"My God, Elizabeth!" Alexander was so shaken he forgot the titles he was usually so careful to use in his official relationship with the Queen. "If you knew that, why didn't you tell someone?!"
   "I couldn't," Elizabeth said, her voice bleaker than ever, harrowed and brittle with old pain. "We weren't ready for open war, and any charge that the Legislaturalists had orchestrated Dad's murder might have led to just that. Even if it hadn't, the proof that Havenite agents had actually penetrated the highest levels of our own government and assassinated the King could only have led to massive witch-hunts which would have crippled us domestically when we had to be strong and united to support the military buildup. And that sort of bitter, denunciatory mutual suspicion would only have made it even easier for future Havenite agents to denounce the `traitors' more loudly than anyone else in order to get themselves into positions of power here at home."
   She closed her eyes briefly, her expression haggard and haunted, and her nostrils flared.
   "I wanted them dead. God, how I wanted them dead! But Allen and Aunt Caitrin — especially Aunt Caitrin — convinced me that I couldn't have them arrested and tried. I even wanted to challenge them to duels and kill them with my own hands if I couldn't have them tried." She smiled crookedly at the sudden understanding on Honor's face, and nodded. "Which is why I sympathized so deeply with you over that bastard North Hollow, Honor," she admitted. "But the same things which made it impossible to try them made a duel even more impossible, and so I had to let them go. I had to let the men and women who'd murdered my father out of cold, self-serving ambition live."
   She turned away and stared blindly out a window onto the wondrous light show of Mount Royal Palace's night-struck landscaping, and Honor shook her head. The Peeps had assassinated King Roger in order to put a weak, easily manipulated "teenager" on the throne? If it had been possible, she would almost have felt sorry for the people who'd gotten Elizabeth III instead.
   "And now this," Elizabeth said at last, so softly it was difficult to hear her. "We may never prove it, but I'm convinced — I know —the Peeps were behind what happened at Yeltsin's Star. The Faithful may have been the actual triggermen, but it was the Peeps who got them the weapons... and probably the ones who suggested to the Faithful that they ought to `convince' Mueller to smuggle the targeting beacons on board by giving them to me and Allen."
   And Mueller's paid for it, too, Honor thought grimly.
   The steadholder had been impeached, tried, and condemned to death in barely one week, and sentence had been carried out immediately. There had been no question who'd handed the memory stones to Elizabeth and Cromarty, and his fate had been sealed from the moment the beacon inside Elizabeth's stone had been discovered.
   She was pulled away from the brief distraction when Elizabeth turned back from the window.
   "And some analysts wonder why I hate the People's Republic so bitterly," she said flatly. "The answer's simple enough, isn't it? The Legislaturalists and Internal Security murdered my father thirty-four years ago. Now the Committee of Public Safety and State Security have murdered my Prime Minister, my uncle, my cousin, and their entire staffs, plus all their security people and the entire crew of my yacht. People I've known for years. Friends. They attempted to murder me, my aunt, and Benjamin Mayhew, as well, and failed only because of you, Honor. Nothing changes where the Peeps are concerned. And these people — these imbeciles —have been prating about `restraint' and `measured responses' and `peaceable resolution of conflicts' to me for ten T-years while Allen and I fought the war despite them, and now they even want to deny him any legacy for all he accomplished?!" She bared her teeth and shook her head, and her voice held the flat, terrible tang of iron when she spoke again. "I may not be able to stop them from forming a partisan government and excluding you from it, Willie. Not now. But I promise you this: the day will come when these people will remember the warning I just gave them."


   Oscar Saint-Just closed the file and leaned back in his chair.
   There was no one else present, and so no eyes saw what many would have sworn was impossible: a tiny tremor, quivering through the fingers of both hands before he clasped them tightly to still it.
   He gazed at nothing for endless seconds, and there was a great stillness at his core. For the first time since Rob Pierre's death, he felt hope growing somewhere deep inside, and he sucked in a deep breath, held it, and then exhaled noisily.
   He'd never really expected Hassan to work. He admitted that to himself now, although he hadn't been able to earlier. Not when it had been so essential that the plan must work. The decapitation of the Alliance had been his only hope as the military situation crumbled, and so he'd made himself believe Hassan would succeed, that he only had to hang on just a little longer.
   And it truly had worked in the end. Not as fully as he'd hoped it might, true, but it had worked.
