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Chapter Four

"—this morning, so I think that situation's under control, Milady."

"I see." Michelle tipped back in the chair behind the desk and contemplated Commodore Arlo Turner with a hidden smile of mingled satisfaction and exasperation.

Turner, a heavyset, fair-haired man in his mid-fifties, was, like Michelle, from the planet of Manticore itself. More than that, he was from the City of Landing, the Star Kingdom's capital, and she suspected that he'd always been one of those people who followed the daily newsfaxes expressly so he could keep up with the doings of what was still called "the rich and famous." When she first realized that, she'd been tempted to write him off as an inept, would-be social climber, but she'd quickly realized that would have been doing him a disservice he didn't deserve. He might be fascinated by the social gossip columns, and she didn't doubt he cherished a slightly wistful hope of someday attaining at least a knighthood of his very own, yet he was anything but inept. In fact, he was one of the more efficient administrators she'd ever worked with, and she had no doubt he was a competent tactician, too, despite his present residence in one of the Republic of Haven's prisoner-of-war camps. After all, she considered herself a reasonably competent tactician, and look where she'd ended up.

Her lips twitched, the hidden smile almost breaking free, as that thought flickered through her mind, but it wasn't what had awakened her exasperation. Despite his efficiency, and despite her rather pointed hints to the contrary, he simply could not forget that she was Queen Elizabeth's first cousin and the Countess of Gold Peak in her own right. It would be grossly unfair to accuse him of anything remotely like fawning, yet he insisted upon addressing her as "Admiral Gold Peak," and instead of the sturdy, serviceable naval "Ma'am" she would really have preferred, he insisted upon the technically correct "Milady" whenever he addressed her.

I suppose if that's the only thing I can find to worry about where he's concerned, I don't have any real room for complaint, she reflected, and glanced sideways for a moment at Lieutenant Colonel Ivan McGregor.

McGregor, who had been born and raised on the planet of Gryphon, less than five hundred kilometers from what had since become the Duchy of Harrington, was Turner's antithesis in almost every way. Where Turner was fair-haired and blue-eyed, McGregor had black hair, dark brown eyes, and a swarthy complexion. Where Turner was heavyset—chunky, not overweight—and stood only a little more than a hundred and sixty-two centimeters in height, McGregor had a runner's build and topped a hundred and ninety-three centimeters. And if Turner was a gossip junkie, McGregor had every bit of the native Gryphon's distrust for the majority of the Star Kingdom's aristocracy, and his eyes reflected an echo of Michelle's own exasperation with Turner's choice of address at the moment.

Despite which, the two men were fast friends and worked smoothly together.

Until her own unanticipated arrival, Turner had been the senior officer of Camp Charlie-Seven, and McGregor, as the senior Marine officer in the camp, had been his adjutant and the commander of Camp Charlie's internal police service. He continued to hold both of those posts, and Turner had become Michelle's executive officer.

If she were going to be completely honest, she had to admit her own duties consisted primarily of standing back and letting the two of them get on with the smoothly oiled partnership they'd built up during their thirteen months in captivity. Both of them had been captured in the opening stages of Operation Thunderbolt, and she was impressed by their joint refusal to allow the fact that they had been captured so early in the war, through no fault of their own, to embitter them.

There's a lesson there I'd probably better learn for myself, the way this war seems to be going. Her temptation to smile disappeared with the thought.

"So you're satisfied, then, Arlo?"

"Yes, Milady." The commodore nodded. "It was only a misunderstanding. The kitchens screwed up their records—it looks like a simple data-entry error. According to them, we still had plenty of fresh vegetables. I think Captain Bouvier's a little ticked that he didn't realize the reports had to be in error, given the delivery schedule, and he assures me we can expect delivery within the next few hours."

"Good." Michelle nodded.

Captain Adelbert Bouvier was the Republican Navy's designated "liaison officer" to its prisoner-of-war camps here on the Republic's capital world. Frankly, she found the Havenites' arrangements a bit . . . peculiar. Technically, Bouvier should probably have been considered Camp Charlie-Seven's commanding officer, although he wasn't called that. He was the Havenite officer with command authority over the camp and its inhabitants, at any rate, but he and his superiors seemed prepared to allow Camp Charlie to function with a sort of semi-autonomy which had astounded Michelle when she first encountered it.

