"I'm afraid I can't agree with you, Your Grace," Honor said firmly. Henke squirmed in her chair, holding herself in it by main force of will, but Honor ignored her to concentrate on the Prime Minister.
   "The PMV is awarded for valor above and beyond the call of duty," she continued, "and nothing I did was beyond the call of duty." Cromarty's eyes widened in disbelief, but she went on calmly. "It's the duty of any Queen's Officer to escape, if possible. It's the duty of any officer to encourage, coordinate, and lead the efforts of any of her subordinates to escape from the enemy in time of war. And it's the duty of any commanding officer to lead her personnel in combat. More than that, I should also point out that I, personally, had very little to lose in attempting to escape from Hell. I'd been sentenced to death. For me, that made whether or not to risk my life in an attempt to escape a rather simple decision."
   "Dame Honor—!" Cromarty began, but she shook her head again.
   "If you want to reward people who truly demonstrated valor above and beyond the call of duty, you ought to be giving any medals to Horace Harkness," she said flatly. "Unlike myself, he faced only incarceration, not execution, when we reached Hell, and he knew it. But he also chose, entirely without orders, to pretend to defect. He knowingly risked virtually certain execution if he was caught in order to break into the central computers of Cordelia Ransom's flagship, arrange all the critical details of our escape to the planetary surface, and completely destroy Tepes to cover our escape. I submit to you, Your Grace, that if you and Her Majesty want to award a PMV to anyone, Harkness is the most deserving individual you could possibly find."
   "But—" Cromarty began again, and she shook her head once more, more firmly than before.
   "No, Your Grace," she said, and there was no give in her voice at all. "I will not accept the PMV for this."
   "Honor!" Henke burst out, unable to restrain herself any longer. "You never mentioned anything like this on the trip from Grayson!"
   "Because it wasn't important."
   "The hell it wasn't! They're talking about the Medal of Valor, for God's sake! You don't just tell Parliament `Thanks but no thanks' when they offer you the Star Kingdom's highest award for valor!"
   "I'm afraid Dame Honor doesn't agree with you, Mike," Elizabeth said. Her tone was on the tart side, but there was respect in it, as well, and she gazed at Honor with measuring eyes even as she spoke to her cousin. "In point of fact, when we first sent her word that Allen was planning to move the award, she was quite firm about rejecting it."
   "Firm?" Henke echoed. "What d'you mean, firm?"
   "I mean she offered to resign from my Navy if I persisted," Elizabeth said in a dust-dry voice. Honor felt Henke's shock, and her own cheekbones heated just a bit as she met her Queen's eyes, but Elizabeth chuckled after a moment. "They do say Sphinxians are stubborn," she murmured, "and I've heard the same about Graysons. I suppose I should have known what would happen if anyone was crazy enough to combine the two in one package!"
   "Your Majesty, I mean no disrespect," Honor said. "And I'm deeply honored to know that you and Duke Cromarty truly believe I deserve the PMV. The fact that you do is something I'll always treasure, truly. But I don't deserve it. Not for this. And the PMV is too important to me for me to do anything that might, well... cheapen it, if you'll forgive my choice of words. It... wouldn't be right."
   "Dame Honor, you are an unnatural woman," Elizabeth III said severely, unaware her cousin had used exactly the same words. "Or perhaps you're not. Perhaps I've simply spent too much time surrounded by politicians and power mongers. But I doubt very much that there are two women in the Star Kingdom who would turn down the PMV when both her Queen and her Prime Minister insist she take it." She snorted. "Of course, it might be wiser for me not to bet any money on that belief. After all, up until last month, I would've said there wasn't one woman who'd turn it down!"
   "Your Maj—"
   "It's all right, Dame Honor." Elizabeth sighed, waving a hand. "You win. We can hardly march you out into the Crown Chancellery at pulser point and make you accept it. Think of what a PR disaster that would be! But you do realize that if you persist in turning down the PMV we're not going to let you overturn our other plans, don't you?"
   "Other plans?" Honor repeated cautiously, and Elizabeth grinned like a treecat in a celery patch.
   "Nothing too complicated," she reassured her guest. "It's just that, as I explained, my slap on the Opposition's wrist over your exclusion from the Lords lost much of its point when you turned up alive. So since I was the one who took your title away, I thought I should be the one to replace it... and—" her eyes glittered "—give those self-serving cretins a kick in the ass they'll be years recovering from!"
   "I don't understand, Your Majesty," Honor said, and her tone showed true alarm for the first time. There was too much glee in the Queen's emotions, too great a sense of having found a way to simultaneously drub the Opposition and mousetrap Honor into accepting what Elizabeth clearly considered to be her "due."