   He'd been bitterly disappointed when the preliminary reports indicated that Benjamin Mayhew and Elizabeth III had both escaped, and he'd ground his teeth when he discovered who'd made that possible. There were very few points upon which Oscar Saint-Just and the late, unlamented Cordelia Ransom had ever been in perfect agreement, but Honor Harrington was one of them. The only difference between Saint-Just and Ransom was that Saint-Just would simply have had her quietly shot and stuffed in an unmarked grave without ever admitting he'd even seen her.
   But as the first, fragmentary reports about the domestic Manty reaction to Hassan came in, Saint-Just had begun to realize it might actually be better this way. If he'd gotten Elizabeth and Benjamin but not Cromarty, Elizabeth's son would simply have assumed the throne with the same Government in place. At best, the result would have been only to delay the inevitable, not stop it. But by killing Cromarty and leaving Elizabeth alive, Saint-Just had inadvertently created a totally different situation. When the Manty Opposition's leadership announced its decision to form a government which excluded Cromarty's Centrists and the Crown Loyalists, a dazzling opportunity had landed squarely in Oscar Saint-Just's lap, and he had no intention of letting it slip away.
   He pressed a button on his intercom.
   "Yes, Citizen Chairman?" his secretary replied instantly.
   "Get me Citizen Secretary Kersaint and Citizen Secretary Mosley," Saint-Just directed. "Tell them I need to see them immediately."
   "At once, Citizen Chairman!"
   Saint-Just leaned back in his chair once more, folding his hands and gazing up at the ceiling while he waited for the PRH's new foreign minister and the woman who'd replaced Leonard Boardman at Public Information. Both of their predecessors had been in the Octagon — hostages or traitors, no one really knew — when Saint-Just ordered the button pushed, and they were undeniably inexperienced in their new positions. On the other hand, both of them were terrified of Oscar Saint-Just, and he felt confident that they'd manage to do exactly what he wanted of them.
* * *
   "All right, Allyson," White Haven said, rubbing sleep from his eyes. "I'm awake."
   He looked at the bedside chrono and winced. Benjamin the Great ran on standard twenty-four-hour days rather than the twenty-two-plus-hour days of Manticore, and it was just after 03:00. He'd been in bed barely three hours, and he was due to attend the final admirals' briefing before kicking off against Lovat in only five more hours.
   This had better be important, he told himself, and punched buttons on his com.
   The terminal blinked to life with Captain Granston-Henley's face. It was a one-ended visual link — White Haven had no intention of letting anyone see him draggle-edged with sleep — but he hardly even thought about that as her expression registered.
   "What is it?" His voice was rather less caustic than he'd planned, and Granston-Henley gathered her wits with a visible effort.
   "We just received a dispatch boat, My Lord. From the Peeps."
   "From the Peeps?" White Haven repeated very carefully, and she nodded.
   "Yes, Sir. She came over the hyper-wall twenty-six minutes ago. We just picked up her transmission five minutes and—" she glanced at a chrono of her own "—thirty seconds ago. It was in the clear, Sir."
   "And it said?" he prompted as she paused as if uncertain how to proceed.
   "It's a direct message from Saint-Just to Her Majesty, My Lord," Granston-Henley said. "He wants— Sir, he says he wants to convene peace talks!"
* * *
   Elizabeth III came to her feet in one supple motion, and her fist slammed down on the conference-room table like a hammer. More than one person in the room flinched, but Prime Minister High Ridge and Foreign Secretary Descroix seemed totally unperturbed.
   "Your Majesty, this offer must be given deep and serious consideration," High Ridge said into the ringing silence.
   "No," Elizabeth repeated, her voice lower but even more intense, and her brown eyes locked on the Prime Minister like a ship of the wall's main battery. "It's a trick. A desperation move."
   "Whatever it is, and whatever Citizen Chairman Saint-Just's motives," Descroix said in the tone of sweet reason Elizabeth had come to loathe passionately, "the fact remains that it offers a chance to stop the fighting. And the dying, Your Majesty. Not just on the PRH's side, but on our own, as well."
   "If we let Saint-Just squirm out now, when we have the power to crush him and his regime, it will be a betrayal of every man and woman who died to get us to this point," Elizabeth said flatly. "And it will also be a betrayal of our partners in the Alliance, who count on our leadership and support for their very survival! There's only one way to insure peace with the People's Republic, and that is to defeat it, destroy its military capabilities, and make certain they stay destroyed!"
