Michelle put down her book viewer as the admittance chime on her hospital door sounded quietly.

          "Yes?" she said, depressing the key on her bedside com.

          "Secretary of War Theisman is here, Admiral," the voice of Lieutenant Jasmine Coatsworth, the senior floor nurse said, just a little bit nervously. "He'd like a few minutes of your time, if that would be convenient."

          Both of Michelle's eyebrows rose. Just over a week had passed since her unexpected encounter with Eloise Pritchart. She'd had a handful of other visitors during that time, but most of them had been relatively junior officers, there to report to her in her role as the senior Manticoran POW about the status of her people and the other prisoners in Havenite hands. All of them had been professional and courteous, although she'd sensed a certain inevitable restraint which went beyond the normal restraint of a junior officer in the presence of a flag officer. No one had mentioned the possibility of a visit from Thomas Theisman himself, however.

          "Well, Jasmine," she replied after a moment, with a smile she couldn't quite suppress (not that she tried all that hard, to be fair), "let me check my calendar." She paused for a single breath, eyes dancing with amusement, then cleared her throat. "By the strangest coincidence, I happen to be free this afternoon," she said. "Please, ask the Secretary to come in."

          There was a moment of intense silence. Then the door slid open, and Lieutenant Coatsworth looked in. The expression on her face almost broke Michelle's self-control and sent her off in peals of laughter, but she managed to restrain herself. Then her eyes went past the nurse to the stocky, brown-haired man in civilian dress, accompanied by a dark-haired Navy captain with the shoulder rope which denoted her status as a senior officer's personal aide.

          "I'm glad you were able to find time in your schedule for me Admiral," the brown-haired man said dryly. His own lips appeared to hover on the edge of smiling, and Michelle shook her head.

          "Forgive me, Mr. Secretary," she said. "I've been told I have a peculiar sense of humor. I couldn't quite resist the temptation, under the circumstances."

          "Which is probably a sign that I'm not going to have to discipline anyone for mistreating or browbeating our POW patients."

          "On the contrary, Mr. Secretary," Michelle said in a rather more serious tone, "everyone here in the hospital — especially Lieutenant Coatsworth — has treated our wounded people exactly the same way, I'm sure, that they would have treated any of your people. I've been very impressed with their professionalism and their courtesy."


          Theisman stepped into the room, looked around once as if personally assuring himself of its adequacy, then gestured at the bedside chair.

          "May I?"

          "Of course. As I pointed out to President Pritchart when she asked the same question, it's your hospital, Mr. Secretary."

          "She didn't tell me you'd said that," he said as he seated himself in the chair, leaned back, and crossed his legs comfortably. "Still, you do have a point, I suppose."

          He smiled, and, almost despite herself, Michelle smiled back.

          Thomas Theisman reminded her a lot of Alastair McKeon, she thought as she studied the man leaning back in the chair while his aide tried not to hover to obviously over a boss of whom she was clearly more than just fond. Neither Theisman nor McKeon was exactly a towering giant of a man . . . physically, at least. But both of them had steady eyes — Thesiman's brown and McKeon's gray, both of them radiated that sense of tough competence, and both of them — little as she'd wanted to admit it — projected that same aura of quiet, unflinching integrity.

          It was a lot easier when all the Peeps I knew anything about were slime, she reflected. And it makes bearing in mind that they're the ones who lied about all our prewar diplomacy harder.

          "I suppose the real reason I came by, Admiral Henke –" the Secretary of War began, then paused. "I'm sorry, Admiral, but it just occurred to me. Are you still properly addressed as 'Admiral Henke,' or should I be calling you 'Admiral Gold Peak'?"

          "Technically, I've been 'Admiral Gold Peak' ever since my father and my brother were murdered," Michelle told him levelly. The look in his eyes acknowledged her unstated point, but he gazed back at her without flinching, and she continued in that same, level tone. "I'm still much more comfortable with 'Henke,' however. That's who I've been ever since the Academy."

