* * *
   Major Francis Ney's head jerked up as Duchess Harrington's warning crackled from his earbug, and he punched a quick code into his personal com, dropping his earbug into the bridge circuits. It took him a few moments to realize what was happening. When he did, his face went pale, but he was already wheeling to throw open the stateroom hatch even as he snapped orders to his staff and the startled ministers.
   Cromarty and Hodges seemed confused, but Prestwick and Earl Gold Peak were much quicker on the uptake. Fear flickered in their eyes, but they refused to panic, and the Chancellor and Foreign Secretary grabbed their colleagues and began hustling them down the passageway beyond the hatch. Ney grabbed Calvin Henke, the earl's son, by the collar and dragged him through the hatch behind them. Henke fought him for a moment, trying to break away and get the rest of the staffers out of the stateroom, but Ney was much stronger — and nastier — than Lord Henke. A three-fingered jab to the solar plexus did the job quite nicely, and he scooped the suddenly paralyzed nobleman up in a fireman's carry as he jogged down the passageway behind the ministers.
   The life pod hatches sprang open as the ministers turned the final bend, and two of Ney's assistants were waiting. They threw their charges into the pods, slammed the hatches, and armed the eject sequence, and then they simply stood there, staring at Ney while their chests heaved with exertion.
   He stared back, and his brain whirred. Part of him wanted to launch the pods now, but if those were laser heads and the people who'd launched them had anticipated such a move, the slow pods would be sitting ducks, despite their armor. Better to leave them where they were. A laser head would shred the unarmored yacht like tissue, but the small, well-armored life pods would have an excellent chance of surviving. Ney and his people, none of whom were in skinsuits, would not, but it was the best chance the men they were sworn to protect had. But if it was an old-fashioned contact nuke...
   If it's a laser head, they've got a chance, Ney thought. Please, God— please let it be a laser head! he prayed, and bowed his head, waiting.
* * *
   The weapons pursuing the yachts were the best Solarian hardware money could buy, but they were special-use devices, not regular weapons of war, designed for ambush scenarios. The people who'd designed them for the Solarian League Navy had waxed poetic about the capabilities they would confer upon the SLN. The SLN Weapons Division, however, had taken one look at them, yawned, and passed, for they were useful only as ambush weapons against an unsuspecting foe. Worse, their slow speed made them sitting ducks when their seekers were forced to go active over the last portion of their attack run.
   The SLN's rejection, however, had left the firm who'd designed them with a large R&D expenditure and no legal way to recoup it. Because the weapons incorporated the very latest SLN stealth technology, their sale to anyone but the SLN was an act of treason, but no one really worried about that. The firms who built and equipped the SLN's warships had gotten into the habit of ignoring the technology transfer prohibition clauses in their contracts centuries ago, and no one had ever gotten more than a slap on the wrist for it. So when Oscar Saint-Just's StateSec representatives on Old Earth went shopping, an obliging salesman pointed them straight at the rejected weapons.
   StateSec had been interested... and it hadn't shared the information with the People's Navy. It had occurred to the SS that if — or when — the final showdown with the Navy came, it would be helpful to possess a stealth weapon the regulars didn't know about. A few preemptive strikes on trouble-making Navy ships would take out the officers likely to pose problems quite nicely.
   But Saint-Just had been interested in them for additional reasons, as well. Their greatest weakness was, as the manufacturer admitted, the weapon's extreme vulnerability to active defenses during its final attack run. Its passive sensors were quite capable of picking up and homing on the wedge of a target which had been pointed out to them, and it had the speed and endurance to follow evasive maneuvers far better (and longer) than any standard missile. But for the final run, it needed more precise data to achieve the proper angle of attack against a mobile, impeller wedge-protected target, which meant its seekers had to go active. And once a military target's sensors could see it, its low speed would make it an easy kill for laser clusters.
   StateSec had recognized the problem, but they'd also had a solution. Homing beacons had been surreptitiously placed aboard every capital ship of the People's Navy during refits. They were carefully hidden and did absolutely nothing... until they received the activation command. But once activated, they would radiate a target source which the weapon could track completely passively, without ever going active. That meant it could be launched even from a ship which couldn't actually see the target... and would remain no more than a ghost up to the instant of detonation. And what would work against rebellious units of the People's Navy would work just as well against a Manticoran target if only some way could be found to get an equivalent beacon aboard the intended victim.
   Nothing the PRH had could pick the new weapons up unless its seekers went active. Saint-Just's technical people estimated that the Manties probably could detect them, but not even Manticoran technology would be able to localize them well enough to generate a targeting solution as long as they stayed silent.
