but that was all, and now she smiled as Henry Prestwick handed her a tall, cold drink.
   "Your people do seem to be on the... enthusiastic side," she observed, and Benjamin laughed.
   "You mean they're raving lunatics!" He shook his head. "When I think about all the INS stories about the `dignified and reserved people of Grayson,' I have to wonder what planet the newsies were really covering!"
   "It's hard to blame them at the moment," Honor put in from her own chair. She and Lord Prestwick were the only steadholders among the small gathering, and neither of them was present in her or his capacity as a steadholder. She was there as Benjamin's champion (and, at Elizabeth's request, as Duchess Harrington), and Prestwick was present as Benjamin's Chancellor, just as Allen Summervale was present as Elizabeth's Prime Minister. Now Benjamin cocked an eye at her, and she shrugged.
   "INS just broke a fresh story on the chaos in Nouveau Paris," she said, and grimaced. "I can't say I'm happy at the thought of a butcher like Saint-Just running the PRH single-handed, and I doubt the public at large is, either, when it thinks about it. But people also figure that the way he got there indicates there's a lot more opposition to the Committee than anyone thought... and that a general Peep collapse may be the fastest way to end the war. Besides, the same broadcast released the declassified portions of Earl White Haven's latest dispatches."
   "You mean you don't think it's all due to my eloquent speeches and sheer force of personality?" Elizabeth demanded plaintively, and everyone (except the armsmen and Colonel Shemais) laughed.
   "Actually, I think both those factors have played a part," Benjamin said a moment later, his expression more serious. "This entire visit was a brilliant notion, Elizabeth, if you'll pardon my saying so. There are some on Grayson who'd managed to convince themselves, or perhaps it would be better to say comforted themselves with the notion, that you're actually just a mouthpiece. That the Star Kingdom isn't really run by anyone as silly and frivolous as a mere woman! Those people have built up this notion that some sort of male cabal is really hiding behind your throne, pulling the strings. Now that we Graysons have had a chance to see you in person, that idea is so obviously ludicrous that anyone who openly suggested such a thing would be laughed out of public life."
   "And the timing is superb, Your Majesty," Prestwick put in. "Your arrival is associated in the public mind with the sudden turn in the course of the war. No one is foolish enough to attribute that turn to your visit. Not on an intellectual basis, at least. But the emotional impact has linked you and those victories indelibly in the impressions of our steaders. And quite a few of our steadholders, I suspect."
   "And it's another nail in the coffin of the notion that women have no business getting involved in `serious' affairs," Benjamin added, and smiled. "Katherine and Elaine made that point to me — again — over breakfast. Sometimes I suspect they wish I were an old-fashioned chauvinist so they could gloat over my discomfiture. Fortunately, they can always gloat over everyone else's discomfiture in front of me, and that's almost as good."
   "I can imagine," Elizabeth agreed with a laugh.
   She and the Protector's wives had taken to one another instantly, and Rachel Mayhew had been deeply impressed to discover that the Queen of Manticore's 'cat companion was considerably younger than her own Hipper. And a better signer. Like Honor, the Mayhews were still adjusting to the sudden emergence of treecat conversation at the dinner table. But at least there was only one 'cat in Protector's Palace, she thought enviously. Well, two, now that Elizabeth and Ariel had arrived as houseguests. With Nimitz and Samantha home, there were thirteen at Harrington House, and every one of them, including the 'kittens, was signing away like mad. She doubted she would ever get over the sheer joy of experiencing true, two-way conversations with her six-limbed friends, but watching that many 'cats signing simultaneously (and with widely varying proficiency) was like being trapped inside an old-fashioned piston engine!
   Nimitz bleeked a soft laugh from the back of her chair as he picked up her emotions, and she tasted his loving mental caress.
   "I'm sure you can visualize it all perfectly," Benjamin said. "Still, Henry's right. You've got the conservatives in full retreat." He smiled with intense satisfaction. "Even Mueller's `media blitz' hasn't kept them from taking a beating in the polls. And his expression when he presented you and the Duke with those memory stones was priceless!"
   "I know." Elizabeth's smile was less satisfied than Benjamin's, and he looked a question at her. She looked back for a moment, then shrugged. "There's just... something about him that bothers me. And Ariel," she added, and all eyes swiveled to the treecat in her lap. Ariel raised his prick-eared head and gazed back with grass-green eyes, and Shemais cleared her throat.
   "Excuse me, Your Majesty, but what do you mean `bothers' you and Ariel?" The Queen looked at the head of her security team, and the colonel frowned. "The Queen's Own learned to take 'cats' `feelings' seriously a long time ago, Your Majesty. If there's something we should be bothered about, I'd like to know."