Chapter Three

          "Admiral Henke."

          Michelle Henke opened her eyes, then struggled hastily upright in the hospital bed as she saw the person who'd spoken her name. It wasn't easy, with her left leg still in traction while the quick heal rebuilt the shattered bone. But although they'd never met, she'd seen more than enough publicity imagery to recognize the platinum-haired, topaz-eyed woman standing at the foot of her bed.

          "Don't bother, Admiral," Eloise Pritchart said. "You've been hurt, and this isn't really an official visit."

          "You're a head of state, Madam President," Michelle said dryly, getting herself upright and then settling back in relief as the elevating upper end of the bed caught up with her shoulders. "That means it is an official visit."

          "Well, perhaps you're right," Pritchart acknowledged with a charming smile. Then she gestured at the chair beside the bed. "May I?"

          "Of course. After all, it's your chair. In fact," Michelle waved at the pleasant, if not precisely luxurious, room, "this is your entire hospital."

          "In a manner of speaking, I suppose."

          Pritchart seated herself gracefully, then sat for several seconds, her head cocked slightly to the side, her expression thoughtful. Michelle looked back at her, wondering what had brought her to a prisoner-of-war's bedside. As Michelle had just pointed out, this hospital — which, she'd been forced to admit, had been a much less unpleasant experience than she'd anticipated — belonged to the Republic of Haven. In point of fact, it belonged to the Republican Navy, and for all of its airiness and pastel color scheme, it was as much a prisoner-of-war camp as the more outwardly guarded facilities in which the rest of her personnel were confined.

          She felt her facial muscles tightening ever so slightly as she remembered her flagship's final moments. The fact that Ajax hadn't gone alone was cold comfort beside the loss of two thirds of the ship's remaining company.

          Me and my goddamned brilliant idea, she thought harshly. Sure, we ripped them a new one, but my God! No wonder they thought we'd deliberately sucked them in, then timed our evacuation of the ship perfectly to put them off guard! God knows I would've thought exactly the same thing in their place.

          It wasn't the first time she'd battered herself with those thoughts. Nor, she knew, would it be the last. When her conscience wasn't prepared to savage her, the coldly logical strategist and tactician within her knew that in the merciless calculation of war, the complete destruction of two enemy battlecruisers and the reduction of at least three more into wrecks fit only for the breakers, was well worth the loss of so many men and women.

          And, she thought harshly, at least these people believed me in the end. I think they did, anyway. I may have gotten Vicky and way too many of her people killed, but at least no one even suggested the possibility of some sort of "reprisal." Which probably wouldn't have come as such a surprise to me if I'd paid more attention to what Honor had to say about Theisman and Tourville.

          She still didn't remember exactly how Stackpole and Braga had gotten her into the boat bay and away from Ajax before the tornado of vengeful Havenite MDMs tore the battlecruiser the pieces. The first wave of lasers had slammed into the ship like sledgehammers before they ever reached the bay, and one of those hits had picked Michelle up and tossed her into a bulkhead like a toy. Somehow Stackpole and Braga had dragged her the rest of the way into the boat bay and gotten her aboard the last pinnace to clear the ship, and they were the only two members of her staff to survive Ajax's destruction.

          I sure as hell hope keeping her systems out of Peep hands was worth it, she thought bitterly. But then she reminded herself that she had other things to worry about at this particular moment.

          "To what do I owe the honor, Madam President?" she asked, shoving the useless "what ifs" and self-blame ruthlessly aside once more.

          "Several things. First, you're our senior POW, in several senses. You're the highest ranking, militarily speaking, and you're also — what? Fifth in the line of succession?"

          "Since my older brother was murdered, yes," Michelle said levelly, and had the satisfaction of seeing Pritchart flinch ever so slightly.