   "As I said, it's not complicated." Elizabeth's 'catlike grin intensified. "You're no longer Countess Harrington, and now that I've become more familiar with Grayson, I realize that creating you that in the first place was really a bit inappropriate, considering the difference in the precedence of a countess and a steadholder. Protector Benjamin has never complained about the unintentional insult we offered one of his great nobles by equating the two titles, but I'd be surprised if he doesn't harbor at least a little resentment over it, and it's never a good idea to risk potential friction with one's allies in the middle of a war. So I've decided to correct my original error."
   "Correct—?" Honor gazed at her Queen in horror.
   "Absolutely. The Crown has seen fit to urge the House of Commons, and the House of Commons has seen fit to approve, your creation as Duchess Harrington."
   "Duchess?!" Honor gurgled.
   "Correct," Elizabeth assured her. "We've carved a rather nice little duchy out of the Westmount Crown Reserve on Gryphon for you. There aren't any people living there right now — it was part of the Reserve, after all — but there are extensive timber and mineral rights. There are also several sites which would be suitable for the creation of luxury ski resorts. In fact, we've had numerous inquiries about those sites from the big ski consortiums for years, and I imagine several of them will be quite eager to negotiate leases from you, especially when they remember the role you played in the Attica Avalanche rescue operations. And I understand you enjoy sailing, so we drew your borders to include a moderately spectacular stretch of coast quite similar to your Copper Walls back on Sphinx. I'm sure you could put in a nice little marina. Of course, the weather on Gryphon can be a bit extreme, but I don't suppose you can have everything."
   "But... but Your Majesty, I can't— That is, I don't have the time or the experience to—"
   "Now that, Your Grace, will be quite enough," Elizabeth said, and for the first time, her voice was stern, the voice of a monarch. Honor closed her mouth with a click, and Elizabeth nodded.
   "Better," she said. "Much better. Because this time, you're wrong. You do have the experience for the job. My God, Honor," it was the first time she'd ever addressed Honor solely by her given name, but Honor was too stunned even to notice, "you've got more experience than most of the people who are already dukes or duchesses! There's not a single Manticoran noble who's ever enjoyed the sort of authority and power a steadholder wields — Elizabeth the First saw to that four hundred years ago!—and you've been handling that job for ten T-years now. After that, this should be a piece of cake!"
   "Perhaps so, but you know I'm right when I say I won't have time to see to my responsibilities properly," Honor rejoined. "I've been more fortunate than any woman deserves to have Howard Clinkscales to rely on back on Grayson, but now you're talking about piling a second set of responsibilities on top of my duties as Steadholder Harrington! No serving officer has the time to handle responsibilities like this the way they should be handled!"
   "Ah?" Elizabeth cocked her head. "Should I take that up with Earl White Haven?"
   "No! I didn't mean—" Honor chopped herself off and inhaled deeply. Elizabeth had no right resorting to that particular argument, she thought, but there was no way she cared to explain why that was to her Queen.
   "I know what you meant, Honor," Elizabeth said quietly. "And, frankly, I'm not at all surprised you feel that way. It's one of the things I like about you. And it is customary for the great peers to devote their full attention to overseeing their lands. But there have always been exceptions, just as there have been in Earl White Haven's case. Hamish Alexander is far too valuable to the Navy for us to have him sitting around gathering dust running his earldom, and that's why he has a steward — like your Clinkscales — to execute his policies in his absence. The same arrangement can certainly be made for you. Indeed, I thought your friend Willard Neufsteiler might do nicely, if you can spare him from Sky Domes."
   Honor blinked, surprised that Elizabeth was sufficiently well informed to know about her relationship with Neufsteiler, but the Queen continued with calm assurance.
   "Whatever it takes, we'll work it out. Of course, it will probably help that you're going to be stuck here in the Star Kingdom for at least a T-year for medical treatment. That should keep you close enough to oversee the initial organization of a new duchy... and the experience you had organizing Harrington Steading should prove very valuable to you, I'd think. For that matter, the fact that there's no one living there at the moment will also alleviate some of the immediacy in getting it organized. But like White Haven, you're too valuable to the Navy for us to keep you sitting at home." Elizabeth smiled crookedly. "The time will undoubtedly come, and sooner than I'd like, when I have to send you back out to be shot at for me again. And this time you may not be as lucky. So if you won't accept my medals, you will damned well let me give you this while I still have the chance! Is that clear, Lady Harrington?"
   "Yes, Your Majesty." Honor's soprano was more than a little husky, but she tasted the Queen's complete intransigence on this topic.