Right off the top of her head, she couldn't think of another example of a star nation which didn't bother to post its own personnel on the ground, as it were, to at least keep an eye on a camp full of prisoners of war, all of whom could be presumed to be trained military personnel with a distinct interest in being elsewhere. On the other hand, it wasn't exactly as if they needed to put a lot of boots on the ground here at Charlie-Seven.

Reminds me a little of what Honor had to say about Cerberus, she reflected, glancing out the window of her office in the camp's main administration building. Not that it has anything in common with the way those motherless StateSec bastards treated their prisoners, thank God! But the Peeps—no, Honor was right about that, too; the Havenites—do seem to have a thing about islands.

Camp Charlie-Seven occupied the entirety of a relatively small, somewhat chilly island in the planet of Haven's Vaillancourt Sea. It was almost eight hundred kilometers to the nearest body of land in any direction, which provided what Michelle had to concede was a reasonably effective moat. And if there were no guards actually on the ground, everyone in the camp knew their island was under permanent, round-the-clock surveillance by dedicated satellites and ground-based remote sensors. Even assuming that anyone on the island had been able to cobble up some sort of boat that actually stood a chance of crossing to the mainland across all that water, the sensor nets and satellites would have detected the attempt to launch said boat quickly, and Republican Marines could be on the ground on the island within fifteen minutes, if they really needed to.

With that sort of security available, Secretary of War Theisman had opted to allow his prisoners to manage their own affairs, subject to a sort of distant oversight by officers like Captain Bouvier, as long as they kept things running relatively smoothly. It might be an unheard-of technique, but it appeared to be an effective one, and it was about as far as it was possible to get from the horror stories Michelle Henke heard from Manticorans unfortunate enough to fall into Havenite custody in the previous war.

Which is undoubtedly the reason he did it. She shook her head mentally. There's a man who still thinks he has a lot to make up for. And not for anything he did, either. Honor was right—he is a decent man.

In fact, she'd come to the conclusion that most of the Havenites she'd met were decent people. In a way, she wished that weren't the case. It was always simpler when one could think of the enemy as the scum of the galaxy. Reflecting on the fact that the people who were firing missiles at you—and who you were firing missiles back at—were just as decent as anyone you knew on your side could be . . . uncomfortable.

She thought about Theisman's dinner party. As promised, Admiral Redmont had been present, and under Theisman's watchful eye, Redmont had actually unbent to the point of telling a few modest jokes over the post-dinner wine. Michelle realized she still wasn't very high on his list of favorite people—not surprisingly, when Ajax had killed almost six thousand of his personnel—and he wasn't exactly likely to become her lifetime pen pal, either, given what had happened to her flagship. But at least the two of them had acquired a sense of mutual respect, and she was a bit surprised by how little bitterness there truly was in her feelings where he was concerned.

She hadn't had that sort of baggage with the other dinner guests. Admiral Lester Tourville had been something of a surprise. According to all of the reports she'd ever seen, he was supposed to be something of a loose warhead—one of those colorful, larger-than-life people who would always be far more at home on the command deck of a single battlecruiser fighting a ship-to-ship action somewhere (assuming he couldn't find the eyepatch, cutlass, and flintlock pistols he really wanted) rather than commanding a task force or a fleet. She should have realized those reports could scarcely be accurate, given his string of successes commanding those task forces and fleets. In fact, the only person who'd ever bloodied his nose was Honor, and as nearly as Michelle could tell, honors were about even between the two of them. A point which became much easier to understand when she finally had the opportunity to look into his eyes and see the shrewd, cool, calculating tactician hiding behind what she'd come to suspect was a carefully cultivated façade. In fact, she'd discovered she rather liked him, which she hadn't really expected to.

All things being equal, she was just as happy that she hadn't heard—then—about the masterful job Tourville had done of thoroughly trashing the Zanzibar System and its defenses.