   "Your Majesty, violence never settled anything," Home Secretary New Kiev said. The countess looked uncomfortable under the scornful glance the Queen turned upon her, but she shook her own head stubbornly. "My opposition to this war has always been based on the belief that peaceful resolution of conflicts is vastly preferable to a resort to violence. If the previous government had realized that and given peace a chance following the Harris Assassination, we might have ended the fighting ten years ago! I realize you don't believe that was possible, but I and many of the others in this room do. Perhaps you were right at the time and we were wrong, but we'll never know either way, because the opportunity was rejected. But this time we have a definite offer from the other side, a specific proposal to end the killing, and I feel we have an imperative moral responsibility to seriously consider anything which can do that."
   " `Specific proposal'?" Elizabeth repeated, and jabbed a contemptuous index finger at the memo pad before her. "All he proposes is a cease-fire in place — which neatly saves him from the loss of Lovat and his capital system — to provide a `breathing space' for negotiations! And as for this sanctimonious crap about `sharing your pain at the loss of your assassinated leaders' because the same thing happened to them—!"
   Her lips worked as if she wanted to spit.
   "The situations certainly aren't precise parallels, but both of us have experienced major changes in government," High Ridge pointed out with oily calm. "While everyone, of course, deeply regrets the deaths of Duke Cromarty and Earl Gold Peak, it's possible that the shift in political realities and perceptions resulting from that tragedy may actually have some beneficial results. I can hardly conceive of Pierre having sent us an offer like this one, but Saint-Just is obviously a more pragmatic man. No doubt it was the change in governments which led him to believe we might seriously entertain the notion of a negotiated settlement. And if that's true, then the final peace settlement would, in a way, become a monument to Duke Cromarty and your uncle, Your Majesty."
   "If you ever mention my uncle to me again, I will personally push your face through the top of this table," Elizabeth told him in a flat, deadly tone, and the baron recoiled physically from her. He started to speak quickly, then stopped as an even more deadly hiss came from the treecat on her shoulder. High Ridge licked his lips, eyes locked on Ariel as the 'cat bared bone-white fangs, then swallowed heavily.
   "I... beg your pardon, Your Majesty," he said at last, into the stunned silence. "I meant no disrespect to your— I mean, I was merely attempting to say that the changes on both sides of the battle line, however regrettable some may have been, may also have created a climate in which genuine negotiations and an end to the fighting have become possible. And as Countess New Kiev says, we have a moral responsibility to explore any avenue which can end the enormous loss of life and property this war has entailed."
   Elizabeth looked at him contemptuously, but then she closed her eyes and made herself sit once more. Her temper. Her damnable temper. If she had any hope at all of stopping this insanity it was to convince at least a minority of High Ridge's colleagues to support her, and temper tantrums weren't going to do that.
   "My Lord," she said finally, her voice almost back to normal, "the point is that there hasn't actually been a change on their side of the line. Didn't you listen to anything Amos Parnell said? Pierre and Saint-Just have been the moving force behind everything that's happened in the PRH since they murdered President Harris and his entire government. This man is a butcher — the butcher of the People's Republic. He doesn't care how many people die; all he cares about is winning and the power of the state. His state. Which means any `peace proposal' he might extend is no more than a ploy, a trick to buy time while he tries desperately to recover from a hopeless military position. And if we agree to negotiate, we give him that time!"
   "I considered that possibility, Your Majesty." High Ridge was still a bit green around the gills, and his forehead was damp with sweat, but he, too, made a deliberate effort to speak normally. "In fact, I discussed it with Admiral Janacek."
   He nodded to the new First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Edward Janacek, and the civilian head of the Navy straightened in his chair.
   "I've considered the military position in some detail, Your Majesty," he said with the patronizing air of a professional, although he'd last held a spacegoing command over thirty years before. "It's certainly possible that Saint-Just's motive is, in part, at least, to buy a military breathing space. But it won't do him any good. Our qualitative edge is too overwhelming. Nothing they have can stand up to the new systems developed from Admiral Hemphill's work." He beamed, and Elizabeth ground her teeth together. Sonja Hemphill was Janacek's cousin... and the First Lord acted as if all of her ideas had come from him in the first place.
   "Certainly they haven't been able to stand up to Earl White Haven so far," Elizabeth conceded, enjoying Janacek's wince at the name "White Haven." The enmity between the two admirals went back decades, and it was as bitter as it was implacable. "But who's to say what they can come up with if we give them time to catch their breath and think about it?"