   "Good," Elizabeth said quietly, then shoved back in her chair, stretched her legs out before her, crossed her ankles, lifted Ariel into her lap, and grinned.
   "And now that we've gotten that out of the way, Your Grace, I intend to insist on a command performance. I know perfectly well that you're going to do your damnedest to avoid the newsies, and that even if you fail, they're bound to get the story's details wrong — they always do!—when they report it. So instead of reading about it in the 'faxes, I want every detail of your escape in person!"


   "So what do you think of her, Commander?"
   Commander Prescott David Tremaine turned towards the voice and felt his spine straighten as he recognized Rear Admiral of the Red Dame Alice Truman. He'd expected her yeoman to collect him when she was ready to see him, but she'd come in person. She stood in the open hatch between the waiting room and her private briefing room aboard HMSS Weyland, as golden-haired, green-eyed, and sturdy as he remembered, and he started towards her, but she waved a hand before he took a step.
   "Stay where you are, Commander. Don't let me take you away from the view," she said, and crossed the compartment to where he stood beside the enormous view port. That view port was a rarity aboard Weyland, where exterior hull space was always at a premium and most people had to be content with HD wall screens... assuming they got even that. Which was silly, perhaps, since the wall screens came with a zoom capability no unaided eye could achieve, but it was also very human. There was something innately satisfying about knowing one was seeing the actuality, not an image, however faithful it might be. Even hardened starship officers who never saw the cosmos directly from their command decks seemed to share that craving for a front row seat on God's jewel box, and the fact that Truman had snagged such a prize said interesting things about the favor in which The Powers That Be currently held her.
   Not that Truman's manner showed any particular awareness of that. Many officers of her seniority would have been far more formal with a newly promoted commander, not yet thirty-seven T-years old, just reporting to her for duty, and he warned himself not to rely too much upon the fact that she wasn't. Or wasn't starting out that way, anyway. He and Truman had served together under Lady Harrington twice before, yet he scarcely expected her to remember him. The first time, Truman had been a commander herself, CO of the light cruiser Apollo when Lady Harrington had commanded the heavy cruiser Fearless and Tremaine had been a very junior officer indeed aboard the destroyer Troubadour. Still, a certain sense of us-against-the-universe clung to everyone who had been a part of that small squadron. Not that there are as many of us as there used to be, Tremaine reminded himself with a touch of grimness, then took himself sternly to task.
   The second time had been only four T-years ago, when Tremaine had been Lady Harrington's boat bay officer aboard the armed merchant cruiser Wayfarer. Truman had been a captain of the list then, and once more she'd been Lady Harrington's second-in-command, the senior captain of her Q-ship squadron. But once again they'd served on different ships, and the second time around, their paths had never crossed at all.
   We may have served together, sort of, he reminded himself, but she's a rear admiral now. That makes her about two steps short of God; vice admirals and full admirals have to fit in there somewhere. And that doesn't even count the trick she pulled off on Hancock Station last year... or the knighthood she got out of it. So answer the question, dummy!
   "I like her a lot, Ma'am," he said. "She's—" Despite his resolve to maintain decorum, his hands waved as he sought exactly the right word. "She's... wonderful," he said finally, and Truman smiled at the simple sincerity which infused his tone.
   "I thought pretty much the same thing the first time I saw Minotaur," she admitted, feeling her own remembered excitement in the echo of Tremaine's enthusiasm. She treasured that feeling even more now that she was a flag officer and would never again directly command a Queen's ship, and she stepped up beside the view port and clasped her hands behind her as she and Tremaine turned to gaze out it together.
   The port's lack of magnification limited what the human eye could pick out of something as endless as space, but for all its immensity, space also offered the needle-sharp clarity of hard vacuum, and the nearest space dock was barely thirty kilometers away. That was more than close enough to see the huge, two-kilometer hull floating at the center of the dock, and five more identical docks, each cocooning its own hull in progress, could be made out beyond it. The nearer ship was clearly all but ready to commission, for crews were completing the fusing of her paint while a steady stream of lighters trundled up to her cargo bays with loads of ship's stores, environmental supplies, missile pallets, and all the other million-and-one items a ship of war required.
   The five docks beyond hers dwindled rapidly with distance, curving away in their orbits around the blue-and-white beauty of the planet Gryphon, but if one looked very closely, one could see still another cluster of docks reflecting the distant light of Manticore-B beyond them.
   "Quite a sight, isn't it?" Truman murmured, and Tremaine shook his head. Not in disagreement, but with a sense of wonder.
   "You can say that again, Ma'am," he replied softly. "Especially when you remember that every slip aboard Weyland is already full."