   And so Saint-Just had reached out to Randal Donizetti. Donizetti was hardly what StateSec would call reliable, but the money Saint-Just had authorized his agents to pay him had been irresistible, especially since Donizetti would also be paid by the Faithful. All Saint-Just's local network had had to do was point Donizetti at the appropriate contact man for the fanatical Faithful and then stand back.
   From Saint-Just's viewpoint, the arrangement was ideal. He'd controlled the Faithful by instructing Donizetti to limit the rate at which he handed over the necessary hardware, and the fact that Donizetti was a known weapons-runner had obscured the SS's involvement neatly. All that had really been necessary was to blow up the Solly's ship when he completed his task, and that had gone off as smoothly as any of the rest of Operation Hassan. Should the Manties succeed, as Saint-Just anticipated they would, in backtracking the assassins to Masada, they would find only the Faithful, who'd made their independent arrangements with a known Solarian criminal... and then killed him to hide the connection.
   It was a tortuously complicated plan, fraught with opportunities for failure. But it had also offered at least the possibility of success without any risk of implicating the People's Republic of Haven. More to the point, it had worked, and now Oscar Saint-Just's warheads raced down upon their targets like the outriders of doom.
* * *
   Honor stared at the closing icons, and sweat beaded her forehead. It was impossible to be certain, but it didn't look as if any of the LACs' defensive fire was even coming close, and even at their slow overtake speed, they were only minutes from impact. The yachts were rolling hard now and, unknown to any Manticoran or Grayson, their maneuvers had effectively cut the weapons off from their targeting beacons by interposing their wedges. But it no longer mattered. The passive sensors had a tight lock on the impeller wedges of the targets themselves now, and they arrowed onward, courses arcing and diverging slightly as they positioned themselves for pop-up attacks on the sides of their targets' wedges.
   Honor gazed at the indistinct icons, lost almost completely in the futile hurricane of the LACs' fire, for a fraction of an instant longer, and made her decision.
   "Grayson One, hold your heading and orientation," she said into the com. "Do not, I say again, do not alter course or roll ship further!"
* * *
   "What the h—?!" Alfred Willis cut himself off in mid-curse, and his already dry mouth went even drier as he watched Jamie Candless' impeller strength peak.
   "What's happening, Alf?" Hines snapped. "Talk to me, damn it!"
   "It's... it's Lady Harrington, Skip," Willis said hoarsely. "She's going to kamikaze the bird off Grayson One!"
* * *
   "Sweet Tester," Captain Leonard Sullivan, CO of Grayson One, whispered as he watched his plot in horror and desperate hope. Lady Harrington's runabout was accelerating madly, at a rate not even one of the new LACs could have matched, as she raced up on Grayson One's flank. The fleet little vessel rolled as it closed, turning the plane of its wedge perpendicular to Grayson One's, and he knew what she meant to do.
   She was turning her own vessel into the sidewall Grayson One lacked, deliberately positioning herself to take the missile's attack herself.
   If it was a contact nuke, she would probably survive, for her impeller wedge, though much smaller than Grayson One's, was just as impenetrable. But if the weapon was a laser head and detonated even slightly above or below her ship, it was virtually certain to kill her.
   Yet either way, Grayson One would survive, and Sullivan closed his eyes to pray for the Steadholder.
* * *
   "I'm in position, Grayson One," Honor said into the com, her soprano crisp and clear. "Alter ninety degrees to starboard, same plane, on my mark. Do you copy?"
   "Aye, My Lady. We copy," a voice came back. And then, a moment later, "Tester bless, My Lady."
   She made no response, watching her plot, her hand light on the stick. She felt Nimitz in the back of her brain, felt his love and courage clinging to her, supporting her, never questioning her decision. And beyond him, she could taste the terror and matching determination of Wayne Alexander at his engineer's station and Andrew LaFollet alone in the passenger compartment.
   The LACs were still firing, and her mouth quirked a humorless smile. It would be bitterly ironic if one of the LACs accidentally hit and killed Candless before the missile ever reached her, but she didn't even consider ordering them off. Even if she'd had the authority to do so, she was in position to protect — to try to protect, she corrected herself grimly — only one ship. Queen Adrienne was on her own, for none of the screening units were close enough to attempt Honor's own insane maneuver. Which meant the only chance the Manticoran ship had was for one of the LACs to get lucky against the missiles. But the missiles were streaking straight in now, popping up higher, swinging a little ahead of their targets, and that meant they were going to go for down-the-throat shots, but they were already inside the threshold for laser head detonation, so that meant—
   The oncoming missile's seekers abruptly went active, and it swerved.
   "Break, Grayson One! Break now!" she snapped, and the yacht wrenched around to starboard.