   "Your Majesty, this is my area of expertise," Janacek told her. "Our new systems are the product of years of intensive R&D by research people incomparably better trained and equipped than anything in the People's Republic. There's no way they could possibly be duplicated by the PRH in less than four or five T-years. Surely that should be enough time for us to either conclude a reasonable peace settlement or else prove Saint-Just has no intention of negotiating seriously! And in the meantime, I assure you, the Navy will watch them like hawks for any sign of future threats."
   "You see, Your Majesty?" High Ridge cut in smoothly. "The risks from our side are minor, but the potential gain, an end to a financially ruinous and bloody war against an opponent whose worlds we have no desire to conquer, is enormous. As Countess New Kiev says, it's time we gave peace a chance."
   Elizabeth looked back at him silently, then let her eyes sweep the conference table. One or two people looked away; most returned her gaze with greater or lesser degrees of confidence... or defiance.
   "And if our Allies disagree with you, My Lord?" she asked finally.
   "That would be regrettable, Your Majesty," High Ridge acknowledged, but then he smiled thinly. "Still, it's the Star Kingdom which has footed by far the greatest share of the bill for this war, both economically and in terms of lives lost. We have a right to explore any avenue which might end the conflict."
   "Even unilaterally and without our treaty partners' approval," Elizabeth said.
   "I've examined the relevant treaties carefully, Your Majesty," High Ridge assured her. "They contain no specific bar to unilateral negotiations between any of the signatories and the People's Republic."
   "Perhaps because it never occurred to the negotiators who put those treaties together that any of their allies would so completely and cold-bloodedly betray them," Elizabeth suggested conversationally, and watched High Ridge flush.
   "That's one way to look at it, Your Majesty," he said. "Another way is to point out that if we succeed in negotiating peace between the Star Kingdom and the People's Republic, peace between the PRH and our allies must also follow. In which case it is not a betrayal, but rather accomplishes the true goal of those treaties: peace, secure borders, and an end to the military threat of the People's Republic."
   He had an answer for everything, Elizabeth realized, and she didn't need any signs from Ariel to know that virtually every member of the Cabinet agreed with him. And, she admitted with bitter honesty, her own attitude hadn't helped. She should have kept her mouth shut, controlled her temper, and bided her time; instead, she'd come out into the open too soon. Every one of High Ridge's fellow cabinet members knew she'd become their mortal enemy, and it had produced an effect she hadn't anticipated. The threat she posed to them — the vengeance they all knew she would take as soon as the opportunity offered — had driven them closer together. The natural differences which ought to have been driving them apart had been submerged in the need to respond to the greater danger she represented, and there was no way any of them would break lockstep with the others to support her against High Ridge, New Kiev, and Descroix. And without a single ally within the Cabinet, not even the Queen of Manticore could reject the united policy recommendations of her Prime Minister, her Foreign Secretary, her Home Secretary, and the First Lord of the Admiralty.
   "Very well, My Lord," she made herself say. "We'll try it your way. And I hope, for all our sakes, that you're right and I'm wrong."


   "I can't believe this," Michelle Henke, Countess Gold Peak, muttered balefully, glaring out across Jason Bay from the third-floor window of her suite in Honor's East Shore mansion. "What the hell is Beth thinking?"
   "That she hasn't got a choice," Honor said somberly from behind her.
   She had extended her stay on Manticore at Elizabeth's request, splitting her time between her mansion, Mount Royal Palace, and the Grayson embassy. Her unique status as a noblewoman of both star nations gave her an equally unique perspective, and despite the fact that virtually every member of the High Ridge Government hated her — and pretty much vice versa, she admitted — she was too valuable a conduit for anyone on either side to pass up. Benjamin knew she had Elizabeth's ear, Elizabeth knew Benjamin trusted her implicitly, and even High Ridge knew that if he wanted to hear what Benjamin truly thought about an idea, she was the best source available.
   All of which meant she'd been granted a far better vantage point than she'd ever wanted from which to witness one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the Star Kingdom of Manticore.
   But, then, she'd seen a lot of things she'd never wanted to see of late, she thought, and turned to Henke.
