"It's a pleasure to meet you, Milady," he assured her.

            "A lawyer, and tactful, too," Michelle observed, and nodded her head at Lieutenant Archer. "My Lord, Commander, this is Gwen Archer, my flag lieutenant."

            "Lieutenant," Cortez said, acknowledging her with another nod, and then gestured at the comfortable chairs which faced his desk.

            "Please," he said. "Have a seat. Both of you."

            "Thank you, My Lord," Michelle murmured, and settled herself in the indicated chair. Archer, with a junior aide's unfailing instincts, took another one, set slightly behind and to the left of Michelle's, and Roach resumed his own chair after Cortez seated himself behind his desk once more. Then the admiral tipped back slightly and cocked his head to one side as he regarded Michelle with deep-set dark eyes gleaming with intelligence.

            "I understand you've been pestering Captain Shaw, Milady," he said.

            "I'd hardly call it 'pestering,' My Lord," she replied. "I may have contacted the Captain a time or two."

            Captain Terrence Shaw was Cortez's chief of staff, which made him the ultimate keeper of the keys where BuPers was concerned.

            "Captain Shaw didn't call it that, either," Cortez said with a twinkle. "On the other hand, Milady, seven com calls in eight days does seem just a tad . . . energetic."

            "Did I really screen him that many times?" Michelle blinked, honestly surprised by the total, and Cortez snorted.

            "Yes, Milady. You did. One would almost think that you were eager to get off-world again. Surely there's something you could think of to do with your convalescent leave?"

            "Probably, My Lord," Michelle conceded. "On the other hand, I really wasn't gone all that long, and it wasn't particularly difficult to get things sorted back out after I got home. And," a smile softened her expression, "I made it in time for the one thing I really wanted to do."

            "The birth of Lady Alexander-Harrington's son, Milady?" Cortez asked in a considerably gentler tone.

            "Yes." Michelle's nostrils flared as she inhaled deeply, remembering that moment, once again seeing Honor's transcendent happiness and reliving her own joy as she shared that joyous experience with her best friend.

            "Yes, My Lord," she repeated. "Mind you, I missed the wedding, along with all the rest of the Star Kingdom, but at least I did make it home for Raoul's birth."

            "And then promptly began hounding BuMed again," Cortez observed. "So, tell me, Milady — how's the leg?"

            "Fine, My Lord," she replied just a bit warily.

            "BuMed agrees with you," he said, swinging his chair gently from side to side. "In fact, they've endorsed your fitness report in very positive terms." Michelle began to exhale a surreptitious sigh of relief, but amusement flickered in Cortez's eyes as he continued, "Although Captain Montoya did point out that you've been persistently . . . less than completely candid, shall we say, about the amount of physical discomfort you're continuing to experience."

            "My Lord," she began, but Cortez shook his head.

            "Believe me, Milady," he told her, his eyes now deadly serious, "Montoya would have to be reporting something a lot more serious than a case of someone who's too stubborn to take the convalescent leave to which she's entitled before we worried about it at this point."

            "I'm . . . relieved to hear that, Sir," Michelle said frankly, and Cortez snorted.

            "I'm going to assume that what you mean is that you're relieved we have a command for you, rather than that we're so desperately pressed for personnel we're cutting corners where medical considerations are concerned, Milady."

            Well, there's something there's no good response to, Michelle thought, and Cortez chuckled.

            "Forgive me, Milady. I'm afraid my sense of humor has gotten itself a bit skewed over the last T-year or so."

            He gave himself a shake and let his chair come fully back upright once again.

            "In fact," he told her, "the real reason I've been ducking your calls — and I have been, if I'm going to be honest — is that we've had quite a problem deciding exactly what to do about that parole of yours. No one here at Admiralty House has any qualms about your having given President Pritchart your parole, especially under the circumstances that obtained," he said quickly, as she started to open her mouth. "It's more a matter of our needing to figure out which precedents apply. Which is what Commander Roach is here to explain to you."

            He looked at Roach and raised one hand. "Commander?"

            "Of course, My Lord," Roach replied, then turned his attention to Michelle.

            "For fairly obvious reasons, Milady, there weren't any paroles during the last war, and I'm afraid we've never set up the proper channels between us and the Repulic since the fall of the Committee of Public Safety, either. An oversight we ought to have rectified long since, once we were rid of StateSec. Unfortunately, it would appear the previous government had other things on its mind, such as it was and what there was of it, and we've been just a bit busy outselves since Baron High Ridge's . . . departure. So, frankly, we've been going around in circles over in the JAG's office, trying to decide how to handle your case."

            "Not just over at the JAG's office, either," Cortez added. "Public Information's been dithering about it, too, I'm afraid, because of all of the interstellar news coverage this whole summit meeting proposal has spawned. Given your close relationship to Her Majesty and the glare of publicity which has accompanied your return, it's particularly important that we get it right, as I trust you understand."

            "Yes, Sir. Of course," Michelle agreed.

            "There was a minority opinion," Roach told her when Cortez nodded for him to resume, "that the exact wording of your parole technically disqualifies you from active service anywhere until you've been properly exchanged, on the basis that allowing you to serve somewhere besides directly against Haven would still free up another officer for that service. That's a very strict interpretation of the Deneb Accords, however, and it's one the Star Kingdom has never formally accepted. It was also, frankly, an interpretation that Admiral Cortez didn't much care for, so I was asked to do some additional research, probably because I'm currently the executive officer over at the Charleston Center for Admiralty Law."