   "And aboard Hephaestus and Vulcan," Truman agreed, and turned to smile at him. "Ever expect to see Grayson-style space docks here in the Star Kingdom, Commander?"
   "No, Ma'am, I didn't," he admitted.
   "Well, neither did I." Truman returned her gaze to the port. "Then again, I never thought I'd see the building tempo we're starting to hit." She shook her head. "It just never seemed possible that we'd completely fill every slip aboard every space station the Navy owns and then start throwing together stand-alones like that." She nodded at the dock, and her voice turned grimmer. "But you're probably going to see even more of them in the next few T-years," she told him. "The way the Peeps have been pressing the pace, we're going to need every ship we can get... and soon, unless I'm mistaken. And losing two brand new yards in Alizon and Zanzibar last year doesn't help a bit."
   It was Tremaine's turn to look at her. He hadn't been back all that long, and Bassingford Medical Center had turned him loose with a clean bill of health less than two months ago. He'd been eligible for a full month of liberty, since he and everyone else who'd been sent to Hades were entitled to survivor's leave, but he'd used only three weeks of it. He'd loved every minute he got to spend with his mother and his two sisters, and his older brother's admiration — verging on sheer awe, actually — had done marvelous things for his ego, but he'd been simply unable to take longer than that.
   A great deal of what had happened since Esther McQueen became the Peeps' secretary of war was still classified, but there was more than enough in the public record, especially coupled with what the escapees from Hell had learned about the Peeps' side of events from the data bases of their captured ships, for Tremaine to know it hadn't been good. Indeed, the more he'd seen, the more convinced he'd become that the Navy needed every person it had. Besides, he was constitutionally incapable of sitting on the sidelines when he ought to be pulling his weight. He'd always been a bit that way, he supposed, but he'd also been blessed, if that was the word, with the examples of senior officers like Lady Harrington and Alistair McKeon — or Alice Truman — and a man didn't serve under officers like that without developing a sense of duty. It could be an uncomfortable gift, but all things considered, he much preferred it to the reverse.
   And I sleep better at night, too, he told himself, all the time concentrating on making his questioning gaze properly respectful. Truman studied his face for several seconds, then smiled again, crookedly, this time, and took pity on him.
   "We've managed not to completely lose control of any really critical systems, Scotty," she told him, and he felt a glow of pleasure at her use of the nickname he hadn't even known she knew, "but McQueen's hit us hard." She grimaced. "The one thing a lot of us have always been afraid of was that eventually someone who knew her ass from her elbow would wind up running the Peep Navy. It had to happen eventually, but we could at least hope that StateSec would keep on shooting anyone competent enough that she might seem to be a threat to the regime. Unfortunately, they haven't shot McQueen, and she's an even tougher customer than most of us were afraid they'd turn up to face us."
   She gestured to the space docks beyond the view port.
   "We've taken heavier losses in the last T-year than in the previous three," she said quietly, "and that doesn't even consider the damage to our infrastructure in Basilisk, Zanzibar, and Alizon. Seaford—" she waved a dismissive hand "—wasn't all that valuable. Oh, there was a lot of prestige and a sense of vengeance on the Peeps' part at having taken the system back. That wasn't good, but, even so, we wouldn't have minded its loss all that much... if that idiot Santino hadn't managed to get his entire task group wiped out while inflicting virtually no damage on the Peeps."
   Her mouth twisted, but she made herself smooth it back out and inhaled deeply.
   "It would be bad enough if McQueen were all we had to worry about," she went on after a moment, "but she's managed to put together a first-rate team to turn her strategy into reality. I believe you've met Citizen Admiral Tourville?" She crooked an eyebrow at Tremaine, and he nodded.
   "Yes, Ma'am, I have," he said with feeling. "He's got all the affectations of a true hot dog, but underneath that, he's sharp as they come. As good as just about any Allied officer I've ever heard of."
   "Better, Scotty," Truman murmured. "Better. And Giscard may be even better than Tourville. We already knew Theisman was good, of course." She and Tremaine exchanged tight smiles, for both of them had met Thomas Theisman during their first visit to Yeltsin's Star. "I don't think any of the others are really up to their weight, but it doesn't matter very much. McQueen has those three out in the field running her ops, and it looks like she's giving them the cream of the crop as squadron and task group commanders. And if those people aren't up to their standards when they report for duty, every operation they execute also lets them teach their captains and tac officers just a little bit more. So if the war goes on long enough—"
   She shrugged her shoulders, and Tremaine nodded slowly. His expression must have been more anxious than he'd thought, because she smiled reassuringly.