   Michelle had become the Countess of Gold Peak with the deaths of her father and older brother, but her ship had been assigned to Eighth Fleet. There'd been no way Edward Saganami could be spared, and the trip home would have taken so long she was bound to miss the funerals anyway. So she'd remained at the front, burying her grief in her naval duties, until White Haven picked her to carry Saint-Just's truce offer back to Manticore. Caitrin Winton-Henke was eminently capable of running the earldom which had just become Michelle's, and Honor knew both women had seen the press of their responsibilities as their only anodyne against sorrow.
   But Michelle had been home for only a few hours. This was the first time she and Honor had been alone, aside from LaFollet and Nimitz, and Honor drew a deep breath.
   "Mike, I'm sorry," she said softly, and Michelle stiffened and turned quickly from the window as she heard the pain in that soprano voice.
   "Sorry?" Her eyebrows arched in surprise, and Honor nodded.
   "I could only stop one missile," she said. "I had to choose, and—"
   She stopped, her face tight, unable to finish the sentence, and Henke's expression softened. She stood very still for two or three breaths, eyes gleaming as she fought back the tears, but when she made herself speak, her husky contralto sounded almost normal.
   "It wasn't your fault, Honor. God knows I'd've made the same decision in your place. It hurts — God how it hurts — to know I'll never see Dad or Cal again, but thanks to you my mother is still alive. And my cousin. And Protector Benjamin." She reached out and gripped Honor's upper arms, then shook her head vigorously. "No one could have done more than you did, Honor. No one. Don't ever doubt that!"
   Honor gazed into her eyes for a moment, tasting the sincerity behind them, then sighed and nodded. Intellectually, she'd known Henke was right from the beginning, but she'd been terrified Henke wouldn't see it that way. And, she admitted, until she knew Henke didn't blame her for the deaths of her father and brother, she hadn't quite been able not to blame herself for them. But now she could let them go, and she drew a deep breath and nodded again.
   "Thank you for understanding," she said quietly, and Henke clicked her tongue in exasperation.
   "Honor Harrington, you are probably the only person in the universe who'd be afraid I wouldn't understand!" She gave her taller friend an affectionate shake, then stood back and returned her gaze to the cobalt waters of Jason Bay.
   "And now that that's out of the way, just what did you mean that Beth doesn't have a choice?"
   "She doesn't," Honor said, accepting the return to a less painful subject. "The entire Cabinet is united. Her only alternatives are to accept their policy... or reject the united recommendations of all her constitutionally appointed ministers. Theoretically, she has the power to do that. As a practical matter, it would be catastrophic. At the very least, it would produce a prolonged constitutional crisis just when we can least afford one. And once we get into those waters, who knows where it would end? Creating constitutional precedents is always a scary proposition, and there's no way to positively predict whether the new precedent would favor the Crown or the Cabinet... which means the Lords."
   "Jesus, Honor! I thought you didn't like politics!" Henke said only half humorously, and Honor shrugged.
   "I don't. But ever since Elizabeth got back to Manticore, I've been stuck in a sort of advisory role. I'm not comfortable with it, and I don't think I'm very good at it, but when she insisted she needed me, I could hardly say no. Not after everything that's happened. Besides—" her mouth quirked in a smile which held no humor at all "—at least this way Benjamin has someone he absolutely trusts reassuring him Elizabeth hasn't gone crazy, whatever the Government is up to."
   "So they really are going to accept this truce? When we're only one stop short of the Peep capital?"
   Henke sounded as if she still couldn't believe it, and Honor didn't blame her. But—
   "That's exactly what they're going to do," she said quietly.
* * *
   Oscar Saint-Just looked up at Citizen Secretary Jeffery Kersaint and did something Kersaint would have flatly denied was possible.
   He smiled.
   The huge grin looked wildly out of place on that perpetually emotionless face. But under the circumstances, Kersaint understood it perfectly, for the Citizen Chairman — with Kersaint's help, of course — had just pulled off the impossible.
   "They bought it?" the PRH's dictator demanded, as if he hadn't quite been able to believe Kersaint the first time around. "They went for it? For all of it?"
   "Yes, Citizen Chairman. They've agreed to a cease-fire in place, with both sides to retain systems they currently occupy, pending comprehensive negotiations to end the war. They request—" he glanced at his memo pad "—that we immediately send a delegation to confirm the details of the truce and begin formal talks within two standard months."
   "Good. Good! We can tie them up for months with talks. Years if we have to!" Saint-Just actually rubbed his hands, looking like a man who'd just received a new lease on life... or at least a temporary stay of execution.
   "At least years, Sir. And we may even be able to negotiate an actual treaty."
