Nimitz bleeked in amusement at the split-personality aspects of her last thought, but both of them had grown accustomed to such moments, and she only shook her head at him.
   "But even if every one of them volunteers, that still doesn't sound like all that huge a number," Henke argued, pulling her attention back to the discussion at hand. "After all, Grayson already has a population of around three billion. So a hundred and sixty thousand would only be — what? A five-thousandth of a percent increase or so?"
   "Sure they would, but they're only a part — the biggest lump so far, maybe, but only a part — of the total he's hoping this will add to the Grayson population. And they all have prolong, they'll all be highly visible, and they'll all have their own ideas about the proper place of women — and religion — in society. And they'll be citizens, Mike. Unlike all the Allied personnel passing through, they'll be staying on, and the conservatives can't even pretend they won't. In fact—" she smiled thinly "—the vast majority of this particular batch will probably be staying on in Harrington Steading. As will quite a few of those who don't have a naval background or choose not to take service. I'd already gotten Benjamin to agree to that before he sprang this `Protector's Own' business on me."
   "Um." Henke frowned and rubbed her lower lip. "I hadn't considered all of that," she admitted after a moment. "But it still doesn't sound like the end of the world for the Grayson way of life to me!"
   "It's not," Honor agreed. "If it were likely to be that, Reverend Sullivan would never have followed Reverend Hanks' lead in supporting the idea so strongly, which he has. But it can serve Benjamin as one more wedge for his reforms. More to the point, it's a deliberate smack in the face to the Keys who've been complaining most loudly about foreign influences since McQueen first started hitting back so hard."
   "They're not the only ones who've been complaining," Henke said sourly. "The Opposition's been howling about the Government's `inexcusable mishandling of the military situation' ever since Giscard hit Basilisk! Leaving that aside, though, just how does Benjamin's decision constitute smacking down complaining steadholders?"
   "I don't doubt the Opposition's tried its best to make capital out of it back on Manticore," Honor said, "but I doubt they've been quite as insidious about it as some of the Keys have. Benjamin's steadholders have to proceed more carefully than the Opposition in the Star Kingdom does because the Constitution gives him so much more power than Elizabeth enjoys. If they irritate him too badly, there are all sorts of ways he can punish them — ways that are perfectly legal, now that the written Constitution is back in force — and they know it. So they never attack him directly, and they never attack his policies head-on. Instead, they nibble around the edges by viewing with concern and voicing those concerns as `remonstrances to the Sword,' always as the stewards of their steaders' interests and guardians of the Grayson way of life and never out of anything so unworthy as ambition of their own." The living side of her mouth twisted in distaste. "Ever since McQueen's first campaign, a bunch of them've coalesced around Mueller and his cronies and argued that the reverses she handed us are evidence Grayson ought to consider whether or not it wants to continue to defer to the inept foreign leadership which made those reverses possible. They've all but openly called for Grayson to go it alone. To withdraw from the Alliance, pull its units out of the consolidated chain of command, and become a mere `associated power' rather than a full ally."
   "Jesus, Honor." For the first time, Henke looked genuinely concerned. "I hadn't heard anything like that! Is there any possibility that they could pull it off?"
   "Not a chance," Honor said flatly. "Benjamin would never allow himself to be stampeded into anything remotely like it, and for all intents and purposes, Benjamin Mayhew is Grayson. I don't think anyone in the Star Kingdom truly appreciates the extent to which that's true, Mike. We persist in seeing everyone else through the lenses of our own experience, but powerful as Elizabeth is, she doesn't begin to approach Benjamin's personal authority on Grayson." She shook her head.
   "No, no one's going to succeed in dictating foreign or military policy to Benjamin, but that's not really what they're after. They may not like it, but they've had to accept that Benjamin is clearly ascendant. They're not going to be able to face him directly and win for a long time, so they've dug in for the long haul. All they're trying to do right now is nibble away at his popular support, plant doubts and questions and worries in the minds of as many Graysons as possible. They know as well as Benjamin does that his true authority rests on the support of his subjects, so they're trying to weaken that support and push him into acting more circumspectly against them. As they see it, that's the first step in a steady downward spiral of the Sword's authority. Each time he fails to respond forcefully to their provocations, they chip away a tiny piece of his ability to respond forcefully the next time, and that's all they're really after at this point."
   "I see." Henke shook her head again. "I seem to remember a time when you didn't understand politics. Or like them very much, for that matter," she observed.
   "I still don't like them," Honor replied. "Unfortunately, as one of the Keys myself, I haven't had much option but to learn how they work... Grayson style, at least. And if I had to learn about something I detest, at least Howard Clinkscales and Benjamin Mayhew were probably the best teachers I could possibly have had."