   "Don't panic, Commander. Yes, they're getting better, but we've still got a few people, like Earl White Haven and Duchess—" they grinned at one another once more, this time broadly "—Harrington, who can kick their butts. And now that I think about it, Admiral Kuzak, Admiral Webster, and Admiral D'Orville aren't that bad, either. But there's no point denying that the opposition is starting to get better, and that's not good when they already have the edge in numbers and their tech transfers from the Sollies are starting to close the gap between their ships' capabilities and our own.
   "At the moment, they're not trying to move in and take any of our core systems away from us. They're not even making that big a push to take back the major systems that we've taken away from them over the last few years. What they're doing is sniping at us, running in to damage or destroy a handful of our warships or secondary bases wherever they think they see a weakness. And, unfortunately, there are a lot of places where we are weak, largely because of the `citadel' defense the politicians insist on."
   " `Citadel,' Ma'am?" Tremaine repeated, and she snorted.
   "That's only my personal term for it, but I think it's appropriate. The problem is that McQueen caught us at the worst possible moment. We'd worn ourselves and our ships out in an effort to maintain our offensive momentum, and no one can get away with that forever. At the moment she hit us, our strength had been heavily drawn down because of how many ships we'd finally been forced to hand over to the yard dogs for refit, and we were screwed." She shrugged. "In hindsight, we should have pulled them back sooner, when we could refit them in smaller numbers, even if it meant slowing our operational tempo. But that's the beauty of hindsight: it always has a lot more to go on than you did when you had to make the decision the first time around.
   "At any rate, McQueen obviously understood perfectly that we'd been forced to reduce our strength in what we thought were safe areas in order to maintain our forward concentrations, but no one on our side had dreamed she might be able to convince Pierre and his butchers to let her strike that deep into our rear. So when she did, she caught us with our trousers around our ankles and hit us hard. She took losses of her own, but she could have lost every ship she committed to all of her initial ops and still come out ahead just from the physical damage Giscard did in Basilisk. Not to mention Basilisk's political consequences, both foreign and domestic."
   She shook her head, and her green eyes were somber.
   "Did you hear much from the civilians about that during your leave?"
   "More than I wanted to," Tremaine replied grimly, remembering the one true low point of his time at home. His father had taken the entire family out to dinner and insisted he wear his uniform. Personally, Tremaine had suspected his dad hoped someone would recognize his son from the newscasts and 'faxes. What none of them had expected was to end up seated next to a man who had lost a lifetime's investment — and a brother who'd stayed behind, trying to make sure all of their employees had evacuated their orbital warehouse complex in time — when Citizen Admiral Giscard hit Basilisk. Worse, the man in question had clearly had too much to drink, and the scene which resulted would live forever in Tremaine's memory. It had started with muttered imprecations and escalated into full-scale screaming before the police arrived to take the man in for disturbing the peace. But worse even than his screamed obscenities and insults had been the tears running down his face... and the irrational sense of guilt Tremaine had felt. He'd known at the time that it was irrational, but that hadn't made it bite any less deeply.
   "I'm not surprised you have." Truman sighed. "Hard to blame them, really. Giscard wiped out sixty T-years of investment, though at least the loss of life was a lot lower than it might have been. Thanks to Giscard's basic decency, really; he waited until the last minute to fire, and there was damn all we could have done to stop him if he'd wanted a massacre! But the physical damage was catastrophic enough. White Haven kept him from taking out the Junction forts in Basilisk or retaining permanent control of the system, but that was about all. And truth to tell, I very much doubt Giscard ever planned to keep the system. What he had was a raiding squadron from Hell, not the tonnage to move in and hang onto an entire star system that he and McQueen must have known we'd move Heaven and Hell, not to mention Home Fleet, to take back.
   "But once the extent of the damage sank in, the entire Star Kingdom went into a sort of state of shock. We're supposed to do things like that to the Peeps, not the other way around, and the fact that we hadn't shook public confidence more severely than I would have believed possible. I won't go so far as to call it panic, but it was ugly, Scotty. Really, really ugly, and all of a sudden, for the first time since the declaration of war, we found political imperatives driving military operations, rather than the reverse."
   "I've heard the Opposition's side of it, Ma'am." Tremaine's tone mirrored the disgust in his expression. "Especially from the Palmer Institute and that son-of-a— Uh, I mean that jackass Houseman."
   "No, you meant `son-of-a-bitch.' " Truman's eyes twinkled, despite her earlier bleakness. "And you were right, although, personally, I prefer `unmitigated, fatheaded, self-serving, vindictive bastard,' myself."
   "If you say so, Ma'am. After all, far be it from me to argue with a flag officer!"