   "Ha! That I'll believe only when I see it," Saint-Just said skeptically. "But that's all right, Jeffery. All I really need is time to get my own house in order and figure out how to cope with these new weapons of theirs, and Citizen Admiral Theisman already has some interesting suggestions in that regard. Well done. Very well done, indeed!"
   "Thank you, Sir," Kersaint said.
   "Get together with Mosley and rough out a communique. I want something as optimistic as possible. And tell Mosley to set up an interview with Joan Huertes ASAP."
   "Yes, Sir. I'll get on it at once," Kersaint agreed, and moved briskly out of Saint-Just's office.
   The Citizen Chairman sat gazing into infinity at something only he could see, and this time he smiled faintly at whatever he found there. But then he shook himself. Time to get his house in order, he'd told Kersaint. He had that now, and he keyed his intercom.
   "Yes, Citizen Chairman?"
   "Get me Citizen Admiral Stephanopoulos. And requisition a StateSec courier boat for Lovat."
* * *
   "Citizen Admiral, I have a com request from Citizen Admiral Heemskerk," Citizen Lieutenant Fraiser announced, and Lester Tourville looked up from the tactical exercise on Shannon Foraker's plot with a sudden chill. His raised hand interrupted his conversation with Foraker and Yuri Bogdanovich, and he turned to his com officer.
   "Did the Citizen Admiral say what he wants?" he asked in a voice whose apparent calmness astonished him.
   "No, Citizen Admiral," Fraiser said, then cleared his throat. "But a StateSec courier boat did enter the system about forty-five minutes ago," he offered.
   "I see. Thank you." Tourville nodded to Fraiser and looked back at Bogdanovich and Foraker. "I'm afraid I'll have to take this call," he said. "We'll get back to this later."
   "Of course, Citizen Admiral," Bogdanovich said quietly, and Foraker nodded. But then the tac officer inhaled sharply, and Tourville glanced back at her.
   "Alphand's sidewalls just came up, Citizen Admiral," she said. "So did DuChesnois' and Lavalette's. In fact, it looks like Citizen Admiral Heemskerk's entire squadron has just cleared for action."
   "I see," Tourville repeated, and managed a smile. "It would seem the Citizen Admiral's message is more urgent than I'd anticipated." He looked across the flag bridge at Everard Honeker, and saw the matching awareness in his people's commissioner's eyes, but Honeker said nothing. There was nothing, after all, that anyone could say.
   Foraker was tapping keys at her console, no doubt refining her data, as if it were going to make any difference. Even if Tourville had been tempted to resist the order he knew Heemskerk was about to give, it would have been futile. With Heemskerk's squadron already at full battle readiness, it would have been an act of suicide to even begin bringing up his flagship's own sidewalls or weapon systems.
   "I'll take it at my command chair, Harrison," he told the com officer. After all, there was no point trying to conceal the bad news from any of his staff.
   "Aye, Citizen Admiral," Fraiser said quietly, and Tourville crossed to the admiral's chair. He settled himself into it, then touched the com stud on its arm. The display before him came alive with the stern, jowly face of Citizen Rear Admiral Alasdair Heemskerk, State Security Naval Forces, and Tourville made himself smile.
   "Good afternoon, Citizen Admiral. What can I do for you?" he inquired.
   "Citizen Admiral Tourville," Heemskerk replied in a flat, formal voice, "I must request and require you to join me aboard my flagship immediately, pursuant to the orders of Citizen Chairman Saint-Just."
   "Are we going somewhere?" Tourville's heart thundered, and he discovered his palms were sweating heavily. Odd. The terror of combat had never hit him this hard.
   "We will be returning to Nouveau Paris," Heemskerk told him unflinchingly, "there to consider the degree of your complicity in Citizen Secretary McQ—"
   His voice and image cut off, and Tourville blinked. What the—?
   "Jesus Christ!" someone yelped, and Tourville spun his chair in the direction of the shout, then froze, staring in disbelief at the main visual display.
   Twelve glaring spheres of unendurable brightness spalled the velvety blackness of deep space. They were huge, and so hellishly brilliant it hurt to look at them even with the display's automatic filters. And even as he stared at them, he saw another ripple of glaring light, much further away. It was impossible to make out any details of the second eruption, but it appeared to be on the approximate bearing of Javier Giscard's flagship... and the StateSec battle squadron which had been assigned to ride herd on him.