   Jamie Candless rode the flank of Benjamin Mayhew's ship like a limpet. There'd been no time to precalculate or rehearse the maneuver. Honor did it by hand and eye, holding her position, watching the missile roar in, seeing it vanish from her sensors at last as the belly of her wedge swung up to cut it off. It disappeared, and she held her breath, waiting for it to pop up at the last instant, and then—
   A twenty-megaton warhead detonated less than fifty kilometers from her ship. For one fleeting instant, Jamie Candless was trapped in the very heart of a star, and Honor's canopy went black as the armorplast polarized. But even through her own visceral stab of terror, a corner of her mind exulted, for it was a standard nuke, not a laser head. And that meant there was a chance, if only—
   The plasma wave came on the heels of the flash, ripping out across Grayson One's course. But Honor had anticipated that. Her order to turn away had snatched the vulnerable open throat of the yacht's wedge — and her own — away from the center of detonation. The true fury of the explosion wasted itself against Candless' belly stress band. Only its fringes reached out past the wedge, and generators shrieked in torment as the particle and radiation shielding which protected the throat of any impeller wedge took the shock. Those generators were designed to protect the ships which mounted them against normal space particles and debris at velocities of up to eighty percent of light-speed. Grayson One and Candless were moving far slower than that, at barely nine thousand KPS, but their shielding had never been expected to face the holocaust which suddenly erupted across their base course, and the demon howl of the generators and the scream of audible warnings filled the universe. Honor yanked on the stick, jerking Candless away from what she hoped was still the bearing to Grayson One, and her darkened flight deck was a trapped, madly heaving pocket of hell as she shot the rapids of nuclear destruction.
   They weren't going to make it. She knew they weren't.
   And then, suddenly, the generators stopped shrieking.
   Her eyes darted over her HUD, and she drew a deep, shuddery breath. One of her antiparticle generators was gone and the other was damaged — she'd be going back to Grayson at a very low velocity — but she was alive, and so was Grayson One! She stared at the icon of the Protector's yacht, watching as the bigger ship's wedge flickered and went down. Grayson One was hurt, but her com link to the yacht's flight deck was still open, and the bridge crew's harsh, staccato reports told her all she needed to know. Hurt the ship might be, but she was intact... and so were her passengers!
   But then, on the heels of her elation, a fist of shock struck, for there was only one golden icon on her HUD.


   "So as soon as the last missile pods go aboard Nicator and Nestor, we'll be ready to resume operations," Captain Granston-Henley told the assembled flag officers of Eighth Fleet. "Admiral White Haven—" she nodded to where Hamish Alexander sat at the head of the conference table "—has decided to proceed on the basis of Sheridan One. As you all know, this ops plan calls for—"
   She broke off in midsentence as Commander McTierney, White Haven's com officer, suddenly jerked upright in her chair. The movement was so sudden, so unexpected, it drew all eyes, but McTierney didn't notice. She only cupped one hand over the earbug she kept tuned at all times to the Flag communications center, and her startled audience could actually see the color draining from her face.
   She closed her eyes for a moment, then punched a stud on her panel.
   "Repeat that — in full!" she barked, and the admirals and commodores watched her shoulders slump as she listened to the earbug once more. Then she shook her head, and when she looked up at White Haven, the earl was dumbfounded to see tears in her eyes.
   "What is it, Cindy?" he asked quickly, and she licked her lips.
   "It's a flash priority from the Admiralty via Trevor's Star, My Lord. The courier boat just arrived and squealed it to FlagCom. It says... Sir, it says the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary are dead!"
   "What?" Despite himself, Hamish Alexander came halfway out of his chair, and McTierney nodded miserably.
   "They sent the message off before they had full information, Sir. But according to what they did know, it looks like it was Masadan Faithful. Somehow they got their hands on a couple of modern weapons — some sort of stealth missile or drone; BuWeaps is still trying to figure out which — and smuggled them into attack range of Grayson One and Queen Adrienne." The Grayson officers in the compartment, already as shocked as their Allied counterparts, stiffened in unison, but McTierney went on speaking to the earl. "They were contact nukes, Sir. Somehow they managed to home on their targets, but Duchess Harrington intercepted the one headed for Grayson One with the wedge of her runabout." No one noticed the sudden, very personal fear which flickered in Hamish Alexander's eyes. "She stopped that one, but the other got through. There were... no survivors." McTierney swallowed hard and drew a deep breath.
   "Chancellor Prestwick and Councilor Hodges were aboard Queen Adrienne with the Prime Minister and Earl Gold Peak, Sir," she said very quietly. "But the Queen and Protector Benjamin were both aboard Grayson One. If Duchess Harrington hadn't—"
   She broke off, and White Haven nodded grimly.
   "And Duchess Harrington?" he asked, trying to make his voice come out normally, knowing he'd failed, and hoping no one else would notice in their shock.
   "She took it on the belly of her wedge, Sir. She survived." A rustle and stir ran through the frozen compartment as more than one officer stifled a cheer. "Her runabout took some severe damage, but the Admiralty says she's fine."
   "Thank the Tester for that," Judah Yanakov breathed, and White Haven gave another, choppy nod. Elation at Honor's survival surged up in him, warring with the icy shock of the totally unexpected news, and he closed his eyes while he made himself step back and consider it with a semblance of calm.
   A muted mutter of conversation sprang up all about him, but no one spoke directly to him, and he wondered if he was glad. They're waiting, he thought. Waiting for me, as Eighth Fleet's commander, to tell them what it all means... and where we go from here. But, my God — what does it mean?
   His brain began to work with something like its accustomed speed as the initial shock receded. Of all the officers in the compartment, he was undoubtedly the best informed on the strengths and weaknesses of the Cromarty Government, since his brother was Chancellor of the Exchequer. By longstanding tradition, the person who held that post was not only the second ranking member of the Cabinet but the individual who took over as Prime Minister if something happened to the incumbent.
   But that was under normal circumstances, and these were anything but normal. And if what Willie had told him about the balance in the House of Lords was as accurate as his brother's analyses usually were, then—
   Hamish Alexander looked squarely into the abyss of the future, and what he saw there frightened him.
* * *
   "Your Majesty, Countess New Kiev, Lady Descroix, and Baron High Ridge are here."
   Elizabeth III nodded to the footman who had showed the senior leaders of the Opposition into her study as if their visit to Mount Royal Palace were completely routine. But it wasn't, and the brown eyes which met her visitors were harder than steel. There were dark circles under those eyes, etched by personal grief for a beloved uncle and cousin and a Prime Minister who had become, in many ways, a second father. But there was more than grief in those circles. There was the knowledge of the chaos Allen Summervale's death had wreaked on domestic Manticoran politics... and the reason her "guests" were here.
   Remember that, she told herself. Remember that what matters are the consequences, and whatever you do, don't lose your temper!
   She gritted her mental teeth, holding firmly to her resolve, and made herself smile as the political leaders were ushered in. She'd deliberately chosen an informal setting for this meeting, although she knew no one present could be fooled about how crucial it was, and she studied her "guests" carefully, making herself look at each of them as if they had never met.
   Or trying to, anyway.
   Michael Janvier, Baron High Ridge, was a tall, spindly man, with cold little eyes and a smile which always made Elizabeth think of a vulture or some other carrion eater. She knew much of her dislike for the man stemmed from her disgust at his isolationist, reactionary, power-seeking politics, and she usually tried to make herself be fairminded where he was concerned. Not today. Today she felt Ariel trembling on her shoulder, whiplashed between the grief he'd endured from his person's sense of loss and the exultation brimming within the cadaverous leader of the Conservative Association, and she wanted nothing more than to strangle him with her bare hands.
   The women with him were another proposition entirely — physically, at least. Lady Elaine Descroix, who, with her cousin, the Earl of Gray Hill, headed the Progressive Party, was a small woman, barely a meter and a half tall, with dark hair and eyes and a sweet, smiling face. On first meeting her and her cousin, people tended to assume Gray Hill was the dominant partner, but astute political observers knew who truly called the shots for the Progressives. Many of those observers also felt Descroix was even more amoral than High Ridge, and she'd become increasingly desperate as the war dragged out and the Progressives' position in the House of Commons continued its steady erosion. That had never been a problem for High Ridge, of course, since the Conservative Association had no representation in the Commons.
   Maria Turner, Countess New Kiev, was almost as tall as High Ridge, but she was a trim and shapely woman, with long, chestnut hair in a carefully sculpted, windswept style. Her blue eyes burned just as brightly as High Ridge's, and Elizabeth hardly needed Honor Harrington's empathic ability to taste her excitement, but at least New Kiev didn't radiate the aura of indecent anticipation High Ridge and Descroix projected so strongly.
   That didn't make things any better, though, for what New Kiev lacked in personal ambition, she more than made up in ideological fervor. Elizabeth could conceive of very few people with whom New Kiev had less in common than High Ridge, but the last decade had thrown the two firmly together. Much as they disliked one another, and divergent as their ultimate goals might be, they both hated Allen Summervale's Centrists even more, and all three of her visitors were painfully aware of the disasters into which their parties had wandered since the outbreak of war. Elizabeth knew the three of them had already agreed on how they would carve up the government if they ever came to power, which spheres each party's policies would be allowed to dominate. It wouldn't last, of course. They were too fundamentally opposed on too many issues for any alliance to hold together for more than a T-year or two, but that didn't matter at this moment.
   "Your Majesty." High Ridge murmured the greeting and took the hand she offered him. "On behalf of the Conservative Association," he said, oozing unction, "allow me to express our profound grief at the loss you — and the entire Star Kingdom — have suffered."
   "Thank you, My Lord." Elizabeth tried to sound as if she meant it and held out her hand to Descroix.
   "A terrible thing, Your Majesty," Descroix said. "Just terrible."
   She patted the hand she held and gave the Queen one of her patented sweet smiles, this one nicely tinged with an edge of sadness and determination to be brave, and Elizabeth nodded back, then extended her hand to New Kiev in turn.
   "Your Majesty." New Kiev's soprano was cooler and graver than her allies' voices, and her eyes darkened with genuine sorrow for just a moment. "The Liberal Party also wishes me to express our grief, and especially for Earl Gold Peak. He and I disagreed over many policy points, but he was an honest and an honorable man, and I considered him a friend. I'll miss him badly."
   "Thank you," Elizabeth said, and managed a small smile. But she also added, "The Star Kingdom will miss both my uncle and Duke Cromarty."
   "I'm sure we will, Your Majesty," New Kiev agreed, but her mouth tightened and the sadness in her eyes gave way to a flicker of anger at Cromarty's name.
   "I'm sure you know why I asked you to see me," Elizabeth went on after a moment, waving her visitors to chairs.
   "I think so, Your Majesty," High Ridge said. Descroix nodded firmly, but Elizabeth had expected that, and it was New Kiev she watched. But the countess only glanced at the baron, then nodded in turn, and Elizabeth's heart sank. If they'd decided to let High Ridge do the talking, her frail hope of making them see reason had just become even frailer. "I would assume," the baron continued, "that you wished to discuss the formation of a new government."
   "That's precisely what I want to discuss." Elizabeth regarded him for a moment, then decided to take the bull by the horns. "In particular, I want to discuss the situation in the House of Lords as it relates to the formation of a new government."
   "I see." High Ridge leaned back and crossed his legs, propping his elbows on the arms of his chair to steeple his fingers under his chin so he could nod in properly grave fashion. But he also didn't rush out to meet the Queen halfway, and Elizabeth's eyes hardened a bit more as they rested on his face.
   Your temper, she reminded herself. Watch your damned temper! You don't have Allen to make sure you hang onto it anymore.
   "As I'm sure you're all aware," she went on after a moment, "the Centrists and Crown Loyalists did not enjoy an absolute majority in the Lords. The Government possessed a working majority, but that was the result of the support of two dozen of the nonaligned peers."
   "Yes, it was," High Ridge agreed when she paused, and cocked his head as if to ask what her point might be.
   Elizabeth bit down on a sudden spike of anger. She'd always known High Ridge, for all his prating about the nobility of his birth, was a petty man. She'd even known he was an insensitive man, one to whom no one else was quite real or particularly mattered. But she hadn't realized he was also a stupid one... yet only a stupid man indeed would have deliberately antagonized the Queen of Manticore.
   "Let's get directly to the point, My Lord," she told him, her voice flat. "With Allen Summervale's death, his government has lost its majority in the Lords. You know it, and I know it. The nonaligned peers' support was held together in large part by his personal relationships with them. Lord Alexander, the Prime Minister's logical successor, does not command those same alliances, and without them, he can't form a government as required under the Constitution."
   "True, Your Majesty," High Ridge murmured, and Elizabeth felt a subsonic snarl ripple through the long, slender body on her shoulder as Ariel tasted his emotions.
   "This is not the moment for the Star Kingdom to be paralyzed by a power struggle, My Lord," she said bluntly. "I invited you, Lady Descroix, and Countess New Kiev here, as the acknowledged leaders of the Opposition, to request your support. As your Queen, I ask you to recognize the grave challenges — and opportunities — arising from the recent turn in the course of the war. I would like you to agree to form a coalition government, with Lord Alexander as Prime Minister, for the duration of the conflict."
   "Your Majesty," High Ridge began, just a bit too quickly for it to be a spontaneous reaction to her request, "I'm very sorry, but—"
   "It won't be for long," Elizabeth overrode him, but her eyes were on New Kiev. "The Admiralty and my civilian analysts all agree that at the present operational tempo, and in light of the decisive technological advantage our forces currently enjoy, the war will be over within another six months, nine at the outside. All I ask is that you support the present government and its policies long enough for this Kingdom and its people to grasp the victory within its reach."
   "Your Majesty," High Ridge said firmly, like a tutor reclaiming the floor from a willful student, "I'm very sorry, but that won't be possible. There have been far too many fundamental disagreements, of both policy and principle, between the Opposition and the Cromarty Government, and Lord Alexander has been too strongly associated with those disagreements. If I were to propose such an arrangement to the party caucus, half of my colleagues would flatly refuse to accept it."
   "My Lord," Elizabeth showed her teeth in something only the most charitable could have called a smile, "I have great faith in your persuasiveness. I feel confident that if you truly put your mind to it, you could... convince the Association to support you."
   High Ridge flinched ever so slightly as her pointed tone penetrated even his armor. The Conservative Association's party discipline was legendary, and everyone knew it would vote exactly as he told it to, but he seemed not to have expected the Queen to call him on his evasion, however indirectly. Yet his hesitation, if that was what it had been, was brief, and he raised his hands in a small, regretful gesture.
   "I'm sorry, Your Majesty, but it would be impossible, as a matter of principle, for the Conservative Association to support a coalition cabinet under Lord Alexander."
   "I see." Elizabeth's voice was chilled steel. She gazed at him for a long, silent moment, then shifted her icy eyes to Lady Descroix. "And the Progressives, Milady?"
   "Oh, dear." Descroix sighed, then shook her head regretfully. "I truly wish we could oblige you, Your Majesty, but I'm afraid it's impossible. Simply impossible."
   Elizabeth only nodded and switched her eyes to New Kiev. The countess winced, but her chin rose and she met the Queen's eyes squarely.
   "Your Majesty, I'm afraid the Liberal Party would find it equally impossible to support Lord Alexander as Prime Minister."
   Elizabeth leaned back in her chair, and the temperature in the comfortable room seemed to drop perceptibly. New Kiev fidgeted ever so slightly, but High Ridge sat motionless, as if completely calm, under his Queen's basilisk gaze, and Lady Descroix only wrung her hands in her lap and concentrated on looking small and helpless.
   "I have asked you, as is my right as your monarch, to accede to my wishes in the interests of the Star Kingdom's security," Elizabeth said coldly. "I have not asked you to abandon your principles. I have not asked you to embrace or pretend to embrace any ideology offensive to you or to your party members. My only concern is the continuity of leadership necessary to win the current war and establish a lasting peace. I ask you to rise above the pettiness of party politics — of all parties' politics, not just your own — and prove worthy of this moment in history."
   She paused, waiting, but they merely looked back at her. New Kiev's face was taut, her eyes troubled, but there was no retreat in it, and High Ridge looked no more than blandly attentive, while Descroix looked worried but bravely determined. Elizabeth felt her temper fighting the chain she'd fastened upon it and reminded herself yet again that it was her duty to get these people to agree to a compromise.
   "Very well," she said. "Let's lay all the cards on the table, shall we? I fully realize that the Conservative Association, the Progressive Party, and the Liberal Party between them possess sufficient votes in the Lords, in the absence of the nonaligned peers, to form a government. I also realize that the three of you control sufficient votes to prevent Lord Alexander from forming a government, despite the fact that the Centrists and Crown Loyalists hold a majority of over twenty percent in the House of Commons. And I know your reasons — your true reasons — for refusing to form a coalition government."
   She paused, daring any one of them to deny her implication that all their talk of "principles" was a tissue of lies, but none of them seemed prepared to take up that particular challenge, and her lip curled ever so slightly.
   "I am fully conversant," she went on with cold precision, "with the reality of partisan politics here in the Star Kingdom. I had hoped that you would prove capable of rising above that reality, if only briefly, at this critical moment, because at this instant, I cannot compel you to do so, and you know it. A protracted struggle between the Crown and a majority Opposition in the Lords could have disastrous consequences upon the war, and unlike you, I do not have the option of neglecting my responsibilities to this Star Kingdom and its people in order to play petty, ambitious, shortsighted, and stupid political games."
   Her contempt was withering, and New Kiev flushed darkly, but the countess showed no sign of deserting her allies.
   "I submit to you," Elizabeth continued, "that however firmly united you may be at this moment, your fundamental policies and principles are too basically opposed for that unity to last. You can, if you choose, use it at this moment to ignore my wishes, but you do so at your peril, for it will come to an end... and the Crown will still be here."
   There was a moment of dead silence, and even High Ridge sounded slightly shaken when he broke it.
   "Is that a threat, Your Majesty?" he asked almost incredulously.
   "It is a reminder, My Lord. A reminder that the House of Winton knows its friends... and also those who are not its friends. We Wintons have long memories, Baron. If you truly wish to have me as an enemy, it can certainly be arranged, but I urge you to think very carefully first."