          "I'm most sincerely sorry about the death of your father and your brother, Admiral Henke," she said, her voice equally level, meeting Michelle's eyes squarely as she spoke. "We've determined from our own records that StateSec was, in fact, directly responsible for that assassination. The fanatics who actually carried it out may have been Masadans, but StateSec effectively recruited them and provided the weapons. As far as we're able to determine, all the individuals directly involved in the decision to carry out that operation are either dead or in prison. Not," she continued as Michelle's eyebrows began to arch in disbelief, "because of that particular operation, but because of an entire catalog of crimes they'd committed against the people of their own star nation. In fact, while I'm sure it won't do anything to alleviate your own grief and anger, I'd simply point out that the same people were responsible for the deaths of untold thousands — no, millions — of their own citizens. The Republic of Haven has had more than enough of men and women like that."

          "I'm sure you have," Michelle said, watching the other woman carefully. "But you don't seem to have completely renounced their methods."

          "In what way?" Pritchart asked a bit sharply, her eyes narrowing.

          "I could bring up the little matter of your immediately prewar diplomacy, except that I'm reasonably certain we wouldn't agree on that point," Michelle said. "So instead, I'll restrict myself to pointing out your attempt to assassinate Duchess Harrington. Who, I might remind you, happens to be a personal friend of mine."

          Michelle's brown eyes bored into Pritchart's topaz gaze. Somewhat to her surprise, the Havenite President didn't even attempt to look away.

          "I'm aware of your close relationship with the Duchess," Pritchart said. "In fact, that's one of the several reasons I mentioned for this conversation. Some of my senior officers, including Secretary of War Theisman and Admiral Tourville and Admiral Foraker have met your 'Salamander.' They think very highly of her. And if they believed for a moment that my administration had ordered her assassination, they'd be very, very displeased with me."

          "Forgive me, Madam President, but that's not exactly the same thing as saying you didn't authorize it."

          "No, it isn't, is it?" Pritchart smiled with what certainly appeared to be genuine amusement. "I'd forgotten for a moment that you're used to moving at the highest levels of politics in the Star Kingdom. You have a politician's ear, even if you are 'only a naval officer.' However, I'll be clearer. Neither I, nor anyone else in my administration, ordered or authorized an attempt to assassinate Duchess Harrington."

          It was Michelle's eyes' turn to narrow. As Pritchart said, she was accustomed to dealing with Manticoran politicians, if not politics per se. In point of fact, she didn't like politics, which was why she was content to leave her mother, the Dowager Countess of Gold Peak, to act as her proxy in the House of Lords. Still, no one could stand as close to the crown as Michelle did without being forced to let politicians into hand-shaking range at least occasionally, and in her time, she'd met some extraordinarily adroit and polished liars. But if Eloise Pritchart was another of them, it didn't show.

          "That's an interesting statement, Madam President," she said after a moment. "Unfortunately, with all due respect, I have no way to know it's accurate. And even if you think it is, that doesn't necessarily mean some rogue element in your administration didn't order it."

          "I'm not surprised you feel that way, and we here in the Republic have certainly had more than enough experience with operations mounted by 'rogue elements.' I can only say I believe very strongly that the statement I just made is accurate. And I'll also say I've replaced both my external and internal security chiefs with men I've known for years, and in whom I have the greatest personal confidence. If any rogue operation was mounted against Duchess Harrington, it was mounted without their knowledge or approval. Of that much, I'm absolutely positive."

          Oh, of course you are, Michelle thought sardonically. No Peep would ever dream of assassinating an opposing fleet commander! And, I'm sure, none of them would ever decide it might be easier to get forgiveness afterward than permission ahead of time and fire away at Honor on her own hook. What was that line Honor quoted to me . . . ? Something about 'Will no one rid me of this pestilential priest?' or something like that, I think.

          "And who else would you suggest might have a motive for wanting her dead?" Michelle asked aloud. "Or the resources to try to kill her in that particular fashion?"