   "I can see that. But I still don't see exactly where Benjamin's offering citizenship to your fellow escapees smacks down his opponents."
   "It doesn't do it directly. In fact, in a way, he can't do it directly as long as they don't attack him directly. But what it does do is to make his ongoing commitment to opening Grayson to outside viewpoints abundantly, one might almost say brutally, clear. And without providing his version of the Opposition a target they can attack without seeming to attack him." Honor shrugged. "It's all a game of indirection and flanking maneuvers, Mike, and I just got tossed right back into the middle of it as the Protector's Own's official CO. I have no idea who's going to wind up actually commanding the force, though I wouldn't be surprised if they picked Alfredo Yu for the slot. But I'll be carried on the record as its permanent commander, which is Benjamin's not-so-subtle way of throwing another brick into the conservatives' teeth. They're upset enough just to have me back at all, whatever they have to say for public consumption. Naming me as the official CO will only rub their nose in the message Benjamin is sending them... and given the excitement over my return, they don't dare do or say anything that might be considered a personal slight to me."
   "Jesus," Henke repeated in a very different tone, and produced a crooked smile. "I always thought our political bloodletting was bad back home! But I am impressed to hear Honor Harrington rattling off an appreciation of enemy intentions that readily."
   "Yeah, sure you are," Honor grumped. "What you mean is that you're grateful you don't have to put up with it!"
   "Probably. But speaking of complicated situations, and not to change the subject or anything, you did get your finances straightened out again, didn't you?"
   "In a manner of speaking." Nimitz and Samantha slid off the chair back, crowding down to completely fill Honor's lap with the insistence on physical contact which had become even more a part of them since Nimitz had realized he'd lost his mental voice, and she caressed Nimitz's ears gently.
   "Getting them fully straightened out is going to take considerably longer," she went on, looking back up at Henke. "Willard did wonders in the time he had, but a month and a half simply wasn't long enough to sort out a situation that complex. Unfortunately, Her Majesty was just a bit insistent on my returning to the Star Kingdom as soon as I could `spare the time,' as she put it." She shrugged, deciding — again — not to mention the dispatches which had passed back and forth between Mount Royal Palace and Harrington House before Elizabeth's formal "invitation" arrived. "From the looks of things, it should all come out reasonably straight in the end," she said instead.
   " `Reasonably straight'? I hope you won't mind if I say that sounds just a bit casual for someone worth thirty or forty billion dollars, Honor!"
   "It's only about twenty-nine billion," Honor corrected her testily. "And why shouldn't I be `casual' about it?" She snorted. "Remember me? Your yeoman roommate from Sphinx? I've got more money than I could possibly spend in the entire rest of my life, even allowing for prolong, Mike! It beats heck out of being poor, but after a certain point, it's only a way to keep score... in a game I'm not all that interested in playing. Oh, it's a valuable tool, and it lets me do all sorts of things I never would have been able to do without it, but to be perfectly honest, I think I would have preferred leaving it just the way my will left it. I don't need it, and Willard, Howard, and the Sky Domes board were making perfectly good use of it before I came back."
   "Honor Harrington, you are an unnatural woman," Henke said severely. "Anyone who's that cavalier about that much money should be locked away somewhere she can't do herself a mischief!"
   "That's approximately what Willard said," Honor acknowledged with a sigh. "But the clincher was when he pointed out that all my will had actually done with the bulk of my fortune was leave it in trust for the next Steadholder Harrington. Which is me, if you want to look at it that way. Or you could say that since I was never actually dead, the will never really came into effect." She rolled her eyes. "I can just see me dealing with that part of it! `Excuse me, Mac, but that bequest of mine? I need it back, I'm afraid, since it turns out I had the bad taste not to be dead after all. Sorry about that!' "
   She did not, Henke noticed, mention the beloved ten-meter sloop on Sphinx, which she had left to Henke herself.
   "But you aren't dead," she pointed out, and Honor snorted.
   "So? All the surprise gifts I'd tucked away wound up given out when everyone thought I was dead, and even with their disbursement, the estate still gained something like eleven-point-five billion in value while I was away. Obviously, my fortune can survive perfectly well without them, and there's no point taking them back now just so my executor can hand them back over to everybody when I finally do shuffle off."
   "Um." Henke was a first cousin of Elizabeth III on her mother's side, and her father was the Earl of Gold Peak, the Cromarty Government's Foreign Secretary and one of the wealthier members of the Manticoran peerage. Henke never had to worry about money, although the allowance her father had put Michelle on until she graduated from the Academy had been well on the miserly side by the standards of her social peers. Not that Henke had any objections in retrospect. There'd been times when she'd felt pinched for funds as a girl, but she'd had too much opportunity since then to see what had happened to childhood acquaintances whose parents hadn't seen to it that they realized money didn't exactly grow on trees.
   Despite that, her observation had been that very few of the truly wealthy, for all that they regarded the availability of money as an inevitable part of their day-to-day lives, could have matched Honor's lack of concern. But that, she realized slowly, was because for so many of those wealthy people, fortune and the power that went with it were what defined their lives. It made them who they were, and created and established the universe in which they existed.
   But not for Honor Harrington. Her wealth truly was incidental to who she was, what she did, and where her responsibilities lay. A useful tool, she'd called it, but only because it helped her discharge those responsibilities, not because it had any overwhelming impact on her own, personal life.
   "You are an unnatural woman," Henke said after a moment, "and thank God for it. We could probably use a few more like you, now that I think about it. Not that I'd want you to get a swelled head or anything."
   "Spare my blushes," Honor said dryly, and this time they both chuckled.
   "So," Henke said after several moments, in the tone of one turning to a fresh, neutral subject, "what, exactly, do our lords and masters have in mind for you when you get back to the Star Kingdom?"
   "You don't know?" Honor sounded surprised, and Henke shrugged.
   "They just told me to go and get you, not what they were going to do with you once I delivered you helpless into their hands. I feel quite sure Beth personally instructed Baroness Morncreek to send Eddy to fetch you, and just this once, I decided I had no quarrel with naked nepotism. But no one told me what was in those dispatches I brought you. And while I am, of course, far too dutiful a servant of the Crown to poke my nose into affairs which are none of my concern, if it just happened that you were willing to let fall a few morsels of information..."
   She let her voice trail off and raised both hands, palm upwards, before her, and Honor laughed out loud.
   "And you called me `unnatural'!"
   "Because you are. And do you know what they plan to do with you?"
   "Not fully, no." Honor shook her head and hid another twinge of worry. And, really,there's probably no reason I should worry, when you come right down to it. Elizabeth may have sounded a little... irritated there at the end, but she didn't really sound angry. Or I don't think she did, anyway.
   "For one thing, though, I strongly suspect Her Majesty of wanting to play the same `Let's surprise poor Honor!' game Benjamin's having so much fun with," she went on darkly after a moment, "and that scares me. She's got a lot bigger toy box."
   "I imagine you'll survive that part of it," Henke reassured her.
   "I'm rapidly discovering that it is not, in fact, possible — quite — to die of simple embarrassment," Honor observed. Not if you put your foot down firmly enough, at least. "This is not always a fortunate thing, however, as it seems to challenge those about me to keep pushing the envelope to find out if someone can die of advanced embarrassment, on which point the jury is still out."
   "Quit feeling sorry for yourself and tell me the rest!" Henke scolded.
   "Yes, Ma'am." Honor leaned further back in the chair, wrapping her arm around Nimitz while she considered the parts that she felt comfortable discussing with someone else, even Henke. Samantha laid a wedge-shaped chin on her left shoulder to help her consider, and she smiled as silken whiskers brushed her cheek just above the line of nerve deadness.
   "I would have been returning to the Star Kingdom fairly soon anyway, of course," she went on after a moment in a more serious voice. "They want to check all of us out at Bassingford, and Daddy will be heading this way in the next couple of weeks to oversee my repairs." She took her hand from Nimitz's pelt for a moment to gesture at the dead side of her face. "Grayson's hospitals are building up to Manticoran standards surprisingly quickly, and the neural center Daddy and Willard put together to match Mom's genetic clinic is really good, but they just don't have the support structure yet for a rebuild job quite as, um, extensive as my own. We're going to fix that as quickly as we can — I did mention that money is a useful tool at times, didn't I?—but for now, the Star Kingdom's the best place short of the Solarian League to handle something like this.
   "I also ought to drop by Admiralty House, I suppose," she went on, and Henke hid a smile. Honor might not realize how much she'd changed over the last ten years, but the casual way she'd just referred to Admiralty House, the sanctum sanctorum of the Royal Manticoran Navy, was a dead giveaway to Henke. Honor was only a commodore in the RMN, but she thought and acted like the fleet admiral she was in Grayson service... and did it so naturally she wasn't even aware of it. "Among the other things you brought me was a very politely phrased `request' to make myself available as soon as possible for an ONI debrief. And I'll want to talk to Admiral Cortez about the ways he can make best use of the non-Allied military personnel who came back from Hell with us... and don't get scooped up by Benjamin's new project.