          She started to add something more, then stopped herself with a tiny headshake. There was no need to tell him a tiny part of her still insisted that as long as she could put off formally claiming the title in all aspects of her life, her father and her brother wouldn't truly be gone.

          "I understand," Theisman told her, and cleared his throat. "As I was saying, then, Admiral Henke, the real reason I came by was to add my own reassurances to President Pritchart's. I know she's already told you your people are being well taken care of. On the other hand, I also know you and I are both fully aware of how seldom that was the case during the last war. So I decided I should probably come by and put in my own two-credits worth. After all," even his smile reminded her of McKeon, "in this instance, at least, we're the leopard who has to prove he's changed his spots."

          "I appreciate that, Mr. Secretary," Michelle replied after a moment. "And I also appreciate the fact that I've already been allowed to communicate with the senior POWs. Who, I hasten to add, have confirmed everything you and President Pritchart have told me. Duchess Harrington's been assuring everyone that your attitude towards captured personnel isn't exactly the same as Cordelia Ransome's or Oscar Saint-Just's. While I won't pretend I wouldn't rather be sitting down to dinner at Cosmo's in Landing just now instead of enjoying your hospitality, I'm glad to see just how right she was."

          "Thank you." Theisman looked away for a moment and cleared his throat again, harder this time, before he looked back at her. "Thank you," he repeated. "That means a lot to me — knowing Lady Harrington's said that, I mean. Especially given the circumstances the only two times we've actually met."

          "No one in the Star Kingdom blames you for what those Masadan lunatics did on Blackbird, Mr. Secretary. And we remember who told Honor — Duchess Harrington, I mean — about what was happening. And who testified for the prosecution at the trials." She shook her head. "That took more than just integrity, Sir."

          "Not as much more as I'd like to take credit for." Theisman's smile was off-center but genuine.

          "No?" Michelle cocked her head. "Let's just say that I wouldn't have wanted to be the officer who stood up and painted a great big bull's-eye on her own chest when I knew a senior officer corps full of Legislaturalists was going to be looking for a scapegoat for a busted operation."

          "That thought did cross my mind," Theisman admitted. "Then again, the fact that the Masadans really are the lunatics you just called them didn't hurt. In a way, my testimony only underscored the fact that it was their idiocy in seizing 'Thunder of God' that really blew the operation wide open. Well, that and Lady Harrington. Besides," he smiled again, "Alfredo Yu made a much better — and more senior — scapegoat than I could have."

          "I suppose. Oh, and while I'm at it, I should probably say that Admiral Yu's also been one of the senior officers on our side who's spoken well of you."

          "I'm glad." Theisman's face softened at the mention of his old mentor. Then it tightened again. "I'm glad," he repeated, "but I wouldn't have blamed Lady Harrington for changing any positive impression she might have had of me when I just stood there and watched Ransome drag her off to Cerberus."

          "And just what were you supposed to do to keep that from happening, Sir?" Michelle asked. He looked at her, as if surprised to hear her say that, and she snorted. "Don't forget that Warner Caslet came home from Cerberus with her, Mr. Secretary. From everything he's said, it's pretty evident Ransome was only looking for an excuse to 'make an example' out of you, as well as Admiral Tourville. And Nimitz –" she'd caught herself just in time to substitute the treecat's name for Honor's "– could 'taste' enough of your emotions to know how you felt about what was happening."

          His eyes narrowed, and she watched him digesting her confirmation of the telempathic 'cats' ability to reliably detect the emotions of those in their vicinity. She had no doubt Havenite intelligence had been passing on the revelations from the Star Kingdom's newscasts about treecat intelligence since Nimitz and his mate Samantha had learned to communicate using sign language, but that wasn't quite the same thing as firsthand, independent confirmation.

          Of course, I don't imagine any of those reports have mentioned the minor fact that Honor's become an empath herself, she reflected. And I don't have any intention of telling them about that, either.

          "I'm glad," he said, after a moment. "Not that knowing she understands and sympathizes makes me feel any better about the entire Navy's failure to meet its obligations under interstellar law under the old régime."

          "Maybe not," Michelle replied, "but, then, you had a little bit to do with the reason that it is the 'old régime,' too. And with Chairman Saint-Just's rather abrupt . . . retirement. Or so I've heard, at any rate."

          The captain standing at Theisman's shoulder stiffened, her expression more than a little outraged at the obvious reference to the reports (unconfirmed, of course) that then-Citizen Admiral Theisman had shot Saint-Just out of hand during his successful coup, but the Secretary of War only chuckled.

          "I suppose you could put it that way," he acknowledged, then sobered just a bit. "On the other hand, I didn't help overthrow Saint-Just just so we could go back to shooting at one another again."

          "Sir, with all due respect, I don't think that's going to be a particularly profitable topic," Michelle said, meeting his eye steadily. "I can't begin to tell you how glad I am to learn how humanely your POWs are being treated, but the accusations and actions which led to the resumption of hostilities aren't something I'm really prepared to discuss. Nor," she ended unflinchingly, "is that topic one upon which I believe you and I are likely to find ourselves in agreement."

          "No?" Theisman gazed at her calmly, almost speculatively, while his aide bridled behind him. Then the secretary of war shook his head. "Very well, Admiral Henke. If it's a topic you'd prefer not to discuss at this time, I'm entirely prepared to defer to your wishes. Perhaps another time. And," there was something odd about the look in his eyes, Michelle thought, "you might be surprised at just how close to agreement we might be able to come."

          He paused, as if waiting to see if she would rise to the bait of his final sentence. And, truth to tell, she was tempted — very tempted. But one thing of which she was painfully aware was just how totally unsuited she was to the role of diplomat.

          Honor might be the right woman for that, these days, at least, she thought. But the best I can say about me is that I'm smart enough to know that I'm most definitely not the right woman for it.

          "Well, at any rate," Theisman resumed a bit more briskly, "I understand from the doctors that they're going to be moving you out of the hospital the day after tomorrow. I trust you'll find your new accommodations as comfortable as could be expected, under the circumstances, and I'd also like to extend a formal invitation to join me for supper before we send you off to durance vile. I promise there won't be any truth drugs in the wine, and there are a few other officers I'd like you to meet. Admiral Giscard, Admiral Tourville, and Admiral  Redmont, among others."

          "Admiral  Redmont and I have already met, Mr. Secretary," Michelle told him.

          "So I understand." Theisman smiled thinly. "On the other hand, a little more time has passed since then, and Admiral Redmont and I have had the opportunity to . . . discuss his actions at Solon."

          "Sir, Admiral  Redmont didn't –"

          "I didn't say I didn't understand what happened, Admiral," Theisman told her. "And, if we're going to be honest, I might very well have reacted the same way if I'd thought you'd deliberately waited to abandon ship until you knew I'd sailed into your ambush. But if we're going to keep a handle on atrocities and counter-atrocities, then anytime something like this comes along, it needs to be addressed squarely. I don't doubt that Admiral Redmont acted correctly after he'd picked up your surviving people. And I don't doubt that the two of you handled yourselves with proper professional courtesy. I hope, however, that you'll accept my invitation and give all of us an opportunity to discuss the incident and our reactions to it in a less . . . charged atmosphere, shall we say?"

          "Very well, Mr. Secretary," Michelle said. "Of course I'll accept your invitation."

          "Excellent." Theisman rose and extended his hand to her. They shook, and he maintained his grip for a heartbeat or two afterward. Then he released her hand and nodded to his aide.

          "We'd better be going, Alenka," he said.

          "Yes, Sir." The captain opened the hospital room door, then stood waiting at a position of semi-attention for her superior to proceed her through it.

          "Until tomorrow night, then, Admiral," Theisman said to Michelle, and he was gone.