Theisman's other two dinner guests—Vice Admiral Linda Trenis and Rear Admiral Victor Lewis—had also been pleasant enough dinner companions, although she'd found herself feeling definitely grateful for Theisman's promise the meal's beverages would be truth-drug-free. She was reasonably confident the Navy's anti-drug protocols would have worked, but even without that, Trenis and Lewis—especially Lewis—would have made formidable interrogators if Theisman hadn't quietly reminded them this was a social occasion. Given the fact that Trenis commanded the Republican Navy's Bureau of Planning, which made her the equivalent of Second Space Lord Patricia Givens, the commander of the Manticoran Navy's Office of Naval Intelligence, and that Lewis commanded the Office of Operational Research, the Bureau of Planning's primary analysis agency, their ability to put even small fragments together shouldn't have surprised her, she supposed. It was still impressive, though. In fact, pleasant though the evening had been, she'd come to the conclusion that the Republic of Haven's senior command staff had a depressingly high level of general competence.

Most of the time, it was hard to believe that dinner party had been a full six weeks ago. She managed to stay busy here on the island—with a total prisoner population of almost nine thousand, there was always something that needed her attention, despite Turner's efficiency—which kept boredom at bay most days. And Charlie-Seven's island home was far enough north to provide the occasional interesting storm, now that this hemisphere's autumn was well advanced. Some of the POWs, she knew, found those storms less than reassuring. She wasn't one of them, however. The camp's sturdy, storm-tight buildings stood up to the howling wind without any particular difficulty, and the surf on the island's rocky southern beaches was truly spectacular. In fact, she found the local storms invigorating, although McGregor insisted they were mere zephyrs compared to a real Gryphon storm.

Still, there were days when the fact of her captivity, however little like the brutality of StateSec from the last war it might be, ground down upon her. When she looked out the window of her office and saw not sky and sea, but an enemy planet, where she was held prisoner, powerless, unable to protect the Star Kingdom she loved. And that, she knew, was going to get only worse in the days, weeks, and months ahead.

Before too long, I'm probably going to be grateful for the distraction of snafus in the vegetable deliveries, she reflected. Golly! Isn't that something to look forward to?

"Excuse me, Ma'am."

Michelle twitched and looked up quickly from her reverie as a head poked in through her office door. The head in question belonged to one of the very few men she'd ever met who'd probably been in the Service as long as—and, she suspected, racked up more demerits in his youth as—Chief Warrant Officer Sir Horace Harkness.

"Yes, Chris?" Michelle's tone was pleasant, although she felt an inner pang every time she looked at Master Steward Chris Billingsley.

Her steward of many years, Clarissa Arbuckle, had never cleared Ajax. Billingsley had been provided as Clarissa's replacement once Michelle arrived at Charlie-Seven. The good news was that, physically, Billingsley reminded her as little as anyone possibly could of Clarissa. He was about James MacGuiness' age, and—like MacGuiness—a first-generation prolong recipient. And, unlike Clarissa, he was not simply male but solidly, if compactly, built with a rather luxuriant beard he'd grown since his capture. That would have been more than enough to differentiate him from Clarissa in Michelle's mind even without . . . certain other differences. Obviously, as a prisoner-of-war, his personnel file hadn't followed him to Charlie-Seven, which was probably not a bad thing in his case, since he was undoubtedly what the Service had always described as A Character.

Actually, the Service had a great many serviceable—and quite probably more accurate—terms for describing someone like Master Steward Billingsley. It was just that he was far too likable for Michelle to have the heart to apply them to him. And, in all fairness, he seemed to have mostly reformed his more questionable ways. To be sure, Michelle suspected that he had, upon occasion, during his stay here on Nouveau Paris, supplied certain minor but highly desired luxuries to his fellow POWs by way of not quite legal transactions with the Peeps. And if there were a game of chance—especially one involving dice—within a half light-year, Master Steward Billingsley knew where it was, knew who was playing, and had a reserved seat. Then there was that minor matter of the distillery he'd once been involved with, purely as a part of his social responsibility to help provide the camp medical staff with medicinal alcohol.

Despite his various shenanigans, and what Michelle was sure a novelist fond of clichés would have described as "a checkered past," he was one of those people who was always popular with the officers he served under and the enlisted personnel he served with. Almost despite herself, Michelle had found herself warming to his undeniable charm, despite the fact that the mere fact of his presence reminded her of Clarissa's absence, like a wound which refused to truly heal. That wasn't even remotely Billingsley's fault, though, and Michelle more than suspected that he'd figured out what she felt, and why, for he was surprisingly sensitive and considerate of her wounds.