   "On top of that," she said with a little moue, "I feel depressingly certain I'm going to be spending entirely too much time talking to newsies. I'm going to insist on holding that sort of thing to an absolute minimum, but as you suggested earlier, I did see the recordings of the funeral Duke Cromarty and Her Majesty laid on for me. In the wake of all that hoopla, I don't suppose it's even remotely possible for me to avoid the spotlight."
   "I'd say that was a fairly generous understatement," Henke agreed.
   "After that—" Honor shrugged. "The only thing I know for certain from the Admiralty is that, assuming I plan on returning to Manticoran service while I'm in the Star Kingdom for medical reasons anyway, they'd like me to consider spending some time at Saganami Island. I'll be on limited duty while they design and build my new arm, so I guess a stint in a classroom might not be a terrible idea. I don't know exactly what they have in mind, but I'd rather keep busy than just sit around." She shuddered. "I remember the last time we went through all this neural implant business. Not having anything to do between bouts of surgery and therapy just about drove me crazy!"
   "I can imagine. For that matter, I remember what it was like when they finally let you go back on active duty and gave you Nike." The two women smiled at one another, and if Honor's smile was just a bit bittersweet as that shared memory brought back Paul Tankersley and the agonizing pain of his loss, it was a pain she'd learned to bear.
   "Well, then!" Henke said briskly, glancing at her chrono and then pushing herself to her feet. "I've pounded your ear long enough, and we've got about two hours before dinner. How would you like to make a start on that guided tour I promised you?"
   "I'd love to," Honor replied. She rose in turn, and Henke helped her get Nimitz into his carrier and settled on her back. Samantha supervised from the back of the chair, and then accepted the forearm and elbow Henke offered her, and the four of them stepped out through the cabin hatch.
   "I think you'll like her a lot, Honor," Henke said after acknowledging the salute of her Marine sentry. She led the way down the passage towards the lift, and her smile was proprietary and proud. "I know you're already familiar with the basic parameters of the design, but they went right on refining it up to the moment they actually laid Eddy down at Hephaestus, and a lot of the features that ended up in the Har — I mean, in the Medusas — were incorporated into her, as well. Not just the automation to reduce crew size, either. We got a lot of the new electronics goodies, including some major fire control updates, the brand new generation of ECM and stealth, and a little surprise for the Peeps the next time they take a down-the-throat shot at us."
   She grinned evilly, and Honor returned the expression with equally wicked anticipation.
   "I thought we'd start with the command deck," Henke went on, "then drop by CIC. After that..."


   The stumpy stone spire of King Michael's Tower was as old-fashioned and unimpressive-looking as Honor remembered, but this was her second visit to it. She was well aware of how misleading appearances could be, because this time she knew whose private retreat it was, and she felt a small, undeniable edge of trepidation as she watched it grow higher before her while she followed her guide through the grounds of Mount Royal Palace. Michelle Henke walked beside and half a pace behind her, and Andrew LaFollet and Simon Mattingly brought up the rear. Samantha rode on Henke's shoulder, keeping a watchful eye on Nimitz in the carrier on Honor's back, and Honor suspected their cavalcade looked more than a little ridiculous.
   She nodded in acknowledgment of the sharp salutes from the uniformed personnel of the Queen's Own Regiment and Palace Guard Service as she passed. Their outward miens were professional, alert and almost expressionless, and they'd been briefed on her scheduled arrival over a month ago. That meant there was little of the astonishment and sudden bursts of excitement she'd had to deal with back on Grayson, which was a vast relief, although at least all the practice Grayson had put her through had helped her learn — finally — how to tune down the volume on her emotion-sensing ability. She chuckled mentally at the thought. Someone back on Old Earth — Samuel Johnson?—had once observed that the knowledge that someone was to be hanged concentrated one's thoughts wonderfully. Honor had discovered the bitter truth of that sitting in a brig cell aboard PNS Tepes, but she'd also discovered a variant on the theme since her return. The sheer intensity of the emotional storm which had lashed at her so often and so violently from so many minds had forced her to concentrate on her own empathic ability as never before. She still didn't know how she'd done it, but she'd managed (out of simple self-preservation) to acquire a far finer degree of control. She could no more have described the learning process, or even how she did whatever it was she'd learned to do, than she could have described how she'd first learned to walk or talk, but she'd heaved a vast sigh of relief when she realized she'd developed something which must be very like Nimitz's own ability to adjust the gain. She still couldn't avoid tasting the emotions of those about her, but for the first time she'd gained sufficient control that she could hold the "volume" down to a level at which she no longer had to worry about looking and feeling dazed by the clamor no one else about her could even perceive. That, she felt certain, was going to prove to be a very valuable talent in the future — like the next time she found herself unable to completely tune out Hamish Alexander's emotions — and she was vastly relieved to have it, although she could have wished for a less... tumultuous way to acquire it.