   Lester Tourville wrenched his eyes back to the fading balls of plasma which had been the ships of Citizen Rear Admiral Heemskerk's squadron. The silence on his flag bridge was total, like the silence a microphone picked up in hard vacuum, and he swallowed hard.
   And then the spell was broken as Shannon Foraker looked up from the console from which she had just sent a perfectly innocent-seeming computer code over the tactical net to one of the countless ops plans she'd downloaded to the units of Twelfth Fleet over the last thirty-two T-months.
   "Oops," she said.
* * *
   Oscar Saint-Just finished yet another report, scribbled an electronic signature, and pressed his thumb to the scanner. It had been a productive morning, he thought, checking the time readout in the corner of his display, and not just for him.
   Kersaint was doing wonders on the diplomatic front. He'd talked the Manties into holding the first round of negotiations here on Haven, and he had the fools High Ridge and Descroix had sent tied up in endless discussions over the shape of the damned conference table! The Citizen-Chairman allowed himself a rare chuckle and shook his head. At this rate, it would take six months to get anywhere close to a substantive issue, and that was fine with him. Just fine. Much of the PRH was in a state of shock at the abrupt pause in hostilities, and some people were probably going to be upset, at first, at least, over the Republic's "surrender," which was how the Manties and the interstellar news services all seemed to view what was happening. But those upset individuals were going to discover very shortly that what was really happening was that the Manties were no longer slicing off Republican star systems virtually at will.
   And in the meantime, the People's Navy — or, rather, the unified armed services which would absorb and supplant all the regular services under SS command — was already making some progress on ways to handle the new Manty weapons. Or at least to mitigate their effectiveness. In fact, Citizen Admiral Theisman was about due for the regular Wednesday conference, and Saint-Just permitted himself a brief moment of self-congratulation. Theisman had turned out to be an inspired choice for Capital Fleet. He'd reassured the regulars, his obvious lack of political ambitions had calmed the frenzied speculation about yet another coup attempt, and he understood perfectly that he would remain in command of Capital Fleet, and alive, only so long as he kept Saint-Just happy.
   Once Saint-Just got Giscard and Tourville home and tidied up those loose ends, he could turn to the general military housecleaning, and—
   The universe heaved madly.
   It was like nothing Saint-Just had ever experienced. One moment he was seated in his chair behind his desk; the next, he was under his desk, without any memory of having gotten there. And then the roar of the explosion crashed over him, battering his eardrums even in his soundproofed office, and the universe heaved again. And again, each time with its own deafening cacophony.
   He struggled to his feet, clinging to his desk to stay there, and an entire series of lesser shocks jolted his body. They seemed to be running away into the distance, and he coughed on the haze of dust suspended in his office's air. It must have come out of the carpet, he thought, amazed his brain could function well enough to figure that out. And there was a second band of dust, higher up, which must have come from the ceiling. How fascinating. He watched the upper band drift downward, settling towards the lower one.
   He didn't know how long he'd stood there before a sudden, fresh disturbance yanked him out of his semistupor. Something crashed into the side of the building, sending a fresh shock through the structure. This one was much weaker than the others, but it was repeated again and again, at least a dozen times, and then he heard the whine of pulse rifles and the lethal, hissing roar of tri-barrels, and he knew what those weaker shocks had been.
   Assault shuttles. Assault shuttles blowing breaches through the tower's outer skin and then crunching into the holes to disgorge assault troops.
   He spun to his desk and yanked the drawer open, snatching out the pulser he kept there for emergencies, then turned and raced for the office door. He had no idea what was happening, but he had to get out of here before—
   The door vanished in a cloud of splinters a moment before he could reach it. The force of the explosion hurled him backwards, sending him sprawling, and the pulser flew out of his hand as he lost his grip on it. The weapon thudded into the wall and tumbled to the carpet beside the doorway, and Saint-Just shook his head and levered himself back up onto his hands and knees. Blood coated his face, oozing from the countless shallow cuts and scratches the disintegrating door's fragments had clawed into his skin, but there was no time for that. He began to crawl doggedly towards the pulser. His entire universe was focused on reaching the gun, then getting to his feet, and from there escaping down the corridor outside his secretary's office to the secret lift shaft to the roof hangar.
   A foot slammed into the floor before him, and he froze, for the foot was in battle armor. He crouched there, staring at it, and then, against his will, his eyes traveled up a soot-black leg of synthetic alloy. His gaze reached a point twenty-five centimeters above his head, and there it stopped, focused on the muzzle of a military-issue pulse rifle.
   He knelt before the foot, unable to comprehend what was happening, and more feet crunched through the wreckage of his office door. Smoke was blowing in from the outer office, and he heard distant shouts and screams, all overlaid by the unmistakable sounds of small arms and heavy weapons fire, but the sound of those feet seemed to flow straight into his brain with a perfect, crystal clarity that didn't even need his ears. There were more sets of the feet this time: three more in battle armor, and one in regulation Navy boots.
   An exoskeleton whined, and a battle-armored hand twisted itself in Saint-Just's collar. It picked him up effortlessly and set him on his feet, roughly but without brutality, and he wiped blood from his face and blinked, trying to clear his vision. It took several seconds, but he managed finally, and his mouth tightened as he looked into Thomas Theisman's eyes.
   The Citizen Admiral was flanked by four towering sets of the People's Marines' battle armor, and Saint-Just's eyes narrowed as he saw the pulser in Theisman's hand. It was the same weapon the Citizen Chairman had dropped, and his fingers curled, as if trying to close around the butt of the gun he no longer held.
   "Citizen Chairman," Theisman said levelly, and Saint-Just bared his teeth in a gore-streaked grimace.
   "Citizen Admiral," he got out in return.
   "You made two mistakes," Theisman said. "Well, three actually. The first was choosing me to command Capital Fleet and not assigning a different commissioner to keep an eye on me. The second was failing to have Admiral Graveson's data base completely vacuumed. It took me a while to find the file she'd hidden there. I don't know what happened when McQueen made her move. Maybe Graveson panicked and was afraid to move when McQueen didn't get you along with Pierre in her initial sweep. But whatever happened, the file she left behind told me who to contact in Capital Fleet when I decided to pick up where McQueen left off."
   He paused, and Saint-Just stared at him for a heartbeat, then tossed his head.
   "You said three mistakes," he said. "What was the third?"
   "Ending hostilities and ordering Giscard and Tourville home," Theisman said flatly. "I don't know what's happened at Lovat, but I know Tourville and Giscard. I imagine they're both dead by now, but I doubt very much that either of them just rolled over and played dead for your SS goons, and I imagine you've suffered a few losses of your own. But more importantly, by issuing those orders, you warned every regular officer that the purges were about to begin all over again... and this time, we're not standing for it, Citizen Chairman."
   "So you're replacing me, are you?" Saint-Just barked a laugh. "Are you really crazy enough you actually want this job?"
   "I don't want it, and I'll do my best to avoid it. But the important thing is that the decent men and women of the Republic can't let someone like you have it any longer."
   "So now what?" Saint-Just demanded. "A big show trial before the execution? Proof of my `crimes' for the Proles and the newsies?"
   "No," the citizen admiral said softly. "I think we've had enough of those sorts of trials."
   His hand rose with Saint-Just's pulser, and the Citizen Chairman's eyes widened as the muzzle aligned with his forehead at a meter's range.
   "Good-bye, Citizen Chairman."


   One of the problems with creating background for a series as long as this one is the difficulty in maintaining continuity and internal consistency. I know of a few places where I've failed in that regard (most of them, fortunately, minor), and I feel quite certain that there are those among Honor Harrington's readers who could point out several more instances to me.
   In the course of writing this novel, unfortunately, I discovered yet another, all on my own.
   In the background notes, which were published as part of the appendix in More Than Honor, page 331, it is specifically stated that the Prime Minister of Manticore must command a majority in the House of Commons. This is inaccurate. When I first created the Star Kingdom's political structure, I had envisioned the framers of its Constitution as kinder, gentler, more enlightened souls than they turned out to be once I got into actually writing them. In fact, they were much more interested in maintaining their monopoly on political power than I had initially envisioned, and I decided that they would have deliberately written the Constitutioon to give themselves and their descendants (i.e., the House of Lords ) control of the premiership. I had changed the relevant section in my tech bible for the series by the time I write Flag in Exile, but somehow an earlier version of the tech bible got sent to Baen for the More Than Honor appendix... and I never noticed it when I proofed the galleys.
   So those of you who thought to yourselves, "Hey! This is wrong!" when Elizabeth was forced to accept a governent formed by the Opposition deserve a pat on the back for catching the inconsistency between what happened in the book and what had previously been published.
   Or, as Shannon Foraker might have said: