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Chapter Seven

Michelle Henke made herself look up from her book reader calmly, with no sign of burning anticipation or nervousness, as Master Steward Billingsley cleared his throat politely in the open hatch.

"Yes, Chris?"

"Sorry to disturb you, Ma'am," Billingsley said gravely, dutifully allowing her to pretend she felt neither of those emotions, "but the captain asked me to tell you we'll be dropping out of hyper in another twenty minutes. He requests that you join him on the command deck at your earliest convenience."

"I see." Michelle carefully bookmarked her place, then tucked the reader away, and stood. "Please inform the captain that I'll join him there in fifteen minutes. In the meantime, I'm going to freshen up just a bit."

"Yes, Ma'am."

Billingsley disappeared, and Michelle crossed to her minuscule cabin's even tinier head and allowed herself to smile wryly into the mirror over the small lavatory.

She knew perfectly well she hadn't fooled Billingsley. For that matter, she hadn't really been trying to. She'd simply been dutifully playing the roles their respective ranks had assigned to them, and Lieutenant Toussaint Brangeard, the CO of RHNS Comet, was playing by the same rules.

And all of us are as nervous as treecats trying to sneak up on a hexapuma with a sore foot. She shook her head at the reflected admiral in the mirror. I'm damned sure I'm not the only one aboard who wishes there'd been time to set this up through the regular diplomatic channels instead of making this dramatic dash. Dropping in all unannounced is certainly one way to be sure we get Pritchart's message delivered in time to do some good, but only if we survive the experience. Under the circumstances, I wonder whether Brangeard is more nervous about being blown out of space by one of our pickets or of going down in history as the skipper who let the Queen of Manticore's cousin—and his President's diplomatic mission—get blown away along with him?

Brangeard himself probably would have found that one hard to answer. Personally, Michelle would just as soon not get anyone killed, herself included, and she'd been extremely tempted to steer Brangeard towards one of the Hermes buoys seeded around the perimeter of Trevor's Star. As yet, however, there was no indication the Havenites were aware of that particular adaptation of Manticore's superior FTL communications technology. The system was still on the Official Secrets List but she'd come very close to telling Brangeard about it on the theory that the message she carried was far more important than preserving the secret of the Hermes buoy's existence. Always assuming, of course, that it really was still a secret.

In the end, she'd decided against it for three reasons. First, it was entirely possible that seeing an unidentified hyper transit close to one of the buoys might prompt a shoot-first, ask-questions-later response from some overeager destroyer or light cruiser skipper. It wasn't supposed to, and neither Honor nor Theodosia Kuzak would be particularly pleased with the skipper in question. All of which would no doubt be very satisfying to the ghosts of the unarmed dispatch boat's passengers and crew. Second, she'd realized, was the fact that deep inside, she was still afraid to let herself believe her mission—or Pritchart's mission, perhaps, if she was going to be totally accurate—was going to succeed. It was almost as if a part of her had decided that she dared not do anything that might tempt a capricious fate into punishing her hubris. Which was undoubtedly about as dumb as it got, but was unfortunately also the truth. And, third, was the fact that the quicker communication the FTL relay would have permitted probably wouldn't really have had that much effect on the system defense forces' response to the sudden emergence of an unidentified ship from hyper. The fact that the entire star system had been declared closed military space gave any of its defenders the legal right to shoot first and try to identify the bodies—if any—afterwards, although she rather doubted any Manticoran squadron commander was likely to do anything of the sort.

You hope, anyway, she told herself dryly.

She checked her appearance carefully, making certain it was as close to perfect as humanly possible, then drew a deep breath and straightened her shoulders.

Time to stop wasting time pretending Chris would let you leave this cabin looking anything but perfect, girl. You told him to tell Brangeard you'd join him on the flight deck. Now do it.

"Good morning, Admiral Gold Peak," Lieutenant Brangeard said, standing respectfully as Michelle stepped onto Comet's thumbnail-sized command deck.

"Thank you, Captain," Michelle replied. She'd tried, for the first couple of days, to break Brangeard of the habit of addressing her by her title, but she'd met with no more success than she had with Arlo Tanner, although the reasons were quite different, she felt certain.

"You timed it pretty well, Milady," he said, and nodded to the digital display on the bulkhead which showed the remaining time until Comet dropped back out of hyper-space again. As Michelle glanced at the display, it slipped over to show exactly four minutes, and she chuckled. Brangeard raised a polite eyebrow at her, and her chuckle turned into a snort.

"I was just contemplating the perversity of the universe, Captain," Michelle told him. "A rather close friend of mine once did something very similar to this, although on a substantially grander scale."

"Oh?" Brangeard cocked his head for a moment, then snorted himself. "You mean Duchess Harrington after she got away from StateSec at Cerberus, Milady?"

"That's exactly who I mean," Michelle agreed. "As I say, though, she managed her arrival quite a bit more flamboyantly than we're about to. For one thing, she wasn't a paroled prisoner of war on someone else's command deck. And she had at least a half-dozen battlecruisers, which was probably enough firepower to give anyone pause long enough for her to establish communications."

"I suppose that's true, Milady. On the other hand, the fact that Comet's only a dispatch boat is probably going to keep anyone from thinking we're any kind of significant threat. Which ought to keep any fingers off the launch button at least long enough to ask us what we think we're doing."

"I keep telling myself that, Captain. Fervently and often," Michelle told him only half humorously. "Of course, there was one other small difference about Her Grace's arrival and ours." Brangeard looked at her, and she smiled. "At that point, no one had MDMs. So she had a lot more distance to play with before anyone could get into range of her ships."

"Milady, I could've gone all morning without your reminding me of that particular little difference," Brangeard said in a desert-dry tone. "Let me thank you for drawing it to my attention."

Michelle laughed and started to reply, but before she could, a soft tone chimed and Comet dropped back into normal-space just outside the Trevor's Star hyper limit.

"Skipper, we've got an unscheduled hyper footprint at six million kilometers!"

Captain Jane Timmons, CO, HMS Andromeda, spun her command chair towards her tactical officer. Six million kilometers was inside single-drive missile range!

She opened her mouth to demand more information, but the tac officer was already providing it.

"It's a single footprint, Ma'am. Very small. Probably a dispatch boat."

"Anything from it?" Timmons asked.

"Not FTL, Ma'am. And we wouldn't have anything light-speed for another—" he glanced at the time chop on the initial detection "—another couple of seconds. In fact—"

"Captain," the com officer said in a very careful voice, "I have a communications request I think you'd better take."

"Excuse me," the extremely suspicious looking woman in the uniform of a Royal Manticoran Navy captain of the list said from the smallish com screen on Comet's command deck, "but you're going to have to do a bit better than that, Captain . . . Brangeard, was it? There are proper channels for diplomatic exchanges. Ones that don't let Havenite dispatch boats into sensor range of sensitive installations. So I recommend you try a bit harder to convince me not to open fire."

"All right, Captain," Michelle said, stepping into the range of the visual pickup. "Let's see if I can't just do that little thing for the captain."

Michelle hadn't realized just how badly the Manticoran Alliance's FTL com had spoiled her until she found herself forced to put up once again with the limitations of purely light-speed communications at such piddling little ranges. She stood there, waiting while her transmission crossed the twenty light-seconds to the other ship, then for another twenty seconds while the response from the other end crossed back to Comet.

In the end, she decided, it was worth the wait.

Forty seconds after she'd first spoken, a spike of heightened suspicion flashed across the face on Comet's com display as the other woman saw Michelle's immaculate Manticoran uniform on someone speaking to her from aboard a Havenite vessel. But then Andromeda's captain looked past the uniform, and the suspicion turned into something very different. Michelle knew from personal experience that the RMN didn't exactly pick people it expected to be easily confounded to command its battlecruisers, but the other woman's jaw actually dropped.

Well, Michelle thought, I do have the Winton nose. And aside from the fact that my complexion's about twelve shades darker than Beth's, we really do favor. Or so I've been told, anyway.

"I suppose this is all a bit irregular," she said dryly as recognition flared across the captain's face, "but I have a message for Her Majesty from the President of the Republic of Haven."

Michelle made herself sit very still as thrusters flared, easing Andromeda's number one pinnace into the boat bay of the stupendous superdreadnought. It was hard. Too many emotions, too many conflicting tides of relief, surprise, hope, and anxiety were washing through her. The last time she'd seen this ship's icon on a tactical display, she'd known she would never see it or the admiral whose lights it flew again. Yet here she was, turning up once again, like the proverbial bad penny.

And with such an . . . interesting message to deliver, too, she reflected. But it's really not fair. When Honor came back from the dead, I was nowhere in the vicinity. At least we'd both gotten a chance to get our emotions back under control before we came face-to-face again.

The pinnace settled into the docking arms, and the personnel tube and service umbilicals ran out and mated with the access points on its hull. The flight engineer checked the hatch telltales.

"Good seal, Flight," he reported to the flight deck. "Cracking the hatch."

The hatch slid open, and the petty officer who'd opened it stood aside and braced to attention.

"Welcome home, Admiral," he said with an enormous smile, and Michelle smiled back at him.

"Thank you, PO Gervais," she said, reading his name off the nameplate on the breast of his uniform. The petty officer's smile grew even broader, and then she nodded to him and launched herself into the personnel tube's zero-gravity.

The distance from the pinnace's passenger compartment to HMS Imperator was no more than a few meters, but she relished the brief zero-gee passage. Her leg hadn't been simply broken when Ajax was destroyed. "Shattered" would have been a more accurate choice of verb, or even "pulverized," and quick-heal always slowed down on bone repairs, anyway. The leg was perfectly capable of supporting her weight now, at least as long as she took it easy, but it still tended to ache most unpleasantly if she pushed it too hard.

She reached the inboard end of the tube, caught the red grab bar, and swung herself back out of the tube's microgravity and into the standard one-gravity field of Eighth Fleet's flagship. She landed more than a bit gingerly—sudden impacts pushed the nerve messages from her broken leg beyond unpleasant to acutely painful—and came to attention and saluted through the twitter of bosun's pipes.

"Battlecruiser Squadron Eighty-One, arriving!"

The announcement she'd expected never to hear again came over the bay's speakers, and the side party snapped to attention, returning her salute sharply.

"Permission to come aboard, Sir?" she requested from the lieutenant who wore the black brassard of the boat bay officer of the deck.

"Permission granted, Admiral Henke!"

Both hands fell from the salute, and Michelle stepped past the BBOD, trying not to limp too noticeably as she found herself face-to-face with the tall, almond-eyed woman in the uniform of a full admiral and the cream and gray treecat riding on her shoulder.

"Mike," Honor Alexander-Harrington said, very quietly, taking her offered hand in a firm clasp. "It's good to see you again."

"And you, Your Grace." Michelle tried to keep her voice from wavering, but she knew she hadn't quite pulled it off, and Honor's grip on her hand tightened ever so briefly. Then Honor released her and stepped back a bit.

"Well," she said, "I believe you said something about a message?"

"Yes, I did."

"Should I get Admiral Kuzak out here?"

"I don't believe that will be necessary, Ma'am." Michelle had her voice back under control, and she kept her tone formal, aware of the spectators surrounding them.

"Then why don't you accompany me to my quarters?"

"Of course, Your Grace."

Honor led the way to the lift shaft, and Colonel Andrew LaFollet, her personal armsman, followed alertly behind them in his Harrington green uniform. No one else accompanied them, however, and Honor personally pressed the button, then smiled faintly and waved Michelle through the opening door. She and LaFollet followed, and as the door slid shut behind them, she reached out and gripped Michelle's upper arms.

"My God," she said softly. "It is good to see you, Mike!"

Michelle started to reply, but before she could think of something suitably flippant, Honor swept her suddenly into a bear hug. Michelle's eyes widened. Honor had never been one for easy embraces, and even now, Michelle hadn't really expected one. Nor, she thought an instant later, had she ever truly appreciated just how strong Honor's genetically-engineered, Sphinx-bred muscles actually were.

"Easy! Easy!" she gasped, returning the embrace. "The leg's bad enough, woman! Don't add crushed ribs to the list!"

"Sorry," Honor said huskily, then stood back and cleared her throat while Nimitz buzzed a happy, welcoming purr from her shoulder.

"Sorry," she repeated after moment. "It's just that I thought you were dead. And then, when we found out you weren't, I still expected months, or years, to pass before I saw you again."

"Then I guess we're even over that little Cerberus trip you took," Michelle replied with a smile.

"I guess we are," Honor acknowledged, then chuckled suddenly. "Although you at least weren't dead long enough for them to throw an entire state funeral for you!"

"Pity." Michelle grinned at her. "I would've loved to watch the HD of it."

"Yes, you probably would have. You always have been just a bit peculiar, Mike Henke."

"You only say that because of my taste in friends."

"No doubt," Honor agreed as the lift doors opened on the passageway outside her quarters. Spencer Hawke, the junior member of her permanent personal security team, stood guard just outside them, and she paused and looked back at LaFollet.

"Andrew, you and Spencer can't keep this up forever. We've got to get at least one other armsman up here to give the two of you some relief."

"My Lady, I've been thinking about that, but I haven't had the time to select someone," LaFollet replied. There was something odd about his tone, something Michelle had never before heard in it when he spoke to Honor. It wasn't a note of disagreement, or even of evasiveness—not quite—and yet . . .

"I'd have to go back to Grayson, My Lady," LaFollet continued, "and—"

"No, Andrew, you wouldn't," Honor interrupted with a moderately stern look. "Two points," she continued. "First, my son will be born in another month. Second, Brigadier Hill is quite capable of selecting a suitable pool of candidates back on Grayson and sending them to us for you and me to consider together. I know you have a lot on your mind, and I know there are aspects of the situation you don't really like. But this needs to be attended to."

He looked back at her for a few seconds, then sighed.

"Yes, My Lady. I'll send the dispatch to Brigadier Hill on the morning shuttle."

"Thank you," she said, and touched him lightly on the arm, then turned back to Michelle.

"I believe someone else is waiting to welcome you back," she said, and the hatch slid open to show a beaming James MacGuiness.

"Mac," Michelle said, reaching out to grip McGuinness' hand. Then she decided that wasn't enough, and swept him into an embrace almost as crushing as the one Honor had just inflicted upon her. The older man's eyes widened very briefly. Technically, Michelle supposed, a rear admiral wasn't supposed to go around hugging mere stewards, but she really didn't give much of a damn. She'd known MacGuiness for almost twenty years, and he'd become part of Honor's extended family—just as Michelle herself had—long ago. Besides, there were stewards, and then there were stewards, and there was nothing in the least "mere" about James MacGuiness.

"May I say, Admiral, that it's one of the greatest pleasures of my life to welcome you home," he said as the strength of her embrace eased and he stood back a few centimeters. "Indeed, it's given me almost as much pleasure as it did to welcome someone else home, some years ago."

"And who could that possibly have been, Mac?" Michelle asked, rounding her eyes innocently.

The steward chuckled and shook his head, then looked across at Honor.

"I've taken the liberty of preparing a few snacks, Your Grace," he told her. "I've set them out in your day cabin. If you should require anything else, just buzz."

"Mac, it's the middle of the night," Honor pointed out with fond exasperation. "I realize Admiral Henke is still on a Nouveau Paris time schedule, but we aren't. So go back to bed. Get some sleep!"

"Just buzz, Your Grace," he told her with a slight smile and withdrew.

LaFollet did the same thing, leaving Honor and Michelle alone, and Michelle quirked an eyebrow.

"Andrew is leaving me alone with you?" she asked quizzically as Honor led the way into her day cabin and waved her into one of the comfortable chairs.

"Yes, he is," Honor confirmed.

"Are you sure that's wise?" Michelle's voice was entirely serious, and Honor arched an eyebrow of her own as she settled into a facing chair. Nimitz flowed down from his person's shoulder and curled his long, sinuous body length around behind her on the armchair's upholstered back.

"I just got back from a stint as a Havenite prisoner-of-war," Michelle pointed out. "I don't think their medicos did anything except take really good care of me and all my survivors, Honor, but Tim didn't think anything had been done to him before he tried to kill you, either. And given the fact that it was almost certainly the Peeps who programmed him, however the hell they did it . . ."

She let her voice trail off, and Honor's nostrils flared. She didn't—quite—snort, but her body language and expression gave the impression she had.

"First," she said, "you aren't armed, unless they also managed to tuck some sort of weapon away inside you, and the scans aboard Andromeda would have picked that up. And, with all due respect, Mike, I'm not really concerned about your managing to kill me with your bare hands before Andrew gets back in here to rescue me."

Despite her own genuine concern, Michelle's lips twitched. Unlike her, Honor Alexander-Harrington had spent the better part of fifty T-years training in coup de vitesse. Even without the hidden pulser Michelle knew her father had built into Honor's artificial left hand, Honor wouldn't find it particularly difficult to fend off any bare-handed assault Michelle might launch.

"And, second," Honor continued, "both Nimitz and I know what to watch for now. I feel fairly confident we'd realize something was taking over at least as quickly as you did, and this time, Mike," she looked directly into Michelle's eyes, "I am not going to kill another friend as the only way to stop her. Nor am I going to take a chance on Andrew's doing the same thing. So if it should happen that anyone on the planet of Haven slipped any new lines of code into your programming, the sooner it kicks in, the better, as far as I'm concerned.

"Besides," she grinned suddenly, breaking the tension of the moment, "I can't believe anyone in the Republic would be crazy enough to deliberately send another programmed assassin after me, especially after releasing the aforesaid assassin from prison and providing her with transportation home! I think they must have a pretty shrewd notion of how Elizabeth would react to that."

"If you're sure," Michelle said.

"Positive," Honor replied firmly, and reached for the coffee pot on the tray MacGuiness had set up. She poured a cup for Michelle, poured a cup of hot, steaming cocoa from a second carafe for herself, then settled back in her chair.

For several minutes, neither of them spoke. They only sat there, sipping their beverages of choice while Honor nibbled idly on a sandwich—taking the opportunity to stoke her genetically-modified metabolism—and handed Nimitz a stick of celery. The 'cat chewed blissfully—and messily—on the treat, and the crunching sound of his dining sounded unnaturally loud in the day cabin's quiet.

It was odd, Michelle reflected. She supposed most people in their position would have been busy filling the silence with small talk, or at least telling one another all over again how glad they were to see each other. But neither she nor Honor felt the need to do that. They'd known each other much too long to need to manufacture chatter just to be saying something, after all.

Besides, Michelle thought with an internal flicker of amusement, we've already done this once before, from the other side. We're all practiced up!

"So, Mike," Honor said finally, "just what induced the Havenites to send you home?"

"That's an interesting question." Michelle cradled her cup in both hands, gazing at Honor across it. "I think mostly they picked me because I'm Beth's cousin. They figured she'd have to listen to a message from me. And, I imagine, they hoped the fact that they'd given me back to her would at least tempt her to listen seriously to what they had to say."

"Which is? Or is it privileged information you can't share with me?"

"Oh, it's privileged all right—for now, at least," Michelle told her wryly. She kept her expression suitably solemn, although she was perfectly well aware that Honor's empathic sense could taste her impish amusement. "But I was specifically told I could share it with you, since it also concerns you."

"Mike," Honor informed her, "if you don't come clean with me and quit tossing out tidbits, I'm going to choke it out of you. You do realize that, don't you?"

"Home less than an hour, and already threatened with physical violence." Michelle shook her head sadly, then shrank back into her chair as Honor started to stand up and Nimitz bleeked a laugh from his chair-back perch.

"All right, all right! I'll talk!"

"Good." Honor settled back. "And," she added, "I'm still waiting."

"Yes, well," Michelle straightened in her own chair, "it's not really a laughing matter, I suppose. But put most simply, Pritchart is using me as her messenger to suggest to Beth that the two of them meet in a face-to-face summit to discuss a negotiated settlement."

Honor's eyes flickered. That was the only sign of surprise Michelle saw out of her, but that very lack of expression was its own revelation. Then Honor drew a deep breath and cocked her head to one side.

"That's a very interesting offer. Do you think she really means it?"

"Oh, I think she definitely wants to meet with Beth. Just what she intends to offer is another matter. On that front, I wish you'd been the one talking to her."

"What sort of agenda did she propose?" Honor asked.

"That's one of the odd parts about the offer." Michelle shook her head. "Basically, she left it wide open. Obviously, she wants a peace treaty, but she didn't list any specific set of terms. Apparently, she's willing to throw everything into the melting pot if Beth will agree to negotiate with her one-on-one."

"That's a significant change from their previous stance, at least as I understand it," Honor said thoughtfully, and Michelle shrugged.

"I hate to say it, but you're probably in a better position to know that than I am," she admitted. "I've been trying to pay more attention to politics since you tore a strip off me, but it's still not really a primary interest of mine."

Honor gave her an exasperated look and shook her head. Michelle only looked back, essentially unrepentant, even though she had to admit Honor's annoyance was amply justified. For a moment, she thought Honor was going to read her the riot act all over again, but then her friend only shrugged for her to continue.

"Actually," Michelle told her, "it's probably a good thing you are more interested in politics and diplomacy than I am."


"Because one specific element of Pritchart's proposal is a request that you also attend the conference she wants to set up."

"Me?" This time Honor's surprise was evident, and Michelle nodded.

"You. I got the impression the original suggestion to include you may have come from Thomas Theisman, but I'm not sure about that. Pritchart did assure me, however, that neither she nor anyone in her administration had anything to do with your attempted assassination. And you can believe however much of that you want to."

"She'd almost have to say that, I suppose," Honor said. Clearly, she was thinking hard. Several seconds passed in silence before she cocked her head again. "Did she say anything about Ariel or Nimitz?"

"No, she didn't . . . and I thought that was probably significant. They know both you and Beth have been adopted, of course, and it was obvious that they have extensive dossiers on both of you. I'm sure they've been following the articles and other presentations on the 'cats' capabilities since they decided to come out of the closet, too."

"Which means, in effect, that she's inviting us to bring a pair of furry lie detectors to this summit of hers."

"That's what I think." Michelle nodded. "I guess it's always possible they haven't made that connection after all, but I think it's unlikely."

"So do I." Honor gazed off into the distance, once again clearly thinking hard. Then she looked back at Michelle.

"The timing on this is interesting. We've got several factors working here."

"I know," Michelle said. "And so does Pritchart." Honor's eyebrows rose, and Michelle snorted. "She made very certain I knew about that business in Talbott. She made the specific point that her offer of a summit is being made at a time when she and her advisers are fully aware of how tightly stretched we are. The unstated implication was that instead of an invitation to talk, they might have sent a battle fleet."

"Yes, they certainly could have," Honor agreed grimly.

"Have we heard any more from the Cluster?" Michelle asked, unable to keep the anxiety she'd felt ever since Pritchart told her about the initial reports out of her voice.

"No. And we won't hear anything back from Monica for at least another ten or eleven days. And that's one reason I said the timing on this was interesting. On the chance that the news we get may be good, I've been ordered to update our plans for Operation Sanskrit—that's the successor to the Cutworm raids—with a tentative execution date twelve days from tomorrow. Well, from today, actually, now."

"You're thinking about the way Saint-Just derailed Buttercup by suggesting a cease-fire to High Ridge," Michelle said, shaking her head. After all, the same thought had crossed her own mind more than once, although the strategic momentum seemed to be on the other side, this time around.

"Actually," Honor replied, shaking her own head, "I'm thinking about the fact that Elizabeth is going to remember it. Unless they've got a lot more penetration of our security than I believe they do, they can't know what our operational schedule is. Oh, they've probably surmised that Eighth Fleet was just about ready to resume offensive operations, assuming we were going to do that at all, when Khumalo's dispatch arrived. And if they've done the math, they probably know we're about due to hear back from him. But they must have packed you off home almost the same day word of our diversions from Home Fleet could have reached them. To me, that sounds like they moved as quickly as possible to take advantage of an opportunity to negotiate seriously. I'm just afraid it's going to resonate with Buttercup in Elizabeth's thoughts."

"She's not entirely rational where Peeps are concerned," Michelle agreed.

"With justification I'm afraid." Honor sighed, and Michelle looked at her in mild surprise. Honor, she knew, had been a persistent voice of moderation in the Queen's inner circle. In fact, she'd been just about the only persistent voice of moderation, after the surprise attack with which the Republic of Haven had recommenced hostilities. So why was she suggesting that Elizabeth's fiery intransigence might be justified?

Michelle thought about asking exactly that, then changed her mind.

"Well, I hope she doesn't get her dander up this time," she said instead. "God knows I love her, and she's one of the strongest monarchs we've ever had, but that temper of hers—!"

She shook her head, and Honor grimaced.

"I know everyone thinks she's a warhead with a hairtrigger," she said with more than a hint of annoyance. "I'll even acknowledge that she's one of the best grudge-holders I know. But she isn't really blind to her responsibilities as a head of state, you know!"

"You don't have to defend her to me, Honor!" Michelle raised both hands, palms towards her friend in a warding off gesture. "I'm just trying to be realistic. The fact is that she's got a temper from the dark side of Hell, when it's roused, and you know as well as I do how she hates yielding to pressure, even from people she knows are giving her their best advice. And speaking of pressure, Pritchart was careful to make sure I knew she knew the goings on in the Cluster have given the Republic the whip hand, diplomatically speaking. Not only that, she told me to inform Beth that she's releasing an official statement tomorrow in Nouveau Paris informing the Republic and the galaxy at large that she's issued her invitation."

"Oh, lovely." Honor leaned back. "That was a smart move. And you're right, Elizabeth is going to resent it. But she's played the interstellar diplomacy game herself—quite well, in fact. I don't think she'll be surprised by it. And I doubt very much that any resentment she feels over it would have a decisive impact on her decision."

"I hope you're right." Michelle sipped from her coffee cup, then lowered it. "I hope you're right, because hard as I tried to stay cynical, I think Pritchart really means it. She really wants to sit down with Beth and negotiate peace."

"Then let's hope she manages to pull it off," Honor said softly.

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