   For now, it also helped that the Queen's Own and PGS were professional outfits whose personnel spent their careers in close proximity to their Queen, which gave them all a certain degree of familiarity with the movers and shakers of the Star Kingdom. However unnatural it still seemed to her, Honor had been forced to accept that the PR impact of her return after her very public execution and funeral had at least temporarily elevated her to that sort of stature. Which made the security people's matter-of-fact acceptance of her presence a far more soothing balm than they could possibly suspect.
   Honor had deliberately answered her Queen's summons in civilian dress, and, after a little consideration, she'd chosen to appear in a Grayson-style gown and wearing, as always in civilian garb, the Harrington Key and the Star of Grayson. Partly that was because, aside from a few outfits better suited to the Sphinx bush than Mount Royal Palace, she didn't even own any Manticoran civilian clothing. And, if pressed, she would also have to admit that she'd long since decided she liked the way she looked in the utterly impractical Grayson garments. But there were other factors. Queen Elizabeth had requested her presence, not commanded it as she had a right to do in the case of a serving officer of the Manticoran military or a member of the Star Kingdom's nobility. Her restraint had not escaped Honor's notice, and she'd wondered how much of it had to do with the one thing she'd so far steadfastly refused to allow Elizabeth to do. It was possible that the Queen had decided, either out of tact or (though Honor hoped not) pique, to handle her with long-handled tongs. If that were the case, it might be a very good idea for Honor to put some extra distance between herself and her Manticoran persona, so she'd come as a Grayson steadholder, answering the invitation of an allied head of state, not as one of Elizabeth's subjects.
   She could have done that and still appeared in uniform as Admiral Harrington, but that might have sent the wrong message to her (many) surviving critics in the Opposition. However temporarily quelled they might be, they knew that she knew as well as they did who'd blocked the promotion the RMN would otherwise have granted her long ago. If they saw her in Grayson uniform now, with her Grayson rank, they would almost certainly decide she was mocking their efforts to deny her advancement in Manticoran service. And, she'd been forced to admit to herself, a nasty little part of her had longed to do just that... and for precisely that reason. But the Queen probably didn't need her to go pumping any fresh hydrogen into that particular fire when all the publicity associated with her return from Cerberus seemed to have given her the whip hand. Besides, if she'd worn uniform, she would have had to formally return all the salutes coming her way.
   Her lips twitched at the thought, and then she banished the smile as the guards at the tower's entrance ushered her and the Honorable Michelle through it. A stiffly professional captain of the Queen's Own rode up with them in the old-fashioned, straight-line elevator, and Honor frowned very slightly at him as she sensed the strong strand of disapproval winding through his emotions.
   She knew what had waked it. Grayson law required any steadholder to be accompanied by her personal armsmen at all times, and the people responsible for the Queen of Manticore's security were unhappy, to say the least, at the thought of anyone entering her presence with a weapon. They had no reason to distrust Graysons in general, and still less to distrust anyone in Honor's service. But this was their bailiwick, and their finely honed professional paranoia was at work.
   She could understand that, because she didn't much like the thought of bringing weapons into Elizabeth's presence herself, but she didn't have any choice. More than that, she'd already reduced her normal three-man detail to the minimum Grayson law would permit. If she'd tried to exclude Andrew or Simon as well, it might have seemed like an expression of distrust, and she would die before she did anything which might conceivably be construed in such a fashion.
   Besides,Elizabeth's clearly considered the matter herself. If she hadn't, she wouldn't have made a point of informing me — and her security people — that Andrew and Simon were to keep their guns.
   The elevator sighed to a stop, and she and Henke followed their guide down a short hall to the same sitting room in which Elizabeth had received the two of them once before. Mattingly peeled off at the carved and polished wood of the sitting-room door, standing to the left of the doorway while the Army captain took up his own post to its right, but LaFollet entered the room at her heels.
   Elizabeth Adrienne Samantha Annette Winton, Queen of Manticore, sat in an overstuffed armchair across the same thick, rust-colored carpet, and she was not alone. Her own treecat, Ariel, lay across the back of the chair, and his head came up as he gazed intently at Nimitz and Samantha. Honor felt the familiar surge as he reached out to the two newcomers... and his quick concern as only Samantha answered. He rose to regard Nimitz even more intently, and Honor tasted his sudden shocked understanding and the sympathy and welcome he projected to her companion on its heels.