"I'm sorry to disturb you, Ma'am," he said now, "but there's an air car inbound, ETA twenty minutes, and we've just received a message from Captain Bouvier's office. For you, Ma'am."

"What sort of message?" Michelle's eyes narrowed speculatively.

"Ma'am, Captain Bouvier presents Secretary Theisman's compliments and requests that you make yourself available to the Secretary at your earliest convenience."

The eyes which had narrowed widened abruptly, and she glanced quickly at Turner and McGregor. They looked as surprised as she felt.

"And may I presume," she said, turning back to Billingsley, "that the imminent arrival of the air car you mentioned has something to do with my 'earliest convenience'?"

"I'd say that's a fairly safe conclusion, Ma'am," Billingsley said gravely. "Especially since the same message from Captain Bouvier specifically requested that I pack a bag for you, and one for myself."

"I see." Michelle looked at him for a moment longer, then inhaled. "All right, Chris. If you'll see to that, Commodore Turner and Colonel McGregor and I have a few details we should probably discuss before I go haring off to wherever it is we're going."

"Yes, Ma'am."

The air car arrived almost exactly on schedule, and under the circumstances, Michelle felt she and Billingsley were doing rather well to keep her chauffeur waiting for less than ten minutes. She didn't know if the air car's pilot was aware of just how little notice she'd had of his impending arrival, but he and the neatly uniformed Navy commander accompanying him—and the two well armed Marines who'd been sent along to help discourage any of the POWs' temptation towards hijacking the vehicle—waited respectfully for her. She limped across to the hatch (her injured leg was still well short of completely recovered), and the commander came to attention as she approached.

"Secretary Theisman instructed me to apologize for the lack of warning, Admiral Henke," he said as he opened the hatch courteously for her. Michelle nodded her thanks and settled into her seat while Billingsley stowed the luggage in the cargo compartment. The steward climbed into the rearmost seat at the commander's gesture. Then the Havenite officer followed, closing the hatch and settling into the seat facing Michelle's as the car leapt back into the air.

"The Secretary also instructed me to tell you that he believes you'll understand the reason for his haste in arranging this after you and he have had an opportunity to talk, Ma'am," he added.

"May I conclude from that, Commander," Michelle said, cocking her head with a slight smile, "that we are even now bound to meet the Secretary?"

"Yes, Ma'am. I believe the Admiral may safely conclude that," the commander replied.

"And the flight to this meeting will take about how long?"

"Ma'am," the commander glanced at his chrono, then back at her, "I believe our ETA is approximately forty-three minutes from now."

"I see." Michelle nodded. Forty-three minutes wasn't long enough for a return flight clear to Nouveau Paris, which presented several interesting questions. Not that it seemed likely the courteous young commander knew the answers to those questions. Or, at least, that he was prepared to admit it, if he did.

"Thank you, Commander," she said, then leaned back in the comfortable seat, gazing out through the armorplast canopy as the wind-ruffled blue and white water of the Vaillancourt Sea rushed past below them.

Despite the courtesy with which she had been treated since her capture, Michelle felt her nerves tightening as the air car settled onto a landing pad on the grounds of a large, sprawling estate perched on a craggy headland above the Vaillancourt. Surf pounded at the headland's sheer face, sending geysers of white surging far up its steepness while seabirds—or their local analogues, at least—wheeled and darted on the brawny breeze. It wasn't the surf, or the seabirds, which set her nerves on edge, however. No, it was the sting ships parked to one side, and the light armored vehicles positioned to keep a watchful eye on the estate's landward approaches.

As the air car touched down with delicate precision, she looked up through the canopy and realized that in addition to the pair of sting ships on the pad, there was at least one more of them in the air above the estate, hovering watchfully on counter-grav. That degree of ostentatious security would have been enough to make anyone nervous, she decided, even if the anyone in question hadn't happened to be a prisoner of war.

"If you'll follow me, please, Admiral," the commander murmured as the air car hatch opened and the boarding ramp extended itself.

"And Master Steward Billingsley?" She was pleased to note that there was no nervousness in her tone, at least.

"My understanding, Ma'am, is that you'll probably be spending at least the evening here, and Master Steward Billingsley will be escorted to your assigned quarters to see that everything is properly settled by the time you get there. If that will be convenient, Ma'am?"

He managed to ask the question as if she actually had a choice, Michelle noticed, and smiled slightly.

"That sounds quite convenient, Commander. Thank you," she said gravely.

"Of course, Admiral. This way, please?"

He gestured gracefully towards the main building of the estate, and she nodded.

"Lead the way, Commander," she said.

The commander led her across a carefully manicured lawn, through a pair of old-fashioned, unpowered double doors—watched over by an obviously competent security guard in civilian clothing, not uniform—and down a short hallway. He paused outside another set of double doors—this one of some exotic, hand-polished wood which Michelle had no doubt was native to Haven—and rapped gently.

"Yes?" a voice inquired from the other side of the door.

"Admiral Henke is here," the commander replied.

"Then ask her to come in," the voice said.

The voice didn't belong to Thomas Theisman. It was female, and although it was muffled by the closed door, it sounded vaguely familiar. Then the door opened, Michelle stepped through it, and found herself face to face with President Eloise Pritchart.

Surprise made Michelle hesitate for a moment, but then she shook herself and continued forward into the room. She was aware of at least one more civilian-clothed bodyguard, this one female, and given Pritchart's presence, all of the security around the estate suddenly made perfectly good sense. That thought ran through the back of Michelle's brain as Pritchart extended her hand in greeting and Thomas Theisman rose from a chair behind the standing President.

"Madame President," Michelle murmured, and allowed one eyebrow to arch as she gripped the offered hand.

"I'm sorry about the minor deception, Admiral," Pritchart replied with a charming smile. "It wasn't really directed at you so much as at anyone else who might be wondering where you were, or who you might be talking to. And, in all honesty, it probably wasn't really necessary. Under the circumstances, however, I'd prefer to err on the side of caution."

"I trust you'll forgive me, Madame President, if I point out that all of that sounds suitably mysterious."

"I'm sure it does." Pritchart smiled again and released Michelle's hand to wave invitingly at the pair of comfortable armchairs arranged to face the one Theisman had just climbed out of. "Please, sit down, and I'll try to make things at least a little less mysterious."

Michelle obeyed the polite command. The chair was just as comfortable as it had looked, and she leaned back into its embrace, looking back and forth between Theisman and Pritchart. The President returned her gaze for a few moments, then turned her head to look at the bodyguard standing behind her.

"Turn off the recorders, Sheila," she said.

"Madame President, the recorders have already—" the bodyguard began, but Pritchart shook her head with a smile.

"Sheila," she said chidingly, "I know perfectly well that your personal recorder is still switched on." The bodyguard looked at her, and the President waved a gently admonishing finger in her direction. "I don't believe for a moment that you're a spy, Sheila," she said dryly. "But I do know SOP for the Detachment is to record everything that happens in my presence so there's a record just in case I happen to be killed by a stray micro-meteorite or some crazed, rampaging seagull manages to get past my intrepid guardians and hurl itself ferociously upon me. In this case, though, I think we'll dispense with that."

"Yes, Ma'am," the bodyguard said after a moment, with manifest reluctance. She touched a spot on her lapel, then folded her hands behind her and settled into a position the military would have called parade rest.

"Thank you," Pritchart said, and turned back to Michelle.

"If your object was to make sure you have my full attention, Madame President, you've succeeded," Michelle said dryly.

"That wasn't really the reason I did it, but I'm not going to complain if it had that effect," Pritchart replied.

"Then may I ask exactly what this is all about?"

"Certainly, but I'm afraid it's going to be just a little bit complicated."

"Somehow, I'm not terribly surprised to hear that, Madame President."

"No, I suppose you aren't." Pritchart settled back in her own chair, topaz-colored eyes intent while she gazed at Michelle for another few seconds, as if organizing her thoughts. Then she gave herself a little shake.

"I hope you remember our conversation in your hospital room, Admiral," she began. "At the time, if you'll recall, I told you I'd like to think we might somehow find an end to the fighting short of one side killing everyone on the other side."

She paused, and Michelle nodded.

"Well, I think it may be possible for us to do that. Or that there's a chance we can do that, at least," the President said quietly.

