"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, but her tone was almost absent. 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.