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 she opened the hatch courteously for her. She 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."