"I beg your pardon?" Michelle sat forward in her chair, her eyes suddenly very narrow.

"Admiral Henke, we've recently received certain reports about events in the Talbott Cluster." Michelle's expression showed her confusion at Pritchart's apparent non sequitur, and the President shook her head. "Bear with me, Admiral. It's relevant, I assure you."

"If you say so, of course, Madame President," Michelle responded a bit doubtfully.

"As I say, we've received certain reports about events in the Talbott Cluster," Pritchart resumed. "I'm afraid they aren't exactly pleasant news, from your perspective, Admiral. I'm sure that, prior to your capture, you were far better aware than any of us of the so-called 'resistance movements' springing up on two or three of the planets in the Cluster. We've been doing our best to monitor the situation, of course, since anything that distracts your Star Kingdom's attention and resources has obvious benefits for us. It hasn't had the priority other intelligence-gathering activities have had, though, and we don't have complete information, by any stretch of the imagination. Our priorities have shifted rather dramatically in the last few days, however."

"And that would be because—?" Michelle prompted obediently when the President paused.

"That, Admiral, would be because according to the information sources we have been able to cultivate, one of your captains has uncovered evidence which he believes demonstrates that someone outside the Cluster has been manipulating and supplying those 'resistance movements.' Apparently, he believes the Union of Monica is directly implicated in that manipulation, and he's launched an unauthorized preemptive operation against Monica to bring it to an end."

Michelle stared at the other woman, unable to conceal her astonishment.

"Despite the fact that our information is so incomplete," Pritchart continued, "a few facts are quite clear to us. One, of course, is that Monica has a long history of acting as a proxy for the Office of Frontier Security, which strongly suggests OFS is also directly implicated in whatever is going on. Assuming, of course, that your captain's suspicions prove accurate, that is. And the second, I'm afraid, is that if, in fact, he launches some sort of preemptive strike against Monica, your Star Kingdom will find itself facing the very real prospect of a shooting incident with the Solarian League Navy."

The President paused, crossed her legs, and sat back, head cocked to one side, obviously giving Michelle time to get past the worst of her initial shock and absorb the implications of what she'd just said, and Michelle forced herself not to swallow as those implications went through her. She couldn't imagine what sort of evidence chain could have sent any reasonably sane captain in the Royal Manticoran Navy into what could so readily turn into an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the most powerful navy in the history of mankind.

Well, the biggest, at any rate, a stubborn little voice said in the back of her mind. ONI's reports all insist the SLN still doesn't have the new compensators, FTL coms, decent missile pods or pod-layers, or—especially—MDMs. But what they do have is something like twenty-one hundred superdreadnoughts in active commission, a reserve fleet at least two or three times that size, the biggest industrial and technological base in existence . . . and something like two thousand fully developed star systems. Plus, of course, the entire Verge to exploit at will.

She was well aware that some of the RMN's more . . . enthusiastic tactical thinkers had been arguing for years that the advances in military technology produced by the Star Kingdom's half-century and more of arms race and open warfare with Haven had rendered the entire League Navy hopelessly obsolete. Personally, she was less confident than the majority of those enthusiasts that Manticore's clear advantages in many areas translated into advantages in all areas. Even so, she was entirely confident that any Manticoran task force or fleet could handily polish off any comparable Solarian force, probably without even breaking a sweat. Unlike those enthusiasts, however, she strongly doubted (to put it mildly) that all of Manticore's tactical advantages put together could possibly overcome the enormous strategic disadvantage of the difference between the Manticoran and Solarian populations and resource and industrial bases.

There's nothing wrong with the Sollies' general tech base, either. We probably have a slight edge overall, thanks to the way the war's pressurized every area of R&D for the last fifty years or so, but if we do, it's fingernail-thin. And once their navy wakes up and smells the coffee, they've got lots of people to put to work closing the gap. Not to mention the building capacity, if they ever get organized. For that matter, some of the League members' system defense forces have been a lot more innovative than the SLN's senior officer corps for as long as anyone can remember. There's no telling what some of them have been up to, or how quickly any little surprises one of them may have developed for us could be gotten into general service once we bloodied the SLN's nose a time or three. And some of the SDFs are damned near as big—or bigger—in their own right than our entire Navy was before Uncle Roger started his buildup.

She felt herself coming back on balance as the first shock of Pritchart's information began to ease just a bit. Still, what sort of lunatic—?

"Excuse me, Madame President," she said after a moment, "but you said one of our captains was involved in this. Would you happen to know which captain?"

"Thomas?" Pritchart looked at Theisman, one eyebrow arched, and the Secretary of War smiled a bit tartly.

"According to our reports, Admiral, I suspect it's a name you'll recognize as well as I did. It's Terekhov—Aivars Terekhov."

Despite herself, Michelle felt her eyes widen once again. She'd never actually met Aivars Aleksovitch Terekhov, but she certainly did recognize the name. And she wasn't a bit surprised Theisman had, either, given Terekhov's performance in the Battle of Hyacinth and the Secretary of War's personal apology for the atrocities State Security had perpetrated against Terekhov's surviving personnel after their capture. But what could possibly have possessed a man with Terekhov's record and experience to court active hostilities with the Solarian League?

"I think, given the fact that it's Captain Terekhov," Theisman continued, as if he'd read her mind, "we have to assume first, that he thinks his evidence is absolutely conclusive, and, second, that his assessment of that evidence has convinced him that only quick, decisive action—presumably intended to nip whatever is happening in the bud—can prevent something even worse. From your perspective, that is."

Oh, thank you for that little qualifier, Mr. Secretary! Michelle thought tartly.

Pritchart gave Theisman a moderately severe glance, as if rebuking him for the boorishness of his last sentence. Or, Michelle thought, as if she wanted her "guest" to think she was rebuking the Secretary of War for a carefully preplanned comment. None of which affected the accuracy of anything he'd said, assuming they were both telling her the truth. And any questions about their prewar diplomatic exchanges aside, she couldn't imagine any possible advantage they might see in lying to a prisoner of war.

"May I ask exactly why you're telling me this?" she asked after a handful of seconds.

"Because I want you to understand exactly how grave the Star Kingdom's strategic position has just become, Admiral," Pritchart said levelly, looking back at her. Michelle bristled slightly internally, but Pritchart continued in that same, level tone. "I strongly suspect, Admiral Henke, that an officer of your seniority, serving directly under Duchess Harrington and with your close family relationship to your Queen, has access to intelligence reports indicating the numerical superiority we currently possess. I fully realize that your Manticoran Alliance's war fighting technology is still substantially in advance of our own, and I would be lying if I told you Thomas and I are completely confident our advantage in numbers is sufficient to offset your advantage in quality. We believe it is, or shortly will be; both of us, however, have had entirely too much personal and distinctly unpleasant experience of your Navy's . . . resilience, shall we say.

"But now this new element has been added to the equation. Neither you nor I have any idea at this time what consequences—long term or short term—your Captain Terekhov's actions are going to produce. Given the general arrogance quotient of the Solarian League where 'neobarbs' like the Star Kingdom and the Republic are concerned, however, I believe it's entirely possible local League administrators and admirals are likely to react without any concept of just how devastating your Navy's quality advantage would prove where they were concerned. In other words, the potential for Manticore to find itself in an ultimately fatal confrontation with the League is, in my judgment, very real."

"And," Michelle said, trying very hard to keep an edge of bitterness out of her tone, "given the distraction potential of all this, no doubt your calculations about your numerical superiority have revised your own prospects upwards, Madame President."

"To be perfectly honest, Admiral," Theisman said, "the first reaction of most of my analysts over at the New Octagon was that the only question was whether or not we should press the offensive immediately or wait a bit longer in hopes a worsening situation in Talbott will force you to weaken yourself still further on our front and then hit you."

He met her gaze unflinchingly, and she didn't blame him. In the Republic's position, exactly the same thoughts would have occurred to her, after all.

"That was the analysts' first thought," Pritchart agreed. "And mine, for that matter, I'm afraid. I spent too many years as a People's Commissioner for the People's Navy under the old régime not to think first in those terms. But then another thought occurred to me . . . Lady Gold Peak."

The abrupt change in the President's chosen form of address took Michelle offguard, and she sat back, pushing herself deep into her chair's physically comforting embrace, while she wondered what it portended.

"And that thought was, Madame President—?" she asked after a moment, her tone wary.

"Milady, I was completely candid with you in your hospital room. I want a way to end this war, and I would genuinely prefer to do it without killing any more people—on either side—than we have to. And because that's what I would prefer to do, I have a proposal for you."

"What sort of 'proposal'?" Michelle asked, watching her expression narrowly.

"I've already told you we've been considering proposing the possibility of prisoner exchanges. What I have in mind is to offer to release you and return you to the Star Kingdom, if you're willing to give us your parole to take no further part in active operations against the Republic until you are properly exchanged for one of our own officers in Manticoran custody."

"Why?" Michelle asked tersely.

"Because, frankly, I need an envoy your Queen might actually pay attention to. Someone close enough to her to deliver a message she'll at least listen to, even if it comes from me."

"And that message would be?"

Michelle braced herself. Her cousin Elizabeth's temper was justly famous . . . or perhaps infamous. It was one of her strengths, in many ways—part of what made her as effective as she was, part of what had won her her treecat name of "Soul of Steel." It was also, in Michelle's opinion, her greatest weakness. And Michelle had few illusions about how Elizabeth III was going to react when the Republic of Haven politely pointed out that her position had just become hopeless and it was time for her to consider surrendering.

"That message would be, Milady, that I wish to formally propose, as the Republic's head of state, a summit meeting between the two of us. A meeting to be held at a neutral location, to be chosen by her, for the purpose of discussing both possible ways to end the current conflict between our two star nations and also, if she so desires, the circumstances and content of our prewar diplomatic correspondence. In addition, I will be prepared to discuss any other matter she wishes to place upon the agenda. I will declare an offensive stand down of the Republic's forces, to begin the moment you agree to carry our message to the Queen, and I will not resume offensive operations, under any circumstances, until your Queen's response has reached me here in Nouveau Paris."

Somehow, Michelle managed to keep her jaw from dropping, but something very like a faint twinkle in the President's striking eyes suggested to her that she shouldn't consider a career change to diplomat or professional gambler.

"I realize this has come as . . . something of a surprise, Milady," Pritchart said with what Michelle considered to be massive understatement. "Frankly, though, I don't see that you have any option but to agree to take my message to Queen Elizabeth, for a lot of reasons."

"Oh, I think you can safely take that as a given, Madame President," Michelle said dryly.

"I rather thought I could." Pritchart smiled slightly, then glanced at Theisman and looked back at Michelle.

"For the most part, Her Majesty should feel free to include anyone she chooses in our meetings. I hope we'll be able to restrict staff and advisers to a manageable number for the direct, face-to-face conversations I hope to hold. We do, however, have one specific request in regard to the advisers she might choose to bring with her."

"Which is, Madame President?" Michelle asked just a bit cautiously.

"We would like to stipulate that Duchess Harrington be present."

Michelle blinked. She couldn't help it, although she managed—somehow—to keep her eyes from darting to Theisman to see his reaction to what the President had just said. At that moment, Michelle Henke wished, with a burning intensity, that she were a treecat, able to peek inside Eloise Pritchart's mind. From her own conversation with Theisman, it was evident to her that the Republic of Haven—or its intelligence services, at least—had, indeed, been aware for some time of the Manticoran media's reports about the 'cats and their recently confirmed abilities. And they must know that even if Elizabeth would be willing to leave her Ariel home, Honor most definitely would not agree to leave Nimitz home. Indeed, Theisman had personally seen just what the level of attachment between Honor and Nimitz was. Which meant Pritchart was deliberately inviting someone with a living lie detector to sit in on her personal conversations with the monarch of the star nation with which she was currently at war. Unless, of course, Michelle wanted to assume that someone as obviously competent as Pritchart, with advisers as competent as Thomas Theisman, was somehow unaware of what she'd just done.

"If the Queen accepts your proposal, Madame President," Michelle said, "I can't imagine that she would have any objection to including Duchess Harrington in her official delegation to any such talks. For that matter, while this is only my own opinion, you understand, I think Her Grace's unique status in both the Star Kingdom and Grayson would make her an ideal candidate for any such summit."

"And do you think Her Majesty will accept my proposal, Admiral Gold Peak?"

"That, Madame President," Michelle said frankly, "is something about which I'm not prepared even to speculate."

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