   "Your Majesty, you can't simply threaten and browbeat peers of the realm!" High Ridge's voice was hot as his mask slipped for the first time. "We, too, have a legitimate role and function in the government of the Star Kingdom, and our collective judgment carries at least as much weight as that of a single individual, whoever she may be. You are our Queen. As your subjects, we are duty bound to listen to you and to weigh your views, but you are not a dictator, and we are not slaves! We will act as we deem best, in accordance with our interpretation of the domestic and foreign situation, and any breach between us and the Crown will not be of our making!"
   "This interview is over," Elizabeth said, and stood, shaking with fury, too angry even to notice the incredulity in her guests eyes as she violated all the solemn protocol of the occasion. "I can't keep you from forming a government. Send me your list of ministers. I want it by noon tomorrow. I will act upon it immediately. But —" her eyes stabbed each of them in turn "—remember this day. You're right, My Lord. I'm not a dictator, and I refuse to act like one simply because of your own stupidity and arrogance. But I need not be a `dictator' to deal with the likes of you, either, and the time will come when you — when all of you — will rue this day!"
   And with that, she turned and stormed out of the salon.


   "They refused, didn't they?" William Alexander said wearily as Elizabeth III stalked into the room. The glare she gave him was more eloquent than words, and he shrugged exhausted shoulders. "We knew they were going to, Your Majesty. The way they see it, they had no choice."
   "Why not?"
   Alexander turned to the speaker. According to the normal rules of protocol, Honor Harrington had no business in that room at that time. Duchess or no, she had never been a member of the Cromarty Government and had no official role in the formation of its successor. But Elizabeth had wanted her here, and so had Benjamin Mayhew, who was as aware of the critical importance of this moment as any Manticoran. His own situation on Grayson was much simpler, since his Constitution gave him the authority to simply select the individual of his choice as Chancellor and not even the Keys could tell him no. Elizabeth, unfortunately, did not enjoy a matching degree of authority. Her Prime Minister was required by law to control a majority vote in the House of Lords. It was part of the restrictions the original colonists had put in place to protect their own and their children's control of the Star Kingdom, and unlike many others of those restrictions, it survived intact. There had been past instances in which a Manticoran monarch had been compelled to accept a prime minister not of his or her choice, but they had not been happy ones. The Crown was too intimately involved in the day-to-day running of the Star Kingdom for a contest of wills between the monarch and the prime minister to be anything other than a potential disaster. As a rule, the Winton Dynasty had recognized that time was on its side and worked to minimize conflicts with prime ministers it didn't care for on the theory that the Crown could outlast any majority, but there had been cases when that had proven impossible and all-out warfare between Crown and Cabinet had brought the business of governing almost to a halt.
   Which was the one thing no one could afford at this moment.
   "Why don't they have a choice?" Honor asked. "If it's understood from the beginning that the arrangement is temporary, only an interim compromise to get us through the end of the war, surely they can give at least some ground!"
   Elizabeth laughed, a sharp, ugly sound, and Honor looked at her.
   "I'm sorry, Honor," the Queen said after a moment. "And I wasn't laughing at you. But expecting these idiots to give ground over a matter of principle is like... like expecting a treecat to refuse a celery stick!"
   "I wouldn't put it quite that way myself," Alexander said, and paused to consider his words carefully. He lacked Honor's ability to feel the Queen's fury pulsing like some physical furnace, but he'd known her for years. He didn't need any special empathic ability to realize how frayed her temper's leash was, and the one thing he truly dreaded was the breaking of that leash.
   "How would you put it, then?" the Queen demanded, and he shrugged.
   "The way they see it, they have to take this opportunity, which — as far as they're concerned — is a perfectly legitimate exercise of political power, to take control away from the Centrists and Crown Loyalists. They have no choice, assuming they want to repair the damage their base of popular support has suffered."
   Honor quirked an eyebrow at him, and he sighed.
   "The Opposition has shot itself in the foot repeatedly. In its prewar opposition to the naval buildup and the extension of the Alliance. In its refusal to vote out a formal declaration of war after Hancock Station. In the way it treated you, Your Grace. And in the way it reacted to McQueen's offensives." He snorted a bitter laugh of his own. "I almost felt sorry for them while we were making the final preparations for Hamish's offensive, because I knew they were cutting their own throats by accelerating their criticism of our military policy just when we were getting ready to squeeze the trigger. But the point is that they've adopted an entire succession of positions which turned out to be wrong. Or which the voters regarded as wrong, at any rate; I rather doubt that people like New Kiev or High Ridge would admit they really had been wrong even now.