          "We don't have many specific details about how the attempt was made," Pritchart countered. "From what we have seen, however, speculation seems to be centering on the possibility that her young officer — a Lieutenant Meares, I believe — was somehow adjusted to make the attempt on her life. If that's the case, we don't have the resources to have done it. Certainly not in the time window which appears to have been available to whoever carried out the adjustment. Assuming that's what it was, of course."

          "I hope you'll forgive me, Madam President, if I reserve judgment in this case," Michelle said after a moment. "You're very convincing. On the other hand, like me, you operate at the highest level of politics, and politicians at that level have to be convincing. I will, however, take what you've said under advisement. Should I assume you're telling me this in hopes I'll pass your message along to Queen Elizabeth?"

          "From what I've heard of your cousin, Admiral Henke," Pritchart said wryly, "I doubt very much that she'd believe any statement of mine, including a declaration that water is wet."

          "I see you've got a fairly accurate profile of Her Majesty," Michelle unobserved. "Although that's probably actually something of an understatement," she added.

          "I know. Nonetheless, if you get the opportunity, I wish you'd tell her that for me. You may not believe this, Admiral, but I didn't really want this war, either. Oh," Pritchart went on quickly as Michelle began to open her mouth, "I'll freely admit I fired the first shot. And I'll also admit that, given what I knew then, I'd do the same thing again. That's not the same thing as wanting to do it, and I deeply regret all the men and women who have been killed or, like yourself, wounded. I can't undo that. But I would like to think it's possible for us to find an end to the fighting short of one of us killing everyone on the other side."

          "So would I," Michelle said levelly. "Unfortunately, whatever happened to our diplomatic correspondence, you did fire the first shot. Elizabeth isn't the only Manticoran or Grayson — or Andermani — who's going to find that difficult to forget or overlook."

          "And are you one of them, Admiral?"

          "Yes, Madam President, I am," Michelle said quietly.

          "I see. And I appreciate your honesty. Still, it does rather underscore the nature of our quandary, doesn't it?"

          "I suppose it does."

          Silence fell in the sunlit hospital room. Oddly enough, it was an almost companionable silence, Michelle discovered. She remembered again what Honor had told her about Thomas Theisman and about Lester Tourville, and she reminded herself that whatever else Eloise Pritchart might be, she was the duly elected president both of those men had chosen to serve. Maybe she was actually telling the truth about having authorized the assassination attempt against Honor.

          And maybe she isn't, too. Not every evil, conniving politico in the universe goes around with a holo sign that says "I'm the Bad Guy!" For that matter, there's no rule that requires them all to look like that son-of-a-bitch High Ridge, either. It'd be nice if all the bad guys did look like bad guys, or acted like bad guys, but that's not the way things work outside really bad holo drama. I'm sure Adolf Hitler's and Rob Pierre's inner circles all thought they were just real sweethearts.

          After perhaps three minutes, Pritchart straightened, inhaled crisply, and stood.

          "I'll let you get back to the business of healing, Admiral. The doctors assure me you're doing well. They anticipate a full recovery, and they tell me you can be discharged from the hospital in another week or so."

          "At which point it's off to the stalag?" Michelle said with a smile. She waved one hand at the unbarred windows of the hospital room." I can't say I'm looking forward to the change of view."

          "I think we can probably do better than a miserable hut behind a tangle of razor wire, Admiral." There was actually a twinkle in Pritchart's topaz eyes. "Tom Theisman has strong views on the proper treatment of prisoners of war — as Duchess Harrington may remember from the day they met in Yeltsin. I assure you that all our POWs are being properly provided for. Not only that, I'm hoping it may be possible to set up regular prisoner of war exchanges, perhaps on some sort of parole basis."

          "Really?" Michelle was surprised, and she knew it showed in her voice.

          "Really." Pritchart smiled again, this time a bit sadly. "Whatever else, Admiral, and however hardly your Queen may be thinking about us just now, we really aren't Rob Pierre or Oscar Saint-Just. We have our faults, don't get me wrong. But I'd like to think one of them isn't an ability to forget that even enemies are human beings. Good day, Admiral Henke."