   "Wise of you, Commander. Very wise," she said, but then the twinkle faded and her voice turned serious once more. "But if you've heard them, you know what the Government was up against. People were scared, and the Opposition chose to play on that fear. I try to remind myself to be fair, because it probably really is true that a lot of them actually believed what they were saying, but people like High Ridge and Descroix were definitely playing it for political advantage and hang the consequences for the war."
   "What consequences were those, Ma'am?" Tremaine asked quietly.
   "The citadel defense, of course," Truman said sourly. "The Government didn't dare risk getting hit that hard in another core system, so they demanded that the Admiralty redeploy to make sure we wouldn't be." She waved both hands, the gesture rich with frustration. "Don't get me wrong, Scotty. We probably would have done a lot of what they wanted, in the short term, anyway, with no pressure at all, because a lot of it made sense, at least until we'd had time to analyze what McQueen had done to us and get a feel for what she was likely to try next. But we had to redeploy much more radically than anyone at the Admiralty wanted, and any offensive action of our own has been paralyzed ever since."
   "But—" Scotty cut off his incipient protest. She'd been far more open than he'd had any right to expect, and he warned himself not to abuse her frankness. But she only gestured for him to go on, and he drew a deep breath.
   "I understand what you're saying, Ma'am," he said, "but what about Eighth Fleet? Surely that's an offensive force, isn't it? And Admiral White Haven certainly seemed to be just about ready to go when we were in Trevor's Star."
   "I'm sure he did," Truman conceded. "And, yes, Eighth Fleet is our primary offensive force... officially. But while I'm certain White Haven, Admiral Caparelli, and the Prime Minister would all just love to turn him loose, they're not going to do it."
   "They're not?" Surprise betrayed the question out of Tremaine, and Truman shrugged.
   "No one's told me so officially, but it's pretty clear what they're really doing, Scotty. Of course, I've got access to some information you don't, which probably makes it a little more obvious to me. But think about it. Home Fleet hasn't been materially reinforced. The Basilisk forts have been beefed up, and the unfinished ones have been brought on-line to cover the Junction terminus there. In addition, the system picket is about twice as strong as it was, and the Gryphon Squadron's been upgraded to a heavy task group. But that's all that's changed here in the Star Kingdom, because we've been forced to send every ship we possibly could to strengthen our allies' defenses. They got their own shock treatment out of Zanzibar and Alizon, and the Government's been forced to do a lot of reassuring the only way it could: with ships of the wall.
   "But we also need to be ready to meet any threat to the Star Kingdom itself, and that's what Eighth Fleet is really doing. White Haven demonstrated the strategic advantages of the Junction when he beat the Peeps to the Basilisk terminus all the way from Trevor's Star. So what we're trying to do is shake Eighth Fleet as threateningly as we possibly can under McQueen's and Theisman's noses by looming ominously over Barnett while what Eighth Fleet actually is is the strategic reserve for the Star Kingdom."
   "Um." Tremaine scratched an eyebrow, then nodded slowly. "I can see that, Ma'am. And I can see why we can't exactly tell the public not to worry because Eighth Fleet is covering the home systems. I mean, if we told our people that, we'd also be telling the Peeps they don't have to worry about its coming after them, wouldn't we?"
   "We would. Of course, McQueen is more than smart enough to figure it out for herself. At the same time, she has to honor the threat, because she might be wrong. But what's really disturbing to me about it, aside from the fact that letting the other side pick its own time and place to hit us is the strategy of weakness, is that I feel quite sure the Opposition has had it explained to them in confidential briefings." She saw the question in Tremaine's eye and shrugged. "It's traditional to keep the Opposition leadership informed in time of war. In theory the Cromarty Government could fall at any moment, in which case we might find the Opposition parties being forced to form a government. I spend the odd sleepless night praying it will never happen, but if it did, any lost time while they figured out what was happening could be disastrous."
   "I know that, Ma'am. I don't especially like the thought, but I understand why it has to be done. I was just a bit confused as to why you found that disturbing?"
   "Because even though they have to know what the PM and the Admiralty are doing, no one could possibly guess it from their public statements. Have you actually read any of the Opposition 'faxes? Seen their editorials?"
   "No, not really. I suppose I ought to, but—"
   It was Tremaine's turn to shrug, uncomfortably, and Truman snorted.
   "I don't blame you for avoiding them. In fact, I tend to do the same. But if you skim them, you'll find they're going right on viewing with alarm. They're being careful to avoid language which could too obviously be called scare-mongering or alarmist, but they're still gnawing away at public confidence in the Cromarty Government just as hard as they can. In my own opinion, they're doing it purely for political advantage... and they know the Duke can't publically rebut their charges or explain what he's really doing with Eighth Fleet without telling the Peeps, as well."
   "But surely they have to realize they're also undermining confidence in the war itself!"
   "Some of them undoubtedly do. But they — or their leadership, at least — don't care. They're completely focused on the political front, so completely that actually fighting the war is secondary. Besides, they don't have to take responsibility for what happens at the front; Duke Cromarty and the Admiralty do."
   "That's... disgusting," Tremaine said quietly.
   "I suppose it is," Truman agreed, but her tone was thoughtful. "On the other hand, it's also very human. Don't misunderstand me, Scotty. I'm not saying these people are inherently evil, or deliberately trying to lose the war. Some of them, like High Ridge, Janacek, and a couple of New Kiev's advisers do fall into the category of `evil' as far as I'm concerned... and you don't want to get me started on Sheridan Wallace! They're the manipulators who don't give a good goddamn about anything but their own personal interests. Most of the rest are like Houseman, only less so, thank God! They're genuinely uninformed about military realities, but they think they know all about the subject, and their military advisers aren't exactly what I'd consider the best available. No doubt said advisers would feel the same way about me if our roles were reversed, however, and the fact that I think they're stupid doesn't make them evil. Nor does it make the people who rely on their advice evil. But if New Kiev genuinely believes that Cromarty is handling the entire war wrongly and that his commitment to a clear-cut, military resolution of our differences with someone the size of the Peeps can lead only to ultimate disaster, then she has a moral responsibility to do something about it. As she sees it, that's exactly what she's doing, and while I've never been much of a fan of the notion that the end justifies the means, she clearly accepts it."
   The golden-haired rear admiral shook herself, and her tone changed.
   "But be that as it may," she said briskly, "it's the Navy's job to get on with fighting the war, not to sit around and complain over the way the politicians are running it. Which is what this is all about."
   She jutted her chin out the port at the space docks, and Tremaine nodded. When an admiral decided to change the subject, lesser mortals followed her lead. Expeditiously.
   "What we're hoping," Truman went on, "is that whether or not Eighth Fleet succeeds in holding McQueen's attention, she'll go on pecking at peripheral systems long enough for us to get ready to go back over to the offensive ourselves. We've made a lot more progress on bringing our maintenance cycles back up to snuff than the Peeps know — or than we hope they know, anyway — and our critical-system pickets are much stronger than they were even four or five months ago. At the same time, the Graysons are building ships like maniacs, and between us, we've produced a solid core of Harring— I mean Medusas that we hope the Peeps don't know about. And the Admiralty's moving right ahead with plans to shut down Junction forts here in Manticore, which is releasing hundreds of thousands of personnel from Fortress Command to Fleet duty. And while all that's going on, we're building the ships for those people to crew and rushing them through their working up periods as quickly as we can. In fact, we're probably pushing them through a bit more quickly than we ought to, and I'm more than a little concerned about soft spots and green units. That's one reason I was so delighted to discover you were available for assignment here."
   Tremaine straightened. It sounded as if she meant she'd specifically asked for him, and if she had, it was one of the highest professional compliments he'd ever been paid.
   "I take it you've been briefed on the new carriers?" she asked, and he nodded.
   "Not fully, Ma'am. They told me I'd be receiving my detailed brief when I reported for duty. But they certainly told me enough to whet my appetite for more!"
   "I thought it would have that effect," she told him with a smile. "I remembered Lady Harrington bragging on what a hot-shot boat bay officer and pinnace pilot you were back when I commanded Parnassus, and I knew you'd worked closely with Jackie Harmon." Her eyes darkened, and Tremaine's mouth tightened. He had worked with Commander Harmon closely, and liked her a lot, and the news that she'd been killed in action under Truman's command in Hancock had hit him hard.
   "At any rate," Truman went on more briskly, "I knew you were familiar with the first generation of the new LACs, and when I put all that together, you were at the very top of a very short list of officers who have that sort of background. You're still a bit junior for the slot I want to put you into, but I think you can hack it. Especially with the command experience you picked up in Cerberus with Lady Harrington."
   "Thank you, Ma'am... I think." Tremaine couldn't keep himself from adding the last two words, but Truman only smiled.
   "I hope you still feel that way after the next couple of months, Commander," she told him, and pointed once more at the ship in the nearest space dock. "According to the yard dogs, that ship will be ready for acceptance trials next week. If they're right, you'll be aboard her when she runs them."
   "I will?"