   "What that's meant for them," he went on, "is that we Centrists have reaped the advantages of being right while they've been made to look like idiots. We hold a twenty percent majority in the Commons right now. If elections were held tomorrow, we could easily double that, and possibly do even better, and that's what has the Opposition — and even some of the nonaligned peers who supported Allen — scared to death."
   "Excuse me?" Honor cocked her head, and he grinned crookedly.
   "Think about it, Your Grace. The Centrists and the Crown Loyalists, the two parties which have always been most supportive of the Crown, have fought the entire war despite the endless obstructionism of the Opposition, all of whom predicted that any war with Haven could end only in disaster. Now, having persevered in the face of that obstructionism, we're on the brink of achieving complete military victory... and just as we caught the blame for `lack of preparedness' when McQueen uncorked her offensives, we're about to get the credit for winning the `impossible' war.
   "The Opposition has been terrified ever since Hamish kicked off Buttercup that Allen would call a general election as soon as the PRH surrendered. They figured, correctly, that their representation in the Commons would be devastated at the polls. And they also figured that with a crushing majority in the Commons, plus the full-blooded support of the Crown, plus the prestige of having been proved a great war leader, Allen would be in a position to rout all opposition in the Lords, as well. The Liberals were afraid their demands for social reform would get plowed under, and the Progressives and Conservatives were afraid Elizabeth and Allen would manage what every Winton since Elizabeth I has hoped to accomplish: finally break the House of Lord's monopoly on the initiation of finance bills and the right of consent for Crown appointments. So even though, ultimately, they can't stand one another, the Opposition parties see no choice but to cooperate and make damned sure no Centrists or Crown Loyalists are anywhere near the peace settlement when the Peeps actually surrender. That way they get credit for winning the war... and we don't. Not only that, but it lets them decide when to call the next general election, and you can be certain that they'll spend a year or two repairing fences by waving domestic policy carrots under the electorate's nose before they do."
   "I see." Honor's tone was leached of all expression, and Elizabeth gave her a bleak smile.
   "Welcome to the reality of partisan politics, Manticoran style," the Queen said. "I'm sure from some of the things he said before I left for home that Benjamin had a shrewd notion of where our domestic politics were headed, and I don't blame him for being worried. I wouldn't trust the Opposition to organize a drinking party in a distillery, but there doesn't seem to be any way to prevent them from forming the next government. Which means these cretins will be formulating policy for the Star Kingdom, which means, effectively, for the entire Alliance, unless I publically oppose them and bring on a constitutional crisis which could be even more dangerous than letting this fumble-fingered troop of self-serving, egotistical, power-hungry incompetents run the show!"
   Honor winced at the barely suppressed rage in Elizabeth's tone, but there was something else under it — a raw, driving fury, fueled by some inner agony, which had to stem from more than seeing her will thwarted or even disgust with the Opposition's partisanship.
   "Excuse me, Your Majesty," she heard herself say very gently, "but there's more to it than just that. For you at least." Elizabeth's eyebrows shot up, but then her gaze flicked to where Nimitz crouched on the perch next to Ariel.
   "Yes. Yes, you would know that, wouldn't you?" she murmured, and Honor nodded. She could hardly believe she'd said a word, for she had no business prying into her Queen's private affairs, but something about Elizabeth's pain left her no choice. She couldn't taste that much hurt and not try to do something about it.
   "There is more," Elizabeth said, looking away from the two humans. She stood and reached out to Ariel, gathering the treecat in her arms, and buried her face in his fur. He purred to her loudly, caressing her cheek with one true-hand, and she drew a deep breath before she turned back to Honor and Alexander.
   "Very few people know this," she told them, "and as your Queen, I must have your oaths that no one will hear of it from you — except, perhaps, Benjamin himself, in your case, Honor." Her guests looked at one another, then nodded and turned back to her, and she squared her shoulders.
   "You both know my father was killed in a grav-skiing accident. What you don't know is that the `accident' was nothing of the sort. He was assassinated." Honor sucked in air, feeling as if someone had just punched her in the belly. "He was, in fact, murdered by certain Manticoran politicians opposed to his military policies... and effectively in the pay of the People's Republic of Haven," Elizabeth went on bleakly. "They hoped to put a teenaged Heir — me — on the throne and to control my choice of regent in order to... redirect Manticoran policy away from preparing to resist Peep aggression. That was the long-term goal. As for the short-term one—" she smiled mirthlessly "—you will no doubt recall that it was very shortly after my father's death that the Peeps moved in on Trevor's Star. I have no doubt they counted on the confusion engendered by Dad's death to paralyze any potential attempt on our part to prevent them from securing control of one terminus of the Junction."