   There were two other humans in the room. One was completely familiar to Honor, and her living eye twinkled as she saw her cousin Devon, Second Earl Harrington. He looked — and was; she could taste his emotions as well as anyone else's — extremely uncomfortable. It was a sensation she remembered only too well from her own first visit here, and she supposed it must be still worse for Devon. At least Honor had been a naval officer, and one who'd met her Queen before, at that, before the visit. From the flavor of his emotions and the expression on his face, Devon was still coming to grips with the fact that he was now a peer of the realm, and she felt him wondering if she secretly wanted to snatch her title back from him.
   She smiled at him as reassuringly as the crippled left side of her mouth allowed, but the second man in the sitting room drew her attention from her cousin. He was slightly built and silver-haired, with a worn and weary-looking face which, in person, was disconcertingly similar to a face she'd once seen across forty meters of grass on the Landing City dueling grounds. That face, too, had belonged to a man named Summervale. But Denver Summervale had been a disgraced ex-Marine turned professional assassin; Allen Summervale was the Duke of Cromarty... and Prime Minister of the Star Kingdom of Manticore.
   "Dame Honor!" Elizabeth III pushed up out of her chair with a huge smile. Honor was immensely relieved to taste the genuine welcome behind that smile, but, Steadholder Harrington or no, she was not sufficiently far removed from her yeoman origins not to feel a quick spasm of uncertainty when Elizabeth held out her hand. Yet she was Steadholder Harrington, and so she took the Queen's hand in a firm clasp and made herself meet Elizabeth's dark brown eyes levelly. It was hard. Far harder than she'd expected, and a tiny corner of her brain marveled at just how much her world had changed in the nine T-years since she'd last stood in this room. She wasn't at all certain she liked all those changes, but she found, as she stood face-to-face with her monarch, that it was impossible to deny them any longer, even to herself.
   "Your Majesty," she said quietly, and inclined her head in a small, respectful bow.
   "Thank you for coming so promptly," Elizabeth went on, waving Honor towards the armchair which faced her own across the coffee table. She nodded a far more casual greeting to her cousin, and Henke parked herself comfortably in another chair, leaving the couch to Devon Harrington and Duke Cromarty.
   "I know you must still have a million things to deal with on Grayson," Elizabeth went on, waiting for Honor to seat herself before she sank back into her own chair, "and I deeply appreciate your putting them on hold for me."
   "Your Majesty, I was your subject long before I became Steadholder Harrington," Honor replied, unlatching Nimitz's carrier and moving it around in front of her. Nimitz flowed out into her lap, and Samantha hopped down from Henke's chair to patter across the carpet and join her mate.
   "I'm aware of that," Elizabeth said. Then her voice darkened for just a moment. "But I am also aware of the Crown's failure to protect your career, as you so amply deserved, in the face of your shameful treatment following your duel with Pavel Young."
   Honor winced at the name of the man who'd hated her for so long and hurt her so cruelly before she finally faced him one rainy morning with a pistol in her hand. But that, too, had been nine T-years ago, and she shook her head.
   "Your Majesty, I knew going in what was going to happen. That you and His Grace—" she nodded courteously to Cromarty "—would have no choice but to act as you did. I never blamed either of you. If I blamed anyone — besides Young himself — it was the Opposition leaders."
   "That's very generous of you, Milady," Cromarty said quietly.
   "Not generous," Honor disagreed. "Only realistic. And in all fairness, I can hardly claim that packing me off to Grayson in disgrace was the end of my life, Your Grace!" She smiled ironically and touched the golden Harrington Key where it gleamed on her chest beside the glittering glory of the Star of Grayson.
   "But not because certain people didn't try to make it that," Elizabeth observed. "You've attracted the hatred of far too many fanatics over the years, Dame Honor. As your Queen, I'd like to request that you try to cut down on that in years to come."
   "I'll certainly bear that in mind, Your Majesty," Honor murmured.
   "Good." Elizabeth leaned back and studied her guest for a moment. Elizabeth would feel better when Bassingford Medical Center had confirmed that, other than the loss of her arm, Honor had indeed survived her ordeal intact. But she looked better than the Queen had feared she might, and Elizabeth felt her own worry easing just a bit.
   She gave Honor one more searching glance, then turned to her cousin.
   "And good morning to you, too, Captain Henke. Thank you for delivering Dame Honor in one piece."
   "We strive to please, Your Majesty," Henke replied with a certain unctuousness.
   "And with such deep and heartfelt respect, too," Elizabeth observed.
   "Always," Henke agreed, and the cousins grinned at one another. They really did look remarkably alike, although Henke showed the outward signs of the original, modified Winton genotype far more strongly. Elizabeth's rich mahogany skin was considerably lighter than her cousin's, yet Honor rather suspected Elizabeth had even more of the less obvious advantages Roger Winton's parents had had designed into their progeny. The exact nature of those modifications, while not precisely classified, was unknown to the general public, as was the very fact that any Winton had ever been a genie. In fact, the Star Kingdom's security people took considerable pains to keep it that way, and Honor knew only because Mike had been her Academy roommate and closest friend for just under forty T-years... and because Mike had known she was a fellow genie for almost all that time. But whichever of them had more of the original modifications, both had the same, distinctive Winton features, and there were barely three years between their ages.
   "I believe you know Earl Harrington," Elizabeth went on, turning back to Honor, and it was Honor's turn to grin.
   "We have met, Your Majesty, although it's been some time. Hello, Devon."
   "Honor." Devon was ten T-years older than Honor, although his mother was Alfred Harrington's younger sister, and he looked even more uncomfortable than before as all eyes turned to him. "I hope you realize I never expected—" he began, but she shook her head quickly.
   "I'm perfectly well aware that you never wanted to be an earl, Dev," she said reassuringly. "In fact, that's something of a family trait, because I never wanted to be a countess, either." She smiled briefly at Elizabeth, then looked back at her cousin. "Her Majesty didn't give me a great deal of choice, and I doubt she gave you any more than she let me have."
   "Rather less, in fact," Elizabeth affirmed before Devon could respond. "There were several reasons. One, I'm a little ashamed to admit, was to revitalize general support for the war by cashing in on the public fury over the Peeps' decision to execute you, Dame Honor. By very publically supporting your cousin's right to replace you, I managed to refocus attention on your `death' quite effectively. Of course, I did have some motives which were less reprehensible than that, though I'm not sure they were very much less calculating."
   "Ah?" Honor's single word invited further explanation, and she was too focused on Elizabeth to notice the grins Michelle Henke and Allen Summervale exchanged. Elizabeth's lips quivered ever so briefly, but she managed to suppress her own smile. There were — perhaps — twenty people in the Star Kingdom, outside her immediate family, who would have felt comfortable enough with her to cock an interrogative eyebrow in her direction with such composure.
   "Indeed," the Queen said. "One was that I had a certain bone to pick with the Opposition." Her temptation to smile vanished, and her eyes were suddenly cold and hard. It was said Elizabeth III held grudges until they died of old age and then sent them to a taxidermist, and at that moment, Honor believed every story she'd ever heard about her Queen's implacable, sometimes volcanic, temper. Then Elizabeth gave her head a little shake and relaxed in her chair once more.
   "The decision to exclude you from the Lords after your duel with Young upset me on several levels," she said. "One, of course, was the slap in the face to you. I understood, possibly better than you can imagine, exactly what you felt when you went after Young."
   She and Henke exchanged a brief look. Honor had no idea what lay behind it, but she shivered inwardly at the shared sudden, icy stab of old, bitter anger and grief that went with it.
   "I might have wished you'd chosen a less public forum in which to issue your challenge," Elizabeth went on after a moment, "but I certainly understood what forced you to choose the one you did. And while the Crown's official position, and my own, is that dueling is a custom we could very well do without, it was your legal right to challenge him, just as his life was both legally and morally forfeit when he turned early and shot you in the back. For the Opposition to make the fact that you `shot a man whose gun was empty'—because he'd just finished emptying his magazine into you —a pretext for excluding you infuriated me both as a woman and as Queen. Particularly when everyone knew they were doing it, at least in part, as a way to strike back at Duke Cromarty's Government and myself, as Queen, for forcing the declaration of war through Parliament.
   "In all fairness, I suppose I ought to confess that that last point weighed rather more heavily with me than I'd really like to admit," she confessed. "I'd prefer to be able to say that it was all outrage over the wrong they'd done you, but as you yourself have undoubtedly discovered as Steadholder Harrington, allowing them to get away with baiting either myself or my Prime Minister is never a good idea. Each time they do it, they chip away, however slightly, at my prerogatives and my ministers' moral authority. Very few people realize that, even now, our Constitution exists as a balance between dynamic tensions. What the public perceives as laws and procedures set in ceramacrete are, in fact, always subject to change through shifts in precedent and custom... which, come to think of it, is how the Wintons managed to hijack the original Star Kingdom from the Lords in the first place." She gave a wolfish smile. "The original drafters intended to set up a nice, tight little system which would be completely dominated by the House of Lords so as to protect the power and authority of the original colonizers and their descendants. They never counted on Elizabeth the First's sneaking in and creating a real, powerful, centralized executive authority for the Crown... or enlisting the aid of the Commons to do it!
   "My family, however, is fully aware of how the present system came to be, and we have no intention of allowing anyone to hijack our authority. The Peep threat has lent added point to that determination for seventy T-years now, and I see no sign of that changing any time soon. Which is one major reason I never had any intention of allowing your exclusion to stand. Unfortunately, you'd been killed — or so we all believed — before I got around to correcting the problem. So I decided to make certain your proper heir—" she nodded to Devon "—was confirmed as Earl Harrington, and provided the lands commensurate with his title, and seated in the Lords as soon as possible. What was more, I made certain the leaders of the Opposition knew what I was doing, and why, at a time when they no longer dared express their true feelings for you because of what public opinion would have done to them." She gave another of those wolfish smiles. "I trust you won't be offended to learn that I had such an ignoble motive, Dame Honor."
   "On the contrary, Your Majesty. The thought of your whacking certain august members of the House of Lords gives me a rather warm feeling, actually."
   "I thought it might." For a moment, the two women smiled at one another in perfect accord, but then Elizabeth drew a deep breath.
   "Now that you've returned from the dead, as it were, the situation has changed rather radically, however. If they want to see it that way, I've actually outmaneuvered myself by having Devon confirmed as Earl Harrington, since I now have no choice but to allow him to remain earl, thus neatly depriving you of any legitimate claim to his seat in the Lords, or else initiate steps to deprive him of the title in your favor. Legally, of course," she gave Devon a brief, almost apologetic smile, "there would be no problem with the latter. You aren't dead, after all, and there are plenty of legal precedents to cover the return of your property, including your peerage. But there would be a certain amount of embarrassment for the Crown in jumping through all the legal hoops, particularly after how, um, quietly but... forcefully Duke Cromarty and I made the case for confirming him in the first place."
   "I see." Honor ran her hand gently down Nimitz's spine, then nodded. "I see," she said in a rather firmer tone. "And I also suspect that you're working your way up to something with all this explanation, Your Majesty."
   "I told you she was a sharp one, Beth!" Henke chuckled.
   "I hardly needed to be told, Mike," the Queen replied dryly, but her eyes remained on Honor, who felt a sudden tingle as she realized Elizabeth wasn't quite ready to give up her initial idea after all. "Unfortunately, she's also a stubborn one," Elizabeth went on, confirming her fear. "May I ask if you've reconsidered your position on the Medal of Valor, Dame Honor?"
   From the corner of her eye, Honor saw Henke snap upright in her chair, but she kept her own gaze fixed on Elizabeth's face.
   "No, Your Majesty, I haven't." Her soprano voice was tinged with a hint of respectful regret but also unwavering, and Elizabeth sighed.
   "I'd like you to think about that very carefully," she said persuasively. "In light of all you've accomplished, it—"
   "Excuse me, Your Majesty," Honor interrupted, courteously but firmly, "but with all due respect, every reason you and His Grace have given me has been a bad one."
   "Dame Honor," Cromarty spoke up in his deep, whiskey-smooth baritone, "I won't pretend to deny that there are political considerations involved here. You wouldn't believe me if I did, and, frankly, I'm not particularly ashamed that they exist. The Peeps attempted to use your execution as a political and morale weapon against the Alliance. That was the sole reason for the dramatic way in which Ransom and Boardman went about announcing it to their own people, to us, and to the Solarian League. The fact that they'd utterly misread the reaction it would provoke throughout the Alliance doesn't change their intent, and they actually did score some points with certain segments of the Solarian League by portraying you as a convicted, out-of-control mass murderess without bothering to explain the details. Of course, it had already blown up in their faces to some extent, here in the Star Kingdom and in the Alliance, at least, even before you returned so inconveniently from the dead. Now it has all the earmarks of a first-class diplomatic catastrophe for them everywhere, and as the Prime Minister of Manticore, it's my job to see to it that their catastrophe is as complete as I can possibly make it. Awarding you the Parliamentary Medal of Valor and just incidentally rehearsing the details of your escape in the citation for public consumption is one sure way to help accomplish that goal."
   Honor started to speak, but his raised hand stopped her.
   "Let me finish, please," he said courteously, and she nodded a bit unwillingly. "Thank you. Now, as I was saying, the political considerations are, in my opinion, completely valid and appropriate. But they're also beside the point. Whether you care to admit it or not, you've already earned the PMV several times over, as the Graysons clearly recognize." He flicked a graceful gesture at the Star of Grayson glittering on her breast. "Had it not been for the aversion in which the Opposition holds you, you probably would have received it after First Hancock... or after Fourth Yeltsin. And whether you earned it in the past or not, you certainly did when you organized, planned, and executed the escape of almost half a million prisoners from the Peeps' most secure prison!"