   "Indeed you will, Scotty. And once she commissions, I will personally run you, and everyone else aboard her, until you drop. And when you do, I'll jerk you back up by the scruff of the neck and start running you all over again, because you and I, for our sins, are going to be the cutting edge of the offensive we're planning on launching."
   "We are, Ma'am? I mean—"
   "I know exactly what you mean," Truman assured him, "and don't worry about it. You're a bright young fellow, and I know from experience that you're motivated, hardworking, and quite a bit more disciplined than you care to appear. In fact—" she smiled lazily "—now that I think about it, you're also quite a bit like Lester Tourville yourself, aren't you, Commander? All the affectations of a real hot dog... but with the ability to back it up."
   Tremaine only looked at her. There was, after all, very little he could say in response, and she chuckled.
   "I hope you are, anyway, Scotty, because that's exactly what I need. `Fighter jocks,' Jackie called them. That's what we need for LAC crews... and as the new CO of HMS Hydra's LAC wing, it's going to be your job to build them for me!"


   "Duchess Harrington is here, Sir Thomas," the Admiralty yeoman announced, and stood to one side, holding the old-fashioned manual door wide. Honor stepped through it with an expression she hoped concealed a certain inner trepidation, and the barrel-chested man behind the landing pad-sized desk rose to greet her.
   "Your Grace," he said, holding out his hand, and she hid a small smile as she crossed the bright, wood-paneled office to take it. The protocol was just a bit complicated, and she wondered if Admiral Caparelli had consulted the experts on how to handle it or if he was simply feeling his way along as he went.
   In every way but one — well, two, actually — she was now this man's superior. In Yeltsin, of course, where she was Steadholder Harrington, that had been true for years. But now she was Duchess Harrington here in the Star Kingdom, as well. Her good eye gleamed with pure, unadulterated gloating as she recalled the stifled expressions on quite a few noble lords and ladies as the woman they had excluded from their midst was seated among them as the most junior duchess of the Star Kingdom... who just happened to outrank ninety-plus percent of the rest of the peerage. Despite lingering doubts over the wisdom of creating her new title, she had to admit that the looks on the faces of Stefan Young, Twelfth Earl of North Hollow, and Michael Janvier, Ninth Baron of High Ridge, were going to remain two of her fondest memories when (or if) she reached her dotage.
   Another treasured recollection would be the speeches of welcome from the Opposition leadership. She'd listened attentively, her expression grave, while Nimitz lay in his awkward curl in her lap and both of them tasted the actual emotions behind the utterly sincere voices. It wasn't particularly nice to know how much the people doing the talking hated her, and the way they'd gushed about her "heroism" and her "courage, determination, and infinite resourcefulness" had been faintly nauseating, but that was all right. She and Nimitz had known precisely what the speakers actually felt, and she'd been faintly surprised when High Ridge hadn't fallen down and died in an apoplectic fit. Countess New Kiev hadn't been much better, although at least her teeth-gritting rage had seemed more directed at the obstacle Honor presented to her plans and policies and less tinged with the personal hatred radiating from High Ridge and North Hollow.
   And it's not like there weren't at least as many — heck, a lot more!—people who were genuinely pleased over it, she reminded herself.
   But she'd been Duchess Harrington for barely three weeks, and her new dignities were still an uncomfortable fit.
   They were probably just as big a problem for some of the people around her as they were for her, however, and Sir Thomas Caparelli had every right to be one of them. He'd been First Space Lord since the first day of the war, when Honor had been merely one of his more junior captains of the list. Even now, she was only a commodore in Manticoran service, and the last time she'd been in the Star Kingdom, she'd been no more than the designated commander of a heavy cruiser squadron... which hadn't even been formed yet! She was relieved to taste no resentment from him over the heights to which she'd risen since, but there was an undeniable awkwardness, as if he were still in the process of adjusting his thinking to allow for her latest, unwanted elevation.
   But there was also a genuine sense of gratitude for her survival, and his handclasp was firm. Nor had it been inappropriate for him to initiate the handshake, although some of the more supercilious sticklers among her fellow nobles (like High Ridge) would undoubtedly have looked down their aristocratic noses at him for his presumption. A proper greeting would have been a small, courteous bow, preferably with a respectful click of the heels... and a little scraping to go with the bow. When all was said and done, after all, Thomas Caparelli was a mere commoner who'd won his lowly knighthood for service to the Crown rather than inheriting it as a true noble would have.
   But that was all right with Honor. Those were the sorts of nobles who represented what she had always considered to be the greatest flaw in a generally satisfactory society and system of government, and she could scarcely have cared less for their good opinion, whereas she valued that of Caparelli. And as far as she was concerned, the two ways in which he continued to outrank her were at least as important as any elevations which had come her way.