"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 too much personal and distinctly unpleasant experience with 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 Repyblic 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 pre-war 